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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11 Days: My Caregiving Story

11 Days: My Caregiving Story


I don’t usually tell personal stories here, but helping my mom get her caregiving project going has inspired me to tell my own caregiving story. This a cross-post between my blog and my mom’s. Wow, now that’s something I thought I’d never say.

Day 1

On Sunday Dec. 4, 2011 my mom called me and said Grandma had had a stroke and could I go to Peru. An hour and a half from Muncie. I went.

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Come upstairs and see my route book?

Come upstairs and see my route book?

The Circus in Winter Writing

Route books are a gold mine of circus history. They’re a yearly archive of a show’s acts and travels, meticulously recorded for posterity, then printed and given to circus personnel as a keepsake.

I have one that belonged to my great great uncle Henry Hoffman, superintendent of the menagerie for the Great Wallace Show.

When I started doing readings for The Circus in Winter, I took lots of pictures and put them in scrapbooks. I wanted to remember as many of those wonderful moments as possible.

But I noticed that many of the pictures from those years featured me standing behind a podium or sitting at a table.

That isn’t how I remember readings and events. I remember looking out at a sea of faces.

So for the last few years, I try to take a picture of the audience at all my readings.

Check out the new Route Book page

When I was creating my Route Book page for this website, I decided to do more than caption the photos. Where. When. I decided to share my memories of those events, and what I realized is that I’ve met and re-met so many people by going on the road.

Readings are hard on me. I have a bad back. I have anxiety issues. I’m an introvert. But I also love the experience of being in the room when people are experiencing my work or reacting to my ideas.

So feel free to follow the link and thumb through the pages of my route book. Maybe you’re in one of the pictures?

Check out the new Events page

I’ll be adding lots of pictures to the Route Book page soon; I’m going to be on the road a lot this fall. For more information, check out the Events page.

And may all your days be circus days. 


Circus in Winter is 10 Years Old

Circus in Winter is 10 Years Old

The Circus in Winter

It’s July 5th, P.T. Barnum’s birthday, the 10-year anniversary of the publication of my first book, The Circus in Winter.

I. Circus back then

In 2004, I was teaching at The College of New Jersey. I was 35 years old.

That was the summer my sister got married. The first time I saw the book on a bookstore shelf was on June 17. We were on our way to her wedding rehearsal, which was near a Borders. I asked my dad to stop so I could go inside and see if the book was on the shelf yet. It was! I took a picture.

I wondered why my pub date was July 5th if the book was available in a bookstore on June 17?

My agent called me on July 5 to say congratulations and asked “What are you doing right now?” and the answer was that I was shucking corn.

Me and my sister, June 2004

Me and my sister, June 2004

That was a fantastic summer, full of happiness and starred book reviews and wedding receptions and a book tour.

I didn’t realize at the time how special that summer was, that sometimes a book pops and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s been hard to write my third book with this knowledge in the back of my mind. Here’s something I said to Bryan Furness when he asked me how a writer gets past moments like that.

In late July 2004, during my town’s annual circus festival, I did a signing in my hometown historical museum and many, many people came. Ex-boyfriends. Former teachers. Former circus people. Former babysitters. Childhood friends. It was completely overwhelming in a good way. I sat next to the skull of the elephant that killed my great-great uncle, the artifact that started my writing journey.

July, 2004

July, 2004

The next morning, I got to ride in a convertible in my hometown’s annual circus parade and wave at people. My brother and sister walked alongside the car and threw candy at the crowds lining the streets. The sign on the side of the car said: Guest “Author” Cathy Day.

Ah, the unnecessary quotation marks of the Midwest!

In my life thus far, these are the four greatest moments (in chronological order):

  1. Returning to my hometown as a published author and riding in the parade
  2. The morning a few months later when I was solving the New York Times Magazine acrostic and realized that the answer was a quotation from Circus.
  3. The day I got married.
  4. The day in 2010 when I returned to Peru with a group of students from Ball State who had adapted Circus into a musical. They performed in a circus tent on the same ground where the real circus had performed a hundred years earlier. I wrote about that day here.

