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Annotative Essay on the book: ‘Cures for Hunger,’ by Deni Bechard

deni bechard cures for hungerLiterary Pacing

deni buchard annotative essay cures for hungerAn Annotative Essay on: Cures for Hunger, by Deni Bechard

Pacing is when athletes spread out their strength and power over a period of time rather than in short bursts; longer distance runners use the technique, as well as swimmers and bicyclists. Pacing helps an athlete save themselves for the entirety of a competition/sport rather than just the beginning or end. Through pacing they’re able to spend hours giving the amorous 110% rather than just minutes or seconds—like in sprinting, etc. (Usain Bolt has no need to pace himself since he’s only running for nine seconds at a time.) But what about writers?  Writers too need to pace themselves when telling a story; and the memoir Cures for Hunger by Deni Y. Bechard is a great example of literary pacing.

“We watch and read because we’re interested in the outcome, and it’s the pacing that keeps us going as we follow along the journey…”

Just as a runner can burst ahead at the beginning of a race, foreshadowing a future win, so too can a writer burst ahead at the beginning of a novel/memoir and foreshadow what’s to come. Bechard started his memoir with a prologue in which we learn that his father has died alone and in a cabin, that his father has had trouble with the law, and that the two were estranged. Then Bechard took a jump backward and began talking about his childhood, and so started the pacing; Bechard started off ahead, letting us know what the outcome was going to be, and then it was time to just sit back and watch the other 26.2 miles of the marathon.

Through the memoir, we are shown a chronological order of events that have taken place in Bechard’s life, and that of his father, Edwin. Bechard doesn’t give us too much at once, just a consistent stride throughout. Foot after foot until the race is over. That’s how it is for running, swimming and bicycling; and that’s how it is for writing, too. A writer needs to set the tone/pace that they’re going to use through their book, essay, and memoir, and it needs to be a pace that they’re comfortable with, that they can maintain, and that will ultimately, in a sense, lead them to victory! This is what interests us as readers and spectators. We become curious whether or not the person who takes the lead is actually going to win: What if an underdog comes from behind? What if the person trips? What if they win in a way that wasn’t expected? What if no one took the lead and we’re only watching to find out who eventually wins? We watch and read because we’re interested in the outcome, and it’s the pacing that keeps us going as we follow along the journey, cheering, hooting, and hollering, crying in victory and defeat, along with the winners and losers, and the characters and narrators.

“When someone’s running a long-distance marathon, the last thing in the world he wants to do is start sprinting right out of the gate at a speed that is unmaintainable.”

Bechard tells the story on his terms, letting us know right from the beginning that he’s going to be taking us through his childhood year by year. When he introduces characters he neither introduces them obtrusively nor too circumspectly. His choice of what/when to describe certain scenery/emotions is dependable in the sense that he gives us the cues so we know what to expect—the way a runner might, for instance, always tilt his head down when running up hill. He never changes his pace and gives us too much or too little at a time, it is the same consistency through the book, little by little we find more and more and step closer and closer to the end. It is a good technique; however, not all authors use this technique. Sometimes for better or worse. Some authors will jump around with their prose. One minute they’re ten years old and then next they’re thirty. One minute we’re introduced to a dozen family members and the next we’re engrossed in ten pages of internal dialogue. In the military this is called 30, 60, 90; it’s an exercise to increase your endurance. It’s where you start walking for thirty seconds, jog for sixty seconds and then sprint for ninety seconds; and then you repeat this again, and again, and again. It’s an exercise, but this, too, can be parlayed into literary terms. Bechard takes on a very clear and steady pace throughout his story. He doesn’t have any huge time jumps—I.E. he doesn’t go from ages thirteen to thirty in a matter of pages—and we are with him every step of the way. Other authors take a more 30, 60, 90 approach, where they will start off slow, work their way up, start sprinting ahead with the story and introduce a handful of new characters, slow down again and focus on just one character or plotline, and then work their way back up. They are simply different techniques that work well in different situations and with different people.

“As a reader, I knew from the strong start, how it was going to end…”

Pacing, though, I believe, is important for any writer, and by discovering this idea of literary-stride, through reading Cures for Hunger, I realized that I needed to look at my own work and see what type of pacing that I was using; or whether I was evening using pacing in the first place? Was I just blindly running down the road taking stops whenever tired, or was I pacing myself with something that’s comfortable, something the reader could follow along with and would be interested in, something I could maintain and enjoy? When someone’s running a long-distance marathon, the last thing in the world he wants to do is start sprinting right out of the gate at a speed that is unmaintainable. He’ll become tired, winded, and unable to complete the race. In writing, one of the worst things a piece can do is start off strong and then let the reader down the more it drags on, getting slower and slower until finally the book is put down, unfinished. But, then again, there is a need to start off strong. Not too many runners, if any, can go from a last place start to a first place win. In writing we need to start off our pieces strong, but not too strong if unable to deliver that intensity throughout. The start needs to set the pace for the rest of the book: how it will be told, what it will be about, and how things will unfold. We need to see strength right from the beginning, but it cannot be overused or unmaintainable.

