Learning to Write

Tonight, I’ll be attending a NaNoWriMo kick starter event at a local library.  A friend of mine is presenting and the event is open to anyone who is thinking about participating in NaNoWriMo, as well as those who have participated in the past.  As y’all know, Boy Band started out as a NaNoWriMo project and has received such positive feedback that I’m planning on releasing the sequel in just a few short months.  It goes without saying that I am a big supporter of NaNoWriMo.

But you know, all this talk about writing seminars reminds has started taking me back to my own days in college, when I was just figuring out that I wanted to write.  Really write.  I remember Meg Cabot (one of my writing idols) advising young aspiring authors NOT to take any writing classes.  She claimed that studying something would instantly kill any and all love you once held for it.  To an extent, I found this to be true.

I took a few writing classes throughout my six years of higher education.  Some of which I enjoyed.  Some of which I hated so much I had to block them out.

I won’t waste too much time talking about the classes I didn’t enjoy.  One of them was screenplay writing. I think I would have really enjoyed it had it not been for my instructor.  He was a bitter, failed novelist and he made it no secret that he did not give two flying flips what we learned in that class, if anything.  The other was a short story class.  My final story was nothing exceptional, although I can’t help but remember it was about ghosts and demons and things that went bump in the night.  It seems I’ve always harbored that dark fascination.

The writing class that I really, truly enjoyed was a poetry class, which is funny, because I am a truly terrible poet.  That’s probably why I enjoyed the class, though.  Because I was learning something new.  I’ve written a grand total of three poems that I’m actually proud of.  Two of which are here.  The third is about killing a cockroach in New Braunfels.

Perhaps my favorite class of all, however, was children’s literature.  Even though it technically wasn’t a writing class, we all had to come up with our own final project to present at the end of the semester.  I decided to write and illustrate my own children’s book.  I’m actually quite tempted to upload it and share it with you here.  I’m pretty proud of it, even though the illustrations and the book itself leave much to be desired.  Still, I’ll never forget standing up in front of the class to show off the book.  My classmates were bewildered that I’d gone with writing a children’s book over writing a paper. One girl actually asked me, “Why would you do that?!” I guess to them, writing a paper was a lot less work, and it probably was.  But to me, writing a book was a lot more fun.  And it still is.



When I was in college, I met this guy at a party.  We talked for maybe two minutes because everything he said translated in my mind to, “Hi, I’m a jerk. You don’t want to know me. I am physically repelling you with my voice right now.”

It happens.

Anyway, in those two minutes, we ended up talking about writing styles.  Specifically, we talked about JK Rowling’s writing style.

I don’t remember how Harry Potter came up, but considering it’s me, it’s not very surprising.  I’ve mentioned how the Harry Potter books got me through some of the hardest parts of my life. https://jackiesmith114.wordpress.com/2014/01/24/i-believe-in-dragons/

It was JK Rowling and her style that inspired me to begin writing my own stories.  Granted, back then it was just for fun.  I had absolutely no intention or inclination to consider becoming a writer full time, or even part time.  It was just something I did for me.  The guy that I met that night at the party, however, apparently had had it in his head for a while that he was destined to become the next Tolstoy or something.  Let me tell you, he had an ego on him the size of… well… Texas.  I was going to say Hogwarts, but Texas is way bigger than Hogwarts.

Anyway, the moment I mentioned Harry Potter, this guy goes all out, trashing JK Rowling and her horrible, juvenile, dialogue-based writing.  I was appalled.  For one thing, it was the first time I’d ever heard someone say anything even remotely negative about Queen Rowling.  For another, I love the way that JK Rowling writes!  It was so personable to me, so easy and fun to read, so truly and uniquely in her own voice.  I much prefer reading books with narrators who speak to their readers like old friends rather than narrators who are aloof and above it all, which that guy at the party definitely was.

It’s weird to think that a two-minute conversation I had with some jerk at a party would stay with me for eight years, but that conversation is wildly relevant to my life as a writer now, mostly because I want to be everything that he trashed that night.  I want to write like I’m friends with my readers.  I want them to read my stories and feel like it’s a real person telling them.  I want my characters to have lives personalities of their own and I want their dialogue to reflect it.