II. Circus today

I’m incredibly fortunate that people are still reading The Circus in Winter. It was selected as the 2014 Common Reader at Hanover College. The other day, I got an email from a young woman who had just finished it.

I am attending Hanover College in the fall and I was required to read The Circus In Winter. I just finished reading it. While I was reading I didn’t know how I felt about the book. I kind of liked it and I kind of didn’t until the very end when Jenny talks about hometowns and how no matter what you can always go back. Just those very last paragraphs really got to me and it helped me appreciate the book so much more. Besides that I love the little bits of the book that actually happened. I understand some details were changed and so were names but it’s amazing for me to think something exciting has happened in Indiana.

Back in 2004, I sent a postcard to every county library in the state of Indiana asking them to add Circus to their collection. Someone asked me why I’d done that. Why focus on getting the word out about the book in Indiana rather than New York or Los Angeles? The answer is contained in that email.

III. Circus tomorrow

I’m visiting Hanover College on Aug 25 and 26th.

In September, I’ll be in Connecticut for two events with Ben Clark, who wrote the music for Circus. We’ve actually never done an event together where we trace the evolution of a story into song. I’ll let you know more about those events as details are finalized, but one of them will be at the Mark Twain House and Museum. Very excited about that!

And then from October 23-November 16, Goodspeed Musicals is mounting a full production of Circus. I’ll be there, although I’m not yet sure which date.

Will you do me a favor today? Will you like the Facebook page for The Circus in Winter? If things go well with the musical, I hope that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will reprint Circus, and those likes might help me make my case.

I’m writing this on the porch of my house in Muncie, Indiana. If you’d told me 10 years ago that I’d be back home in Indiana or that I’d be blogging  or that there’d be something called “Facebook” or that there would no longer be a thing called “Borders” or that my book would be a musical, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Thank you very much. Today I’m filled with so much gratitude for the blessings this book has brought me.

I have a new job

I have a new job


A few weeks ago I went to the high school graduation party of my second cousin, Erin. She’s going to be a freshman at Ball State this fall. I asked her if she was taking ENG 103 with “Staff,” and she said, “How do you know?”

“Because starting July 1st, I’m the person who makes sure there is a class for you to take and someone to teach it.”

So, today I officially started my new job as Assistant Chair of Operations of the English Department at Ball State University.

What does this mean?

Well, I work in a very large department. We have a chair and two assistant chairs. Basically, I’ll be in charge of:

  • Scheduling classes. This is pretty complicated when you consider 100+ sections of first-year writing, the needs of 60+ faculty members, and the desires of hundreds of students who want to graduate on time.
  • Advising. I’m the primary advisor, which means I’m the person who figures out when you can graduate, whether that class should count for the major, etc.
  • Library budget.  One thing I’ve learned about academia over the last 20 years is the value of a good university library. I’m the person who reminds everyone to turn in book and journal acquisition requests.
  • Personnel. I will hire and help to review the yearly performance of our full-time contract faculty.
  • Communications. With the help of three interns, I oversee our social media accounts, department blog, and yearly newsletter.
  • Other things I’ve probably forgotten.

2014-07-01 16.41.08A few of my thoughts today

Right now, I feel least confident about the advising aspect of this job. I know the creative writing curriculum very well, but now I’ll need to understand the needs of all the majors, notably the teaching majors.

I feel most confident about the communications aspect. It’s a challenge I look forward to. How the hell do you communicate effectively with such a large number of people? I’ve been thinking about this a lot with regard to my job as a writer (communicating with readers) and as a teacher (communicating with students), and now I’ll apply what I’ve learned to my job as an administrator (communicating within and without the department to faculty, students, alumni, donors, deans, etc.)

Because my job will involve hiring contract faculty, my new position will give me a front-row seat to the adjunct crisis. This issue has been on my mind a lot for the last few months. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you know I’ve been sharing many articles like this one. Unfortunately, I will not be in a position to fix the problem (determine budgets and create teaching lines, etc.), only to manage the problem. But I am determined to use whatever privilege I’ve been afforded to do right by everyone.

