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.

This Blog is a Waste of My Time: Thoughts on the Three-Year Anniversary of The Big Thing

This Blog is a Waste of My Time: Thoughts on the Three-Year Anniversary of The Big Thing

Teaching Writing

waste of timeI’ve been thinking a lot lately about this blog. Last week, I wrote about “lore” and informally trading teaching information vs. formally publishing teaching research.

This blog began because in 2010, I wrote an essay about teaching.  I realized that the default setting of all my classes–of most fiction-writing classes, really–was the short story. I wanted to tweak that default setting. Not just in my own classes. I wanted to inspire other people to tweak theirs, too. Continue reading

The Top 5 Most Popular Posts on the Big Thing–and Why


dems_top_5_101It’s almost the end of the year, plus I’m nearing the third anniversary of The Big Thing, a blog I started so that I could talk more about teaching writing.

I’ve been looking at my stats, seeing what I can learn.

Here are my most popular posts, according to Google Analytics:

This one about visiting Linda’s grave.

  • Why is it so popular? Every time someone sees De-Lovely, they Google “Linda Porter Rose” and boom, they find me. I get at least one comment on that blog post every other week. Continue reading
Is Gaming Bad for Fiction Writers?

Is Gaming Bad for Fiction Writers?

Teaching Writing

journey-game-screenshot-1-bThe other day, I was reading an undergraduate student’s novel in progress, and a thought occurred to me. As I often do, I shared that thought on Facebook:

I’ve never played a video game, but I recognize that it’s a narrative experience that lots and lots of people value. No judgement. But in my fiction-writing classes, I often read stories and novels that read as if I’m watching someone else play a video game. There’s plot, action, scene, all great, but virtually no interiority, which for me is *absolutely necessary* in fiction. My students have always used films and TV shows to talk about fiction, but now they also reference video games. “This is like Bioshock,” for example, and I have no idea what that even means. I wonder if other creative writing teachers have noticed this quality in student fiction or these references? I wonder if people who play video games could give me some tips about how to help my students make the transition from gaming to writing narrative. P.S. Over the last few years, I’ve read lot more genre fiction (George R.R. Martin, Suzanne Collins, etc.) so that I could at least be familiar with the kinds of stories students borrow from, but I really don’t want to start playing games.

I made the comment public and a great conversation ensued. As of right now, there are 80 comments–from gamers and non-gamers, from creative writing professors and students, from friends and strangers. The conversation was passionate. I invite you to read the comments here. Continue reading

Every Day We Write the Books: Please, Contribute to My Tumblr

Every Day We Write the Books: Please, Contribute to My Tumblr


Selfies + Accountability

During the summer of 2013, I wanted to keep track of how many days I wrote. Like making a big fat X on a calendar. Except I don’t use a physical calendar anymore.

So I hit the Photo Booth icon on my Mac and took a quick picture, and it was saved by the date. Here’s one from May 17.

Photo on 5-17-13 at 5.13 PM

It’s how I kept myself accountable all summer. Sometimes I took a picture from the POV of my computer, sometimes from my POV looking at my computer.

June 22, 2013

I used to use a lot. I liked sharing that a writing session had taken place, similar to how I can share an exercise session has taken place on MapMyRun. I liked that all my friends were using 750words. It felt like we were all in it together.

So at the end of the summer, I made a Tumblr that anyone can contribute to. It’s called Every Day I Write the Book.

Perhaps you think sharing info like this is bragging or narcissistic?

Well, screw you. This is for the rest of us.

This isn’t like Selfies at Funerals or Selfies at Serious Places.

This is like, Hey look at all these people who are writing! 

Writing Accountability Tools

There are many ways to hold yourself accountable as a writer.

I have many writer friends who post weekly or daily updates on FB about how many words they’ve written. Personally, I like getting this information. It keeps me motivated, and they do it, I imagine, because it makes them accountable.

But yeah, I know, it gets to be too much sometimes.


Then there’s the fact that this Tumblr is about WRITING ACCOUNTABILITY and SELFIES. At the same time!

I don’t do selfies much. I have complicated feelings about them.

I like sharing. I like offering support. I like seeing what people are wearing or that they’ve lost weight or that they’re happy or that they’ve developed a six pack or that they like their new haircut. Yay!

But yeah, I know it on the other hand, it all feels like too much sometimes.

The rules

Every time you sit down to work on your book, take a pic. Of yourself or where you’re sitting.

Keep it clean.

Be real. No sprucing or preening.

Don’t show off.

Use this to keep yourself accountable and motivated.

Submit here.

[Let's see if this works...and how it works.]

Do the Math: Part 3

Do the Math: Part 3

General Teaching Writing

Time Management

Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.

–William Penn

My students shared their Activity Logs with me last week. I told them that I wasn’t going to look at them. No grading. No judgement. “Be truthful,” I said, “or don’t do it at all.”

One student pointed to a block of time in between her morning and afternoon class. “Usually, I run errands during that time. Go to the library. Take care of stuff. It never occurred to me that I could schedule an hour or two of writing during that block. That’s what I’m going to do from now on.”

Another was amazed to see how much gaming he does. I was glad this came up, actually. I think our students devote many, many hours per week to RPGs and video games, esp. when you read confessions like thisI said look, there’s nothing wrong with gaming or any other pleasure activity. That’s necessary for good health and peace of mind. The problem is when that activity starts eating at the time you have for the stuff you absolutely have to get done.

[Here's a great piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education about teaching students time management skills.]

I saw that one student had scheduled in “Unwinding/Writing time” at the end of the day. That got me thinking. “Do you guys see writing time as chilling out time?”