I love writing dialogue.  It’s my favorite thing to write.  I’m very mediocre when it comes to action and descriptions, but dialogue is my thing.  And you know, when it comes to writing, there is no right or wrong.  There is no such thing as too much dialogue or not enough dialogue.  It fully depends on the author’s intention for the story.  I’ve read and enjoyed books that are almost all dialogue and I’ve read and enjoyed books that have very little.  Not every book is meant to be written a certain way.  In fact, if they were, reading would be terribly, terribly boring.  I love that every author of every book I’ve ever read has their own style that makes them 100% unique.

As for me?  I know I tend to hover around the more dialogue-based narrative.  I love characters.  Even when I was little, I had four or five imaginary friends running around inside my head at once.  It’s really no wonder I became a writer.

That all being said, I hope you all have a fantastic Wednesday!  This week is going so slowly for me.  Is it for anyone else?  It’s probably because my sister is coming home this weekend and we’re going to see Ed Sheeran and I’m dying to see her.  I also have a very good friend taking some pretty intimidating exams at the end of the week and I keep wanting them to be over for him.  Hurry up, weekend!  We’re all ready for you!

Being an Adult

As my friends and I get older, I’ve begun to notice a recurring theme in all of our lives: Being an adult sucks.

When we’re kids, we spend so much time dreaming about what life will be like when we grow.  We imagine driving cars, getting married, having our dream jobs, going on new, grown-up adventures.  The thing is, while we were busy dreaming about this fantastic adult world, real adults didn’t bother to mention all the other less fun stuff that comes with age.  Like debt.  Taxes.  Caffeine addiction.  Relationship turmoil.  Responsibility.


The older we get, the more nostalgic we become for our carefree days of youth.  But I’ve been thinking.  It’s true, some of those not-so-great adult things are unfortunately unavoidable.  Most of us will have debt.  We all have to pay taxes.  But I think there’s a misconception about responsibility, and about becoming “real” adults.

For some reason, we all have this idea that once we reach a certain age, once we’re “grown ups,” we have to start living life and behaving a certain way.  We’re supposed to be mature and get real people jobs and get married and have kids.  And none of those are BAD things.  Not at all.  But for some reason, we’ve begun to view them as obligations rather than things that are actually really positive.

If you get a job that you hate just because you have to get a job, you’re not going to be happy.  If you marry someone just for the sake of getting married, you’re probably going to be even less happy than you are with the job.  That’s the problem in our world today.  To live, to get by, just means going through the motions.  When you take a job, make sure it’s something you can be passionate about.  Make it an environment you enjoy, where you thrive.  When you get married, make sure it’s to your best friend, to someone you genuinely want to spend the rest of your life with.  Not someone you’re settling for because you’re at that age when you’re supposed to get married.

Don’t live because you have to.  Live because you want to.

I’m older.  I’m a so-called “real” adult.  Legally, I’ve been an adult for almost ten years now.  But I’ve tried to hold on to the things that brought me joy as a child.  I’ve also found new joy in my adult years.

Here’s the deal.  Do at least one thing a day that makes you happy.  For example, today, I lit a fall-scented candle.  It makes my whole day 150% better.  Listen to your favorite song on repeat just because you can.  Don’t fall into the routine of simply going through the motions.  Enrich your life, even if it’s by simply lighting a candle or eating an extra piece of candy.  It’s okay.  You’re allowed to be happy.  After all, we spend most of our lives as adults.  We might as well make it worth while.


Loving Grammar with Steve Lund

Taking a bit of a break from the world of fiction with this blog post to interview the man who not only taught me everything I know about grammar, but also inspired my love for classic literature and of course, William Shakespeare. He also happens to have a brand new book out called Loving Grammar: Mr. Lund’s Guide to Professional Clamdigging.


