Friday, February 25, 2011

Cross Promotion

Happy Friday! I just stopped in at the Rochester Mag office and updated the blog there. Click through to check out the "Beauty and Insults" being strewn about with that crew.

Those people crack me up. Jay met me down at the office before lunch today, and when we left he said, "I don't think I'd be quick-witted enough to work down there. I was only there for three minutes and there were four different conversations going at once."

This is what I'm saying.

In other Friday news: I just tried sushi for the first time. Want to know how it (gag) went? I'll be writing about the experience for the April issue of Rochester Mag.

Happy weekend to all! I'm going to be painting the bathroom and writing next week's Jen's World column. Have a topic idea? Send it my way!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

More on Memory

In preparing for my March small-group workshop, I was doing some reading last night in Abigail Thomas' Thinking About Memoir. On one dog-eared, pencil-noted, starred page I found this:

"The thing is, I'm old enough now to know that the past is every bit as unpredictable as the future, and that memory, mine anyway, is not a faithful record of anything, and truth is not an absolute."

There's something so reassuring about that. Also, it made me realize that I've been inwardly debating memory for some time. I marked up that book years ago.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Today, I stumbled upon the perfect epigraph for an essay I've been writing:

All of our memories are false, but how elaborate are the stories we tell ourselves? What role do we think we play in the lives of others? There are so many pathologies.

This I read in Stephen Elliott's The Daily Rumpus e-mail -- which remains the best thing I've done for myself all year.

As a nonfiction/memoir writer with 120 pages of a 150 manuscript under my belt, I've been thinking about memory a lot these last couple of years. "Memory is suspect," I've often said. But I like Elliott's assertion that "memory is false." As I write about things that happened 10, 20, 30 years ago, I usually sit back in my chair, close my eyes, and go back to that place--wait until I can smell and see and hear that experience before I write about it. Sometimes it feels fuzzy. Sometimes it feels like an exact reliving -- and I'll be (pleasantly or not) haunted by the memory for days afterward.

In all regards, my aim is to tell the truth. To be as honest as I know how.

Yet: My version of a moment, a week, a year, a relationship, is likely immeasurably different than the version of the person who shared that moment, week, year, relationship with me.

This doesn't mean that my version isn't the truth -- but it's my truth. A friend / family member's truth of the same event may well be something entirely different. Or it may be the same.

This fascinates me. Why is this? What's memory? How elaborate are the stories we tell ourselves? About even the most mundane moments? How is it that I can remember walking into the restaurant on the main floor of the Kahler Hotel... remember the tall wooden beams dividing the dining room from the kitchen, taste the walleye sandwich, remember telling the waitress that it was "too fishy" and her replying, "it's fish." Like it happened last week and not 8 years ago. Yet my husband tells me there were no tall wooden beams. That it wasn't at the Kahler. It was at John's Restaurant. And his co-worker was with us.

"But I've never been in John's Restaurant," I tell him. "Never."

"Yes, you were," he says. "You had the walleye."

We're both, somehow, right.

Anyway, that's what I've been thinking about lately. And, as I put together this collection of essays, I'm just trying to get it, somehow, right.

Friday, February 18, 2011


OK, so for the last two-plus years, I've been using the phrase "When I'm done with school..." to start a wide range of sentences.

"When I'm done with school, I will take on more paying work."

"When I'm done with school, I will keep the house clean."

"When I'm done with school, we'll look into taking in a foster child."

"When I'm done with school, I will make dinner for my family every night."

"When I'm done with school, I will do yoga every morning."

I pictured my post-MFA life to be this magical time of, well, time.

I mean, no more packets! No more thesis! No more reading list! No more monthly essay deadlines!

But then I remembered that the whole goal of getting my MFA was to (1) become a better writer; and (2) do more of my own (read: non-client) writing.

Which means, if you're following me here, that I still need to be writing essays. And reading. And setting those deadlines.

Why hadn't I realized this?? Why is this such a shock??