Some said yes. They don’t seem to have any trouble getting their words done each week. Because they find it pleasurable (mostly). One student said that many students in her math lecture keep laptops open and browse social media during class; she, on the other hand, writes her novel. I’m not sure what to say about that. Yay! or Don’t!

Some said no, writing time and chilling out time are not the same thing. These are the folks who do have trouble getting their words done each week. Because it’s not pleasurable, or not always pleasurable. (I am in this group.)

I told them, if you are the latter, then you can’t lump “writing time” into “personal time.” Because you’ll procrastinate. Or you’ll wait to write until the end of the day when you’re time and need a real break–not an activity that’s going to mentally (and maybe even emotionally) tax you.

My students wished that I’d had them fill out an activity log at the beginning of the semester. Next term, I will. There are a few good time management resources on the Dartmouth website (although some are a little dated).

eisenhower-QuadrantNext time, I’m going to talk about the “Eisenhower Method” of time management and draw this figure on the board.

According to this article, you should spend 80% of your time doing the things that are Important, but Not Urgent, and the other 20% of your time divided among the other quadrants (with as little time as possible devoted to the time-wasters of Not Important and Not Urgent).

Wow. When I apply that ratio to my Activity Log from last week, I can see that my ratio was exactly the opposite: the majority of my time was devoted to urgent deadlines.

Most creative writing classes have periodic due dates, like most college classes. A paper or project due every few weeks or so. The task hangs out in Important but Not Urgent quadrant until the day or two before the deadline, when all ones time is devoted to the urgency of the deadline.

With Weekly Words, however, I force them to put their writing time into the Important and Urgent quadrant every single week for ten weeks. And force myself to think of it this way, too.

I told my students that famous quote attributed to Lawrence Kasdan:

“Being a writer is like having homework every day for the rest of your life.” 

That got their attention.

I told my students to think about their parents, about the kind of home they grew up in. Whether we like it or not, we wind up using time very much like our parents and grandparents did. I’m from a working class family, which means I grew up in a culture where my day was structured by the dinner bell, the lunch whistle, the time clock.

It’s been a great challenge in my life to be the boss of my own days.

Reflections and Observations

Here are a few things I’ve been thinking about since my post last week, and thanks to those of you who have commented, too.

  • I can’t just write on the weekends. I’ve got to write a little during the week. I’ve got to keep my head in my novel as often as possible.
  • I’ve got to stop answering emails first thing in the morning. I must use that time to write. I must resist The Borg.


  • So often I’m communicating when I should be writing, plugged into the hive mind when I should be unplugged as much as possible. I believe that we should devote our best time of day to our writing. For me, that’s the morning.
  • I’ve got to stop checking email and social media when I’m engaged in class preparation and novel writing. It causes constant interruptions, the introduction of Not Important but Urgent (or not Urgent) distractions into my day. Also, checking for notifications and new emails makes everything I do take twice as long.
  • I’m glad I counted my writing time as work hours, not personal time. This was not always so. Sixteen hours of writing in one week is actually a lot for me; it happened b/c of the P&T deadline. During the school year, I’d say I write for about five hours a week, usually on the weekends. During the summer, I write (or research) for about five hours a day.
  • The price I pay for long blocks of time to write on the weekend are long weekdays. On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesdays, I work from the moment I get up to about an hour before I go to bed. Those days are 13 or 14 hours long.

Email is killing me

I’ve got to get better at email. In the Harford article I linked to last week, he says there are only five things you can do with an email:

  1. delete it
  2. delegate it
  3. reply to it
  4. defer it
  5. take some more substantial action.

It’s all I can do during the week to take care of #1 and #2 type messages, the Important and Urgent ones. I can sometimes take care of #3 type messages if all that’s required is a quick answer. But if you notice my Friday, I spent about 3 hours answering all the #3, #4, and #5 emails that had come in during the week. I’ve learned the hard way not answer important emails after 8 PM, so I leave #3, #4, and #5 type messages until morning. But: if I get up and write, that further delays my answers.

Ben Percy once gave me a great piece of advice about my email problem: he said that I should treat those messages like old fashioned letters. If a colleague sent me a letter asking if I had any ideas about campus speakers, or an old friend sent me a long catch-up letter, or an acquaintance asked for some professional advice, would I drop everything and write a letter back? No, he said. I should get my writing done for the day, and then think about replying.

The problem, of course, is that some of those messages waiting really do need a prompt response. And I’m not just talking about messages from frantic students either. I’m talking about colleagues and friends.

I’m going to start imagining that I am my doctor. I would never expect an answer from her (via her nurse) to a routine medical question outside of business hours or on the weekend. Doctors and lawyers, I’ve noticed, have excellent professional boundaries, and people respect those boundaries.

This Blog and My Time

Realization: If I want to get writing done during the week and not just on the weekends, I either need to

  1. wake up earlier and write for awhile before entering The Borg
  2. take care of The Borg throughout the day or in the evening
  3. leave or limit The Borg

I think about C a lot.

I think about the fact that I’ve spent an hour on this blog post thus far this morning. Yes, I have benefitted from writing this post. This blog in general has forced me to be reflect on things I never would have reflected on otherwise. It’s been good for me personally and professionally. And maybe it’s been good for you, too.

But are these words getting my novel written?


Thanks for reading this blog post, everyone. It felt Important and Urgent to me to get these thoughts out before moving on to other topics here at the Big Thing. Now, I’m going work on my Weekly Words for my novel. It’s Important and Urgent, too.