Steve Lund was my high school English teacher.  You could probably say he was something of a celebrity at Lutheran High School of Dallas (now known as Dallas Lutheran School).  Everyone, even the middle schoolers who had yet to take his classes, knew about the infamous “Lund Papers” and the enigma known as “Clamdigging.”  Mr. Lund has us writing college level papers in eleventh grade, and I’ve got to tell you, his classes are the reason I never stressed out over a paper in college.  University-assigned papers just weren’t a big deal to me, and all of my former high school classmates agree.  It was all thanks to Mr. Lund and yes, grammar friends, it was all thanks to Clamdigging.

It is my honor as a published author and as a student of the humanities to welcome Mr. Steve Lund to my blog.

unnamedmr lund

Hi, Mr. Lund!  Tell my readers a little bit about yourself. 

Ok, over 40 years ago, a favorite teacher of mine in college (Dr. Prausnitz—I wrote a little limerick about him years ago.*) told me that he thought I’d make a good teacher.  I remember saying to him—“How do you know that?”

His maddeningly mysterious reply: “I know.”

Well, as a result of a recommendation for teaching assistantships that Prausnitz put out there for me–without my knowledge–I started in 1972, teaching college students English when I was 21 years old, and it didn’t take me long to realize that teaching is what I love to do.  So Prausnitz was right after all.  And I’ve taught the best music and lit on the planet to HS, college, university, retirement people (and even—for one semester—a prison class), and it has never gotten old.  I’ve gotten old, but my love for teaching is ‘younger than springtime’ (to mint a new phrase).  What I love—besides just hanging out with curious people—is taking fiendishly difficult subjects—grammar, sonata-allegro form of classical music, poetry, Joyce and Faulkner, Shakespeare, foreign languages—and making them absolutely learnable for everyone.  That’s what lights my inner bulb!

*There once was a prof at CC

Who lectured and sang on TV,

But the networks got scared 

And calling it merde

They made it a late late at 3.

What inspired your love for teaching grammar? 

I shouldn’t say this in broad daylight, but I have always liked grammar and languages—even diagramming sentences although I would never inflict that painful exercise on my students.  (Diagramming sentences is the equivalent of cutting your lawn with scissors.) Transformational grammar (Chomsky) was fun too!  Honestly, my grammar/writing/teaching skills were honed teaching international students for quite a few years.  One Saudi wrote this:  “*When I come to United States I was Washington, DC for two weeks.”  Okay, anyone want to know why we have prepositional phrases?  No matter how painful it is to learn prep phrases, it is still easier than “being Washington DC” for two weeks.

What exactly IS Professional Clamdigging? 

Professional Clamdigging is finally getting the chance to learn and master something that you never thought you’d ever get—something that matters, by the way.  Maybe you thought that everyone else learned this but you didn’t and never will.  The problem with having this attitude about grammar/writing is that it can haunt you the rest of your lives—because after all—who doesn’t need to write—posts and memos and love notes—we do it all the time.  This book is written for people (of any age—HS, college or senior citizen) who want to put any of these kinds of anxieties into the grave where they belong and begin enjoying the writing life again—and, as a matter of fact, enjoying life again.  No more grammar worries and insecurities with Loving Grammar.  In fact, we have a lot of fun figuring it all out!  It’s like a party!  That’s Loving Grammar!

Tell me about the experience you had teaching Clamdigging to your own students.

So in my Washington DC example above, I spoke of students learning English as a Second Language (ESL).  Little did I know (since I had a BA and MA in English) and had been accepted into the doctoral English program at University College, Cambridge (England), there were a lot of things that I didn’t understand myself—things like commas, for instance.  I’m sure we’ve all heard or said this kind of thing:  “Uh, I think you need a comma here,” without having the foggiest idea why.  We’re operating on native intuitions—and frankly a lot of bamboozling, but an ESL students can’t even fall back on those intuitions.  So I figured that I need to find a way to teach students exactly where and why to put commas in their writing using clear structural information that ANYONE can learn.

Of course, when I came to LHS (with virtually all American students) in 1984, I had no idea that I’d still be teaching English as a second language, if you know what I mean.  And why should I be so shocked.  If I didn’t know all the stuff with degrees up the wazoo in English, then who does?  It was an adventure, I guess you could say.  It still is!  It reminds me of the story of the two shoe salesman who travel to Africa.  One wires back, “Situation hopeless—no one wears shoes here.”   The second one sent this telegram:  “Endless market available to us—no one wears shoes here.”