To keep myself going, I'm considering registering for a post-grad workshop with deadlines that are even TIGHTER than the ones I had during my MFA work.


It needs to be done, though. Because I don't want to get lazy. I didn't spend a bazillion dollars (and a few tears) on that degree to spend the rest of my writing life with regrets.

And, plus, who wants to just sit around scrubbing the floor, anyway?

P.S. In addition to the workshop I'm (almost sure I'm) joining, I'm launching another of my own here in Rochester! There are just three spots left in the March Small-Group Writer's Workshop. This relaxed, fun and productive workshop will be held from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on March 3, 10, 17, and 24. To get in on the action or to learn more, send me a message at

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Writing Workshop!

I'm launching another small-group writing workshop in March. (Classes will be held four consecutive Thursday evenings.) This will be a generative workshop, which means that we will focus our time on creating new work, rather than critiquing existing work.

My small-group workshops are designed to be relaxed, fun, and productive evenings for writers at all levels. The cost is $55 for the four-week session, which also includes "take home" materials, and maybe even cookies.

Contact me at for more information or to register. Class size is limited to six people.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

I Had a Hot Date Last Night

...with the Rochester Public School district.

Here's what went down, from my column in today's Post-Bulletin.

* * *

Holy Hannah, that was intense.

I just spent 3-1/2 hours at the Rochester Public School board meeting. I’ve been home for about an hour now, and I’m still sorting through what I heard—mainly because a hearty portion of tonight’s meeting centered around the 2011-2012 budget cuts.

It’s heavy stuff. A few of the potential items on the cutting block included media specialist positions, Quarry Hill funding, the closing of two school swimming pools, and select high school sports. Let’s just say the community showed up.

During the “public input” portion of the meeting, several people rose to speak. They asked that the board make cuts that don’t directly affect students. They asked that the board not close the swimming pools. They pointed out the social, academic and physical benefits of sports programs. One well-spoken parent recommended the district pull from its reserve funds—which, I learned, currently sit at $19 million, or 14% of our operating budget. Good points, all.

I get that being a school board member is a difficult, often thankless job. But so is being a parent. And instead of finishing dinner with my family tonight—instead of helping with piano practice, talking through my son’s “historical event” project, and putting my kids to bed, I spent 3-1/2 hours watching the district’s leadership come to no conclusion.

It was frustrating. Over the course of the evening, one board member offered a specific, altered budget solution. Two others stepped up and indicated they’d like to take action tonight and vote on the existing options. But mostly I witnessed vague non-solutions:

“I’m just not happy with any of these options…”

“Well, we don’t want our students to suffer…”

“There has to be a better solution…”

No one wants our students to suffer. But we knew more cuts were coming if we didn’t pass that referendum in November and now we have to follow through. And whether the cuts come from student programs or staff changes, students will be affected.

“We’re going to need more community involvement,” said one board member. “More volunteerism.”

Yes, we will. But it seems to me that manning the ticket booths at basketball games and shelving books in the library isn’t going to make much of a dent in a multi-million dollar gap. There’s no getting away from this. Decisions have to be made, and they’re not going to get any easier. But instead of voting on the budget reductions tonight—something Superintendent Silver said she wished would happen—the board put it off again until March 1.

In the end, the evening left me with more questions than answers. Here are some things I wish I understood better:

Why aren’t we pulling from our $19 million reserve? My understanding—and maybe I’m wrong here—is that it’s to be used in times of trouble. Aren’t we in trouble?

Also, why do we need $25,000 to find a new superintendent? It was announced tonight that the search firm has agreed not to exceed $24,995 in the search for a superintendent. Is that really what it takes to fill a position in this economy?

And, finally, is there an easier way for community members to access district information? Does the district have a blog or a Facebook page that I haven’t uncovered? A place where community members can find materials and offer input without having to muddle through the district website? Because if the turnout at tonight’s meeting is any indication, the people of Rochester want to help.