Most writers who work in academia eventually take their turn in administrative roles. Writers have a reputation for flightiness in these matters, but I have many friends and acquaintances who are/have been excellent administrators. Most of my grad school cohort have all been directors or assistant chairs or chairs by now.

Conventional wisdom for writers in academia is that you should practice a healthy kind of selfishness: keep your head down, do what needs to be done at the institution that employs you, but volunteer for nothing that will distract from the limited amount of time you have to write. I know many writers who have directed writing programs, but very few who have chaired an entire department or who would want to. Creative writers aren’t typically very good at being bureaucrats. And that’s what I have agreed to become, really, a slightly bigger cog in a large bureaucracy called an American university.

My problem is that I have always liked being in charge of something. This goes all the way back to my junior year of high school when I was elected class president and spent one class period a day working behind the scenes to put on The Prom. I’ve never been so happy. All those moving parts. The lists. Creating a structure, a system, a kind of machine. If you build it right, things go smoothly. I love trying to figure out how a system works.

This blog was created in an effort to figure out how my classroom works, and I shared that thinking with you. However, I cannot do the same thing re: my new position. Much of what I do will concern confidential matters. There are many blogs about being a writer, some about being a teacher, but none (that I’ve ever seen) about being an administrator. Why? I imagine it’s because you’re too freaking busy, because it’s not interesting to most people, and because there’s a lot you can’t really talk about anyway.

However, I think that this silence re: the professional lives of academics is one of the reasons that we’re in the mess we’re in. The public doesn’t understand what we do. Some of my most popular posts here at the Big Thing are on “unspoken” topics, such as how to ask for a letter of recommendation for grad school or how to write a Statement of Purpose. I’ll try to find a way to share what I’m learning with all of you in a way that’s helpful but also professional.

(Many thanks to Nicole Walker for pointing me to this blog, Confessions of a Community College Dean. The blogroll will be of much interest to anyone interested in higher ed issues.)

Will this job make it easier or harder to finish my novel? That’s a good question. The position comes with release time. I’ll go down to one course a semester. I’ll need to be in the office more often, but I can work something more akin to “banker’s hours.” I’m looking forward to more compartmentalization in my daily and weekly routine, and that, I hope, will be good for my writing habit. I do better with a little structure to my days. I recognize, however, that protecting my writing time and the head space for it is largely up to me.

This past weekend, I became very nervous about taking this job. I went into my closet and realized that most of my teaching clothes are for fall and winter. In the summer, I mostly wear t-shirts every day. So I went to Goodwill and TJ Maxx and bought myself a shit-ton of classier summer attire. I rationalized these purchases by remembering this quotation from the fashion designer Mainbocher:

“How you look influences how you feel, and how you feel influences how you act, and how you act influences how many other people act.”

I’ve never really been in a position of authority before, but I’m grateful that the newly elected department chair, Dr. Adam Beach, thought I could do the job. I anticipate that the focus of this blog might change a bit–in fact, I have no idea what category to call this post!–and I hope you’re willing to go along for the ride.

How I travel back in time, hold myself accountable, and refrain from smoking

How I travel back in time, hold myself accountable, and refrain from smoking

Mrs. Cole Porter Writing

I’ve been blogging a lot lately, just not here on WordPress. I’ve been using Pinterest and Tumblr for quick posts. The interfaces are simple, and the stakes are low because not a lot of people follow me there.

What am I blogging about? Well, they aren’t “essay-like” blog posts, as you are used to here. These are more visual, like a bulletin board or scrapbook. Or they’re more utilitarian, like a ledger. That’s why I don’t think to share them here on the Big Thing.

A few years ago, I went to an exhibit at the Morgan Library on diaries. I was especially interested in how artists use them.

I spent a lot of time looking at the writing journal John Steinbeck kept as he wrote The Grapes of Wrath. Here’s a great post from Austin Kleon’s blog about that.

steinbeckI want to hold myself accountable, too, like Steinbeck did. That’s why I started this little Tumblr blog called Every Day I Write the Book.