Any favorite memories?

Standing on my desk and doing the Watusi dance (pic attached) when my students all mastered using commas with non-restrictive adjective clauses.

What do you love most about grammar?

I love seeing how logic works with language.  Grammar brings the chaos of that ocean of words out there into an order that allows billions of people to communicate anything they want.  Just like math has gotten us to the moon and to the edges of the solar system and back.  No math, no computers!  No grammar, no communication–period!  What a dark world we’d live in without grammar!

Are there any more Loving Grammar books on the horizon?   (Jackie: my current plan is to use Professional Clamdigging™  rather than Loving Grammar as the generic label for these writing books.)

Yes, grammar just gives the basics for good writing.  I have taught a kind of writing that I call “jazz,” which allows for us to shape our language into beguiling styles—funny, celebratory, snooty, sarcastic, seductive—just the kind of writing that lights up our world.  I’d like to do a book on that too as a companion the Loving Grammar book.

Do you have any other books planned besides the Loving Grammar series?

Yes, I hope to write a book about some of the secrets of Shakespeare plays that are rarely understood or discussed.  And I have a book about growing up in Chicago that is beating me up black and blue from the inside and will continuing doing so, apparently, until I get it done and out there.

I know this question is so cliche, but tell me about your favorite books.   My favorite books are always new every time I read them—whether fiction, or philosophy or psychology or theology or history or whatever.  It’s true for all of them, “King Lear, Dubliners, Heart of Darkness, The Tempest, Sound and the Fury, Hamlet.

What do you most love about reading?  Well asking me this is like asking me what I like about food or nature or oxygen?  I have a feeling that I’m only sometimes vaguely aware of how much my life depends on reading books and other stuff.  When I need a laugh or encouragement or a kick in the butt or challenge or diversion or consolation or inspiration or holiness or danger or adventure, I know right where to find it in books.  And my constant reading—both fiction and non-fiction, you could say, is research for finding news areas to mentally bookmark for help in all those categories I mentioned above.  And I know that in talking to you about this, Jackie, I’m preaching to the choir.  Anyone who has read any of your books, sees these qualities in spades in your writing.

What inspired your love for classic literature?

My mother read to me as a child—Hans Christian Anderson, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Bible stories, Nursery Rhymes.  Shakespeare and Kafka and Joyce and Dante and Faulkner are just another stop on the same bus line, when you think about it.  I know that it’s a hyberbole to say that I wanted to have kids to be able to read to them, but believe me, we wore out the books, Seuss and the Nursery Rhymes and all of it.  My favorite poem is still this:  “Hey diddle diddle.  That cat and the fiddle.  The cow jumped over the moon.  The little dog laughed to see such sport and the dish ran away from the spoon.”  Kind of funny when you consider that I don’t have the foggiest idea what the heck it’s ‘about.’

 Finally, tell me something about Shakespeare that most people probably don’t know.

That’s kind of a funny question because what I love about most Shakespeare is that I’m always discovering things about his books that I didn’t know—even after reading them and studying them and watching them and teaching them for many years.  That’s why I love to teach Shakespeare, and I still do—my students (young or old) are always showing me things that I’ve missed on my previous treks.

But since you may not like that end run around your question, let me say this.  I have a funny feeling that Shakespeare may have participated in the rendering of Psalm 46 in the King James Version of the Bible.  Read 46 words into it from the beginning and see what you get and then go to the end (not counting Selah) and count back 46 words.  See what you make of it that!  Remember, it has to be the KJV!

Website:  LovingGrammar.com

Can buy book and answer key there.

Can also buy the book on Amazon.com.

Full title:  Loving Grammar:  Mr. Lund’s Guide to Professional Clamdigging ™

Outskirts Press,  2014.


I had a conversation with my friend last night that really got me thinking back on my college days.  I realize that, in the almost two years I’ve been keeping this blog, I’ve never really talked about my days as a student at the University of Texas at Dallas.  I’ve touched on Grad School here and there, but for the most part, I keep my college days in my past.

