Dead Grandmothers

We’ve been known to joke about it in faculty meetings: how many grandparents some students can lose in a single year. (And yes, we do name names.) Here’s one professor’s concerns about responding to those situations: Thomas H. Benton (William Pannapacker) in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

In my classes, the work has to be done at some point, no matter what obstacles must be overcome. There’s no authentic incentive to lie–and I hope I’m teaching them that a clear conscience matters–and yet it happens. I can empathize, but empathy doesn’t include passing an unprepared student on to certain failure. How could the deceased ancestor approve?

Ironically, students struggling with attendance and punctuality are often those inspired by dead grandmothers. “My grandma said it was time to stop being a baby and get my degree.” It sounds like a noble ambition to honor a parent’s or grandparent’s advice, but it’s never enough. They have to want it for more selfish, more immediate reasons.

Whenever a student returns from a funeral saying, “It’s hard. I’m grieving. Sometimes it’s hard to concentrate. But I know she [or he] wants me to finish,” I know they’re going to succeed, against this and all other difficulties. And those dead grandmothers are going to be proud.


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Friday Flick: Marriage Proposal

"Greatest Marriage Proposal Ever" YouTube screenshot
"Greatest Marriage Proposal Ever" Matt proposes to Ginny with a movie trailer while recording her reaction

Usually, I cringe over public marriage proposals. Somehow this one seems different, maybe because the theme of Matt and Ginny’s courtship has been “Making the Movies Jealous,” it has high enough production values to be a hoax, and yet they seem genuinely surprised that tens of millions of people have passed this along. It’s a great example of what it takes to go viral, and it’s heart-warming that so many people still care about sentimental moments. I wish them all the happiness possible –which I suspect means they’ll need the fortitude to resist becoming another reality show.

My Secret Recipe

Cookies copyright Lauri Patterson iStock_000008692571
Photo copyright Lauri Patterson iStockPhoto #8692571

Yesterday, I was spinning with so many demands, I had to remind myself to stop and write my Morning Pages. (Thank you, Julia Cameron.) I’ve learned to think on paper so well, it’s surprising I manage to think anywhere else.

It turned out I was eager to bake cookies–and first thing, too. I had agreed to bake cookies (white chocolate, macadamia was the request) to thank a college musical ensemble for performing my son’s piece at the composer’s concert. I planned to bake that afternoon, after about four professional tasks, but Morning Pages ordered me to start now.

Morning Pages tend to know things I haven’t guessed–like how I was almost out of my favorite (gluten-free-but-you’d-never-know-it) baking mix. And did Morning Pages know it would take four stores to find it in stock?

The cookies turned out so well, they made Facebook headlines. 😀 (They were almost as good as the concert.)

I could have gone to the bakery–and I reserve the right to do that without notice. But this particular day, Morning Pages gave me permission to claim that luxury to make them myself, to serve my family in that way. Later I learned how stressed my son had been feeling, and I was glad I had been sending him some love. And other son was also in need of support. My mother heart was putting them first. Morning Pages know when to do that.

By the way, cookie-baking can be controversial in these modern times. Remember the press putting Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton through a First Lady cookie recipe contest? (Mine would have won.)

It’s tempting to become the hoarder of a secret recipe, but why? So I’ll be too busy baking cookies to write? Don’t think so. I’ll share; you bake the cookies.

Simply follow the recipe on the back of the giant bag of Pamela’s Baking & Pancake Mix, measuring precisely, using real butter and extra love–except I use pecans instead of walnuts in the chocolate chip version, and I made another batch with white chocolate and macadamias. I use a 1-1/2″ cookie scoop to form each ball and leave them rounded, baking on parchment paper. They turn out perfectly after only 12 minutes in my oven.

Full disclosure: nobody has done a thing for this unsolicited endorsement except create an exceptional product. Pamela’s features brown rice flour and almonds, and makes such good pancakes I was using this mix before our gluten diagnosis. (No wonder we felt great after eating them!) I can also rave about their corporate communications; their website and newsletters are outstanding examples of each. Additional disclosure: if Pamela’s finds this post and chooses to send me presents, I will greedily accept.

This might be a good time to add my own post script to Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Cookies books: “Writing. Telling friends and strangers how to bake your delicious cookies.”


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Photo © Lauri Patterson iStockPhoto®  #8692571

Friday Flick: One Man Disney Movie

Nick Pitera One Man Disney Movie
Nick Pitera One Man Disney Movie

Here’s Nick Pitera’s One Man Disney Movie.

Can you imagine a Disney plot without the Christopher Vogler influence (Writer’s Journey from Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces)? That could inspire your writing today–or maybe you’d prefer Maureen Murdock’s Heroine’s Journey.

Or simply enjoy singing all the roles you play in life.


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Photo: YouTube screenshot.

Composing Language

Every time I see my composer son, he raves about and demonstrates some new tool in his repertoire: something about counterpoint, some chord he picked up from another composer, some skill understood in theory but finally mastered. And almost as frequently, he reports what he said to that day’s would-be composer who wants to get there without studying composition, or even basic music theory.

Recently he compared it to learning a spoken language. Some musicians learn by immersion; they might not be able to teach it or explain what they’re doing, but they are fluent. And the great composers thoroughly understand theory. Those who revise new versions understand the traditions especially well.

So I asked him, “How long do you think it takes to become fluent in composing language? Is the basic four or five-year Bachelor’s program enough? Does it take a Master’s?”

Drew said, “It depends on what you bring to the program and these two things.” He immediately revised that to three:

1) The frequency of getting your music performed by real musicians. Crucial.

2) The amount of music you expose yourself to.

3) Writing above that which ye are able. Being willing to stretch beyond what you already know will sound good.

You know what I’m going to say. It sounds strange to say there’s a writing language, a meta-language behind the language you think you already know because you’ve been speaking a form of it all your life. But to become a fluent writer, try his advice:

1) Get your work read by real readers. Blogging, writing groups, mentors, classes, editors, publishing!

2) Read great writers. Read their work and what they say about their work. (You don’t even have to like them both at the same time.) Subscribe to journals and magazines to join the tribe.

3) Stretch. Dare to flop.

As I write this, Drew is at the piano, playing with chord patterns. He forgot one:

4) Practice privately. (Journal! And that’s really number 1.)


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Friday Flick: “If I Should Have a Daughter”

Between sharing two of her own polished pieces, poet Sarah Kay shares her own creative emergence and that of her students. She suggests listing ten things you know to be true. Try it. See what you could write that only you could write.

Sarah’s also a great example of reaching out for mentoring and passing that on.

Sarah Kay at TED
Sarah Kay at TED

“There Will Be Rest”

Arizona State University's Schola Cantorum singing "There Will Be Rest" by Ticheli
"There Will Be Rest," Frank Ticheli's setting of the poem by Sara Teasdale

Something extra today! Here’s a  recording from the concert I mentioned March 7.

Yes, it’s a recording, not the live music experience I advocated in that previous post, but it’s still sweet!

Related Post:

The Poetry of Music