We have to. In fact, “pulling together” was one thing that everyone wholeheartedly agreed upon tonight. Because according to tonight’s meeting, we’re looking at even deeper reductions for the 2012-2013 school year.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Twice the Bloggin'

So I've finally, at long last, lined up a password AND an Avatar that allows me to blog at, where I've been an assistant editor since September.

My first post is here:

Those people crack me up. I'm not lying when I say I keep a notepad on my desk at the Roch Mag offices just to write down the things they say to one another.

Friday, February 11, 2011

This Week in Jen's World...

Valentine's Day horror stories! My favorite column lately. Love this stuff. :)

You can link to the full story on the Post-Bullet site HERE.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Anti Valentine's Day

In today's Jen's World, I tell Valentine's Day horror stories, like this one:

“The last Valentine’s Day before our wedding, my husband and I hit up the lake house for a romantic, fireplace kind of weekend,” says Suzanne. “We turned on the water and the pipes burst, causing a gigantic and freezing flood. Since we had to turn the water off again, we were without working bathrooms, and since the septic system had frozen, muck was spit back into the unflushable toilets and undrainable showers. I still gag.”

More like this in today's Post-Bulletin. I'll link to the full article when it hits the web. :)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Why I've Fallen in Love with The Rumpus

This is an excerpt from today's "Daily Rumpus" e-mail -- which I've signed up to have delivered to my inbox. (You can, too, here:

Stephen Elliott's writing is fast becoming a favorite of mine.

I was thinking yesterday how people are vulnerable and the things that are troubling us sometimes rise, like from a volcano. Or how the people around us are mirrors, so we can't really know ourselves without seeing ourselves in someone else's eyes. I think I broke up with my fiance because I saw myself in her and didn't like what I saw. And I was thinking about how we take blame for things, and how sometimes that's mature and other times it's enabling. You can, perhaps, realize the role you've played in a conflict with someone, but that doesn't mean you can have a healthy relationship with them. You can recognize a problem without solving it.

Then I was thinking about this guy who was dating a prostitute. This is mostly true. She was married and he loved her and she loved him but neither of them was really capable of love. They were capable of passion. His friends robbed a jewelry truck, Tiffany's or something like that, an armored car. They stole over a million dollars worth of merchandise. It was on the front page of the newspaper. The crime was never solved and one day his friend gave him a ring from the robbery and he gave the ring to the girl. But the girl didn't want the ring. She said, So you're a client now? She thought he was trying to pay her. She didn't know she was holding the key to a famous crime. There was so much she didn't want to know. There was her husband, her boyfriend, her clients. Her clients flew her to places like Nashville, and Tokyo. She had a knack for giving people hope. She loved men briefly and they felt that if they waited long enough she would love them again. They didn't realize what she really wanted was to be desired.

So their relationship didn't work out, and the crime was never solved. And years passed and he kept thinking he saw her, a girl with black hair waiting in line, running on a treadmill, standing behind a table, boarding a bus. But he never did see her again.




Live in Rochester?

The Friends of the Library winter book sale is still going on until 3 p.m. today. Tons of books available for $1 and $2. How can you resist???

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A New Day

* * * For the best advice I'll give all week, read all the way to the bottom * * *

Here I sit at the Max & Emma's restaurant at Dulles, about to begin this post by apologizing for my long absence... but then realized what an utterly girl thing that is to do.

So instead, I'm going to share a few of the fantastically inspirational or interesting things I heard at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference the last few days. (So many writers! So much wisdom! So much wine!)

In no particular order:

"Good work finds its home." -- overheard

"I'd like to find the courage NOT to tell my stories." -- attributed to Ander Monson

"In every situation, the reader is the most important person." -- Stephen Elliott

"If you're afraid of hurting a reader, you're not being honest." -- Stephen Elliott

"It's not about what happened to you. It's about how you perceive what happened to you." -- Nick Flynn

"The interiors of our head are the most accessible infinities around." -- Ander Monson

Biggest message: Persevere.

Biggest tip: Go to The Rumpus' and sign up for Stephen Elliott's daily e-mail.