There are a few reasons for that.  For one thing, I was a very different person back then.  Not so different that I would hate myself or that you wouldn’t recognize me, but I definitely had an attitude.  I was still bitter about a lot of things that had happened to my family and to people I love.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do or how I was going to get to wherever I was going.

In spite of my personal issues, UTD was a great school.  I learned a lot and for the most part, had a pretty great time.  There was one class there, though, that really rubbed me the wrong way.

I won’t name names or reveal the exact class because I don’t want to be the person who trash talks others online.  I can tell you one was a study of the arts class and I took nothing away from it except that I wanted to do the exact opposite of everything that instructor told me.  I saw no value in what was taught and I found a lot of the material weird, inappropriate, and to be honest, a little gross.  I was genuinely disturbed by what that professor considered “art” and truly resented the way he looked down on “mainstream” artists.  For him, an artist or a writer or a filmmaker only had value if what they produced was “outside the box,” in other words “weird and creepy.”

Do you want to know my dirty little secret?

I want to be mainstream.  I want my books and my photographs to appeal to a lot of different people.  I don’t want to be a part of his stupid, snobby, elitist group of “artists” who “think outside the box.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I think genuinely thinking outside the box is a good thing.  I think it’s a very good thing.  But what this guy called “thinking outside the box,” I call “being weird for the sake of shock value.”  And some of it was really shocking, let me tell you.  I won’t go into detail, but one of his “projects” involved really disgusting puppets.  It still gives me nightmares.

I don’t want to give you the wrong idea about my education at UTD.  My academic experience was, overall, very, very positive.  But our discussion last night really got me thinking about this one class.  To be honest, I’m not even sure that professor is still there or if that class is still being taught.  All I can tell you is that if he ever contacts me and tells me that he likes my books, I’ll know I’ve done something wrong.

Music and Poetry

I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned this on my blog before, but long before I realized I wanted to be a writer, I was something of a musician.  I played piano, flute, piccolo, and sang in just about every choir I could from fifth grade all the way up through Graduate school.  I took so many music classes and put in so many hours of choir and musical theater that I actually earned a minor in music, something for which I did not set out, but hey, I’ll take it!

Sad to say, I really haven’t been all that involved in music since I graduated.  Most of my time has been dedicated entirely to writing and getting my book out there.  I don’t regret it, because that’s what I love, and I want to write for the rest of my life.  Still, performing in musicals and Broadway reviews was a lot of fun.

We even got to perform with the King’s Singers.


That’s me with the black dress and the stupid face.


As a cheerleader in Selections from Best Little Whorehouse in Texas


As Bird Lady in Sideshow. For the record, I really hated that costume. They had promised me sexy and elegant. That dumb outfit is neither.

However, I do occasionally still play with a friend of mine.  She’s a harpist and we play a lot of harp and flute duets.  She’s also actually one of my sister’s professors at college.  She’s studying for her doctorate and hopes to one day run her own harp department at a University.


If you ever need a harpist, by the way, you can find her at http://harpbyrachel.com.  And yes, I took that picture.

Anyway, we’ve recently been revisiting the Christmas music we used to play together in church, so I decided to dig out my old flute and play.


I’ll be the first to admit I’m still a little rusty.  After all, I haven’t really played since college, and even then, I didn’t play regularly.  Just for a Broadway review here and there.


Not a great picture, but the only one I have!

It’s weird how many things we let ourselves forget.  Music, my flute, these shows, they were all such a huge part of my life at one point.  Now, they’re barely memories.  Maybe I can start to bring some of them back.  They’re good memories, and they’re worth treasuring.