I also use Tumblr (and Pinterest) like scrapbooks. A place to archive the images and maps I find.

Sometimes I just reblog a picture.

Sometimes I add a picture to a scrapbook I keep for Linda.

Sometimes I make digital scrapbooks comprised of images and maps of one particular place, like Villa Trianon.

The pages I’ve been writing this week are set at Villa Trianon, and I look at these pictures to sort of “will” myself into that time and place.

exterior villa

I suppose it’s no different from cutting something out of a magazine and pasting it down so that you can go back and look at it later.

If you’ve seen Somewhere in Time, you know what I’m talking about.

Sometimes I do more than just clip images. I actually start writing about what they mean to me. Proto blog posts. Like this one on the so-called “classic” look.

In this article, Edwidge Danticat talks about how she creates bulletin boards so that she can see her ideas and the images that inspire her, as well as the overall plot structure.

That’s what I’m doing, too, I guess, except my bulletin board is digital. And share-able.

But this research can’t overtake the actual writing. Instead, I play with my bulletin board/scrapbooks as a way into the writing or when it’s time to take a break from writing–instead of smoking. (The urge to do so has been strong lately for some reason.)

I’ve also been watching period dramas to keep myself thinking in the past.

  • A Room with a View, both the 2007 and 1986 versions
  • Ridicule
  • Austenland
  • My Immortal Beloved
  • The Other Boleyn Girl
  • A Royal Affair
  • The King’s Speech
  • Agora

Another way that I will myself into the past isn’t digital at all. I read books that were published at the time I’m writing about. Right now, I’m reading a novel by the Duchess of Sutherland, who was a friend of Linda’s. It’s not very good, but the book smells old, the details are marvelous, and it definitely transports me into that milieu.


If you have any other suggestions for me, let me know. Good luck with your own writing projects. Thanks, as always, for reading.

[And so ends today's writing warm ups. Time to start writing for real.]

Research Notes: Looking at Wedding Pictures

Research Notes: Looking at Wedding Pictures

Mrs. Cole Porter Writing


It should come as no surprise that during the school year, I blog a lot about teaching, and in the summer, I blog a lot about writing. Because that’s where my head is.

Last night, I did a little research on the technology that made it possible to print pictures in newspapers and magazines.

In a nutshell: for a long time, it was very hard.

But it got me thinking about how easy it is now. Think about how addicting Tumblr and Facebook are. Think about how addicting it is to be able to Google whatever you want to look at. I mean seriously, how do we even stop ourselves? How do we not gorge ourselves visually every single day? Continue reading

I was doing a little research the other day on Linda Porter’s very public divorce from her first husband. Here are some clippings (posted on my Tumblr) that tell the whole sordid story.

Further evidence of the fame and notoriety Linda brought with her into her marriage to Cole, who was pretty much a nobody when they met.

Back to the book…

P.S. This is the first blog post I’ve ever done from my phone. 

17 years in the tenure track

17 years in the tenure track

Teaching Writing

Employment History

1995: I earn my MFA.

1995-1997: For the next two years, I work as a full-time instructor, teaching a 4/4 for less than $20,000 a year.  But I have health insurance for the first time in my life. I’m 26 years old.

Note: Titles for contingent faculty:

  • Instructor
  • Lecturer
  • Visiting Lecturer
  • Visiting Writer
  • Visiting Assistant Professor
  • also: Assistant Professor

1997-2000: I get my first tenure-track job at Mankato State University, now Minnesota State University-Mankato. I work with wonderful people. However, my then-partner gets a job out East.

2000-2005: I get my second tenure-track job at The College of New Jersey, formerly known as Trenton State College. I don’t bring any years toward tenure with me, nor do I think to ask for them. I work with wonderful people. With sadness, my partner and I part ways. In 2004, my first book is published and I receive a positive vote for tenure, but it isn’t official until the Board of Trustees votes on it. In an effort to get closer to family, I go on the job market.