Now, granted, the literary pacing/athletic pacing analogy might be a little far-stretched but, in a general sense, it works. As I read Cures for Hunger, the strong start of the prologue is what initially hooked my interest. The foreshadowing of things to come interested me in seeing how things were going to unfold and come about. Then, as the story carried on further and he took us through the years, slowly giving us pieces of the puzzle, we learned more and more, until finally the end of the book. As a reader, I knew from the strong start, how it was going to end, but the pacing of the story, and having things unfold, is what kept me interested, even though I already knew the ending. There are different ways of doing this, and I’m tepid in the idea of using it in my own current work, but it was interesting to have in mind while reading Bechard’s work. Without the prologue, I don’t believe I would have been as interested, initially, in the book. If I didn’t know what the story was going to be about, and I just started reading about someone’s childhood, then I wouldn’t have been interested. But the prologue let me know that it wasn’t just a normal childhood I’d be reading about, it was a childhood of abandonment, of adventure, of estrangement, and that ended with the death of Bechard’s father. Prologue foreshadowing is only one technique, and even though I’m not sure whether I’ll be using it on my current work, the idea of it, and of pacing, in general, I will surely keep with me throughout all future work.

For more annotative essays and other book related stuff click here.

Picture: Flickr/Doran

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Notes: Serving the Memory in Memoir

serving the memory in memoir

Serving the Memory

Why do we chose to write memoir instead of fiction?

Fiction: When you think you know it.

Memoir: When you want to figure it out.

Memoir: when did the real story being with me? The incident, the wedge moment, when things came together and began.

Example: If something inspires you to write about your childhood, then write about your childhood, but star with the incident which inspired you to write about your childhood–the incident can tell us and set the tone about why we’re reading about your childhood. (Think of the narrator for the TV show “How I Met Your Mother.”)

Memoir is about roots/routes: where we come from and where we go. This is why we write memoir, to explore. Memoir isn’t just remembering something, it’s also about coming-t0-terms with something.

Readers of memoir are like the audience at a magic show, they’re not merely there for the wonder of it all, they’re also looking for the “holes,” and how it’s done. The audience at the magic show: “Look it’s in his hands.” The audience reading a memoir: “Look, he couldn’t have remembered all that.”

*Credibility* The trust just isn’t the facts, it’s the spirit of the work.

Don’t be afraid of not saying something in dialogue. Sometimes what isn’t said says a lot. Capture the spirit of the conversation more than just the actual verbatim words.

Combining and using description: Michael Ondaataje, Running the Family, he describes his sick aunt and how invalid she is and combines it with the description of the overgrown grass, vine growing up the house, etc. (The house is dying and growing old/over grown, his aunt is dying and her mind is old and withered; but the house and the aunt have their own stories of how they came to be and lived). This is a great way to combine story/memory/and description. If you can’t remember all the details of a sign, then look if you can correlate it to anything else that would fit within the story and yet still carry it forward.

Think of Memoir as Dirt: The loam–soil–from which we come and grow. It can help us grow or smother us. It can lack nutrients or the nutrients can be plentiful. Soils change–drought, fire, etc–sometimes for better or worse.

Opinions must be in memoir writing: Opinions–know why you’re writing. Own your opinions. A memoirist must know if their characters are good or bad, so they must have their opinions.

*These notes were from one of my favorite professor and mentors at Lesley University: Rachel Manley.*

Click here to see more MFA Notes

Recommended book for this section: Running in the Family, by Michael Ondaatje.

Picture: Flickr/Prathima


About these MFA Notes: Serving the memory in memoir

Recently, I graduated from Lesley University with an MFA in creative writing, and I decided that I wanted to share what I learned in a series of blog posts.

I decided to share for two reasons:

1) My notes, although not too detailed, could possibly  help other writers.

2) Rewriting my notes forces me to re-read and re-think everything I learned, so it’s a win-win.

But before we dive in, please keep two things in mind:

1) These notes are neither complete nor perfect. The classes at Lesley were not typical lecture/note classes; the classes were filled with writing and thinking exercises and often this left no time for notes (in a good way). However, even with that, these sparse notes, I do believe, could still offer value.

2) I may, from time to time, include actual writing prompts from the classes, please bare with me, they’re first drafts and were done in the moment.

I hope you enjoy this series of notes and if you have any questions about the notes, Lesley University, or MFA’s, please feel free to contact me.