As I was exploring the Black Hole of Useless Stuff that is my closet, however, I came across a few other gems; poems and papers from old classes.  I’ve always been jealous of my friends and fellow authors who can write poetry, because they truly have a gift.  One of my favorite poets is a friend of mine.  Her name is Susie Clevenger and her poetry is just so beautiful and thoughtful and real.  I am truly envious of her.  If you enjoy poetry, you should definitely check out her collection, Dirt Road Dreams.  http://www.amazon.com/Dirt-Road-Dreams-Susie-Clevenger/dp/0988186209/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1397678369&sr=8-1&keywords=dirt+road+dreams

I, as I believe I have mentioned before, am a terrible poet.  I’ve tried.  Believe me, I’ve tried for years to write a decent poem, and yet the only one I’ve ever truly liked is the one I wrote about a cockroach that my friends and I slaughtered on a camping trip (You can read that one here: https://jackiesmith114.wordpress.com/2013/02/13/a-funny-story-and-a-poem/).

After rereading a few poems I wrote in college, I’ve reached the conclusion that I thought I could just string choppy sentences together and call it poetry.  One poem I found makes absolutely no sense at all.  It’s called My New Name.

My New Name

Music in my ears used to travel to my toes.
Whenever I’d walk to class, my feet would march in rhythm
To the song of my choosing.
Alas, my iPod’s batteries have failed me.

The vending machines are unappealing.
A bottle of water costs seventy five cents.
Water should be free.

“That’s a capital Omega! You can’t use capital letters!”
A professor scolds his perplexed class.
The smell of dry erase markers
resurrects repressed memories of math classes past.
That’s right, sinners.
You have to do calculus.

I want to get away from that room.
Specks of dust dance in the sunbeams
That pour in through the glass.

Outside, the festivities are about to begin.
I see my friends.
They don’t see me.
Through a tornado of color, music, and laughter,
I think I’ll change my name.

Seriously, though, what the heck was that?  It’s the weirdest poem ever.

Before I end this note, there is one other poem that’s actually sort of worth sharing.  It’s a poem I wrote for a class about how terrible I am at poetry.  Enjoy.

I cannot write poetry
The process is a mystery
Rhythms, rhymes, alliterations
All are lost on me.

I cannot write the words you’d like
Of scarlet sunsets, velvet night
Or the larks sweet serenade
As darkness turns to light.

I cannot write the melody
Of diamonds on piano keys
No use for painted harpsichords
Or gold viola strings.

So you see it’s for the best
I lay my poetry to rest
Poetry’s just not my thing
As surely you’ll attest.

So yeah, out of all the classes I took and all the hours I slaved trying to learn how to write a good poem, I only have one I’m proud of and two that are weird enough that I just had to post them on my blog.  And on that note, I hope everyone has a pleasant day!  Take time to remember the things you used to love, and not just the things you love now.  You might be inspired.


Keep Moving Forward

Today, I was feeling a little better, so I took a trip to the library.  I picked up two books on writing proposals and query letters.  I’ve been scribbling out ideas, but I still need some guidance on structure and content.  Granted, I know that how-to books can only take you so far.  A lot of it has to come from inside of you (that sounds so profound, doesn’t it?).  A few years ago, when I first realized that I wanted to be an author, I read On Writing by Stephen King.  He said that one of the worst mistakes that an aspiring author can make is taking a writing class.  On her website, Meg Cabot says the same thing.  Well, I ignored their words of wisdom.  I took three writing classes throughout the course of college and graduate school.

Guess what?

I hated them.  Well, technically, I hated two of them.  Poetry was pretty okay.  Except for this really creepy guy with a demonic gargoyle tattooed on his wrist, but you know, to each their own.  Anyway, I enjoyed poetry because A) I really suck at poetry and it was interesting to learn and B) I don’t want to be a poet.

But the other classes?  Horrible.  Though you know, the professors may have had something to do with that.  Without a gifted instructor who genuinely cares about their students and wants to help them succeed, any class is going to be horrible.  One of my teachers actually told us that writing was a waste of time, none of us would ever get anywhere with it, and that we should just give up now.

Great encouragement, right?

Anyway, along with those books on how to write query letters, I also picked up a few books for my new manuscript.  Perusing through the aisles reminded me of all the times I’d visited libraries for research papers and projects throughout my six years of higher education.  May I just say it is a lot more fun doing research for something you actually want to write rather than something you are told you have to write or else you fail.

Well, that’s about all I have for tonight.  I’m gonna go microwave myself some dinner.  Good night!