2005-2010: I get my third tenure-track job at the University of Pittsburgh, aka Pitt. Again, I don’t bring any years toward tenure with me. I’ve now spent eight years in the tenure stream. Again, I work with wonderful people. In 2008, my second book is published. In 2009, I get married. A few months later, I get an email from someone at Ball State University (where my brother went to college) asking me do I care if a bunch of students turn my first book into a musical? Sure. Whatever. Then I go visit the Virginia Ball Center and hear the music and meet the students and faculty (making the musical is their only class!) and fall in love a little. A month later, I find out Ball State is hiring a fiction writer. And even though I’m just a few months away from turning in my tenure materials at Pitt, I decide that I really need to apply for this job at Ball State. It’s probably my last chance to get a job in my home state, which–I’ve finally, finally realized–is where I want to live and work and serve. And miracle of miracles, I get the job.

2010-present. I get my fourth tenure-track job at Ball State University. This time, I negotiate and bring three years toward tenure (I’m very grateful for this, thank you, thank you). I’ve now spent thirteen years in the tenure stream. I’m 42 years old. Again, I work with wonderful people. In 2011, I apply for promotion to Associate Professor. In 2012, I apply for tenure. For reasons I can’t fully explain, these things take lots of time to become official, and now, seventeen years after I got that first job at Mankato State University, I finally have tenure. I’ll be 46 in a few months, and on July 1, I will start a new job as the Assistant Chair of Operations of the English Department at Ball State. Most people my age have been serving in administration positions for years; let’s just say I’m due.


It took me a very long time and much, much heartache, and I don’t even want to talk about the lifetime earnings I’ve given up, sigh, but I’m finally in the exact right job in the exact right place. I don’t know too many academics who are fortunate enough to get a job in the geographic location they desire most.

I’m very lucky.

I think that if was 26 today, not 46, facing the academic job market in creative writing, such as it is, I probably would be writing my own “QuitLit” essay here instead of what I’ve written.

I’d probably be a contingent faculty member somewhere, or else be in a TT job in a place where I don’t want to live. I think I’d probably be contemplating leaving academia and getting a job in Indianapolis or Cincinnati.

I recognize that I’m fortunate to have gotten not one but four TT jobs, and at least part of that reason is pure chance, dumb luck: I entered the job market at a fortuitous time. Look at the chart below. Look at how many new BA/BFA programs were created between 1994 and 2004, the time I entered the job market! Also consider how many potential applicants for those jobs were being produced by the much smaller number of MFA and PhD programs that existed at that time.

2012-13 table3

Sometimes, when I’m feeling crappy, I think: What if I’d stayed at Mankato or TCNJ or Pitt? What would my rank be by now? How much money would I be earning at this point? But then I realize I wouldn’t have written the books I’ve written nor met my husband. I wouldn’t have been able to help my grandma die. I wouldn’t have been there the day my nephew was born. I’d see my parents less. I’d be helping young writers in Minnesota or New Jersey or Pennsylvania. I’d be an expatriate Hoosier. Once, that was my dream, but then I got older and my dreams changed.

This is the way my life turned out. This is my employment history, but as Sarah Kendzior says:

You are not your job. You are how you treat people.

To that I’d add: Your identity as a writer isn’t dependent on the school where you teach–or even if you teach. Your identity as a writer depends on your answer to one very simple question: Does your job (whatever it is) make it possible for you to keep body and soul together and get good writing done?

I’ve been asking myself that question for seventeen years, and finally, the answer is yes.


Thirteen years later…

Mrs. Cole Porter Writing

Birthday Cake with Number 13 Lit CandlesThree years ago, I wrote this post for my novel-writing students about my progress on my book about Linda Porter. At that point it had been 10 years. Sigh.

Finals are over. I’m back to the novel. I’ve got about 300 pages at this point. I’m not sure how many more I’m going to need because I haven’t made up my mind where to end it. I’ve got a notion. We’ll see if it works!

I’m going to try and go off the grid for awhile so I can get a lot of work done during May and June. Emphasis on “try.”

In the meantime, I thought you might enjoy reading this old post about the circuitous route writing a novel can take. May it inspire you to keep going with your own baggy monster.