Best Of, Blogishness, ptsd, Self Improvement / Healthy Living, Self Improvement / Healthy Living, Uncategorized

Military Discipline and PTSD

military discipline ptsd

What sets a combat veteran apart from others who suffer from PTSD is in the background of the trauma. While you don’t have to be in a war zone to have PTSD, the trauma related to a war zone is a far different one from other causes of PTSD. This isn’t to diminish the real life suffering and psychological effects of non-combat PTSD suffers; however, there is a far greater prevalence of PTSD as a result of combat than any other singular form of trauma.

Military lifestyle

One of the first major differences is in the entire lifestyle of those in the military. Regardless of what service you are attached to, be it Navy, Army, Air Force, or Marine from the moment you wake up to the when you hit the pillow at the end of the day (or days later) you have certain requirements that non-military people do not. Your life in the military is regulated every moment of every day; from when you can eat, to how your dress, to your physical fitness, to who you talk to and how you address other military personal. This is something that very few non-military people can relate to. Even in a combat zone, certain regulations must be upheld either as a security measure or as a result of a policy put in place by someone in command. For example, it is required that all lower enlisted soldiers stop and salute a higher ranking officer upon coming in contact with them. In a combat zone, this is not only frowned upon but can be seen as a hostile action towards the officer in questions otherwise known as “sniper checking.” The reason for this is that in a combat environment, you never know when a hostile enemy can be watching you. As a result this non-combat curtesy can let the enemy know who is a better target should they need to or want to attack. This is just an example of the many rules, regulations, and standard operating procedure that is the daily life of someone in the military.

Where lifestyle meets life altering event

While this strict regulation may seem harsh or unnecessary to those outside the military; this is the everyday culture that has been in place for many generations. However, when things go south these regulations kick in. The term conditioning comes into play a lot when it comes to the military and their training. The ultimate goal of any combat or even non-combat training is to make the process as easy and repeatable as possible. This way when a soldier enters into a high stress situation such as combat their instincts take over and the conditioning allows them to do whatever needs to be done with little or no thought towards what has to be done. This secondary high functioning brain as it may be called is like a back-up system. For many people, they will go their whole lives not having to deal with a situation that requires this need but for anyone that has to deal with life and death situations such as nurses, firefighters, or in this case a combat soldier, this secondary brain is the key to survival. However, as a result of this the primary brain has to deal with everything that happens when the secondary brain kicks in. Think of it in terms of a computer with two operating systems. In the event that the first operating system crashes, the secondary kicks in to get the primary back up and going. However, once the primary is back up you still have to deal with the issue that caused the crash in the first place.

Return to civilian life

This is where things start to fall apart for most combat soldiers. With the combination of factors addressed above on top of general societal factors; that can be all together foreign for someone who’s spent the majority of their adult life in the military, it is no wonder that many of these individuals have extensive problems once they are out. Even non-PTSD vets have a hard time adjusting to general civilian life. Add to it the stress, anxiety, guilt, etc. that accompanies having survived a combat related trauma makes it an almost impossible task for anyone to deal with alone. Additionally, because of the conditioning mentioned above, their brain can and sometimes does shift into secondary mode when there primary brain cannot handle a situation. This is often where “flashbacks” or violent reactions come into play for some people.


Suffering from PTSD is never a walk in the park for anyone. For a combat veteran it is a whole different ball game. Between the general PTSD trauma, the conditioning, and change in lifestyle from military to civilian many veterans suffer as a result. Thankfully there are a number of programs out there to address these individuals, however, until our societal views and beliefs related to psychological problems changes we can only do so much.

Picture: Flickr/DVIDSHUB

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The Craft of Writing: Reliable Narrator, in an Unreliable World

typewriter: craft essay reliable narrator in an unreliable worldReliable Narrator

In an

Unreliable World

“Some first lines are so powerful that you absolutely have to keep on reading.” –Noah Lukeman

If a writer cannot hook their reader within the first sentence, paragraph, and ultimately the first chapter, then all is lost. Like a car salesman who knows that he has to make the sale before the customer leaves; “They’ll never come back, make the sale now!” is often the motto.  The same goes for writing.  Once a book is placed down, there’s always a chance that it may never be picked back up.  A writer’s best bet is to make sure that the book is never placed down.  The best way to do that is to introduce a reader to a foreign, often unreliable world—which is somewhat implicit in memoir—and give them a reliable, trustworthy, narrator.

“How does the reader know that they’re going to be taken through a foreign world by a guide they can trust?”

In this annotative essay, the first chapters of great works will be discussed—particularly non-fiction—and how it is that the authors convince us that we’re being introduced to an unreliable/foreign world with a reliable, trustworthy, narrator. The books to be focused on: A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage by Elizabeth Gilbert, Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt, and Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

As stated, the beginning of a book has the biggest, most important, job.  It sets the tone.  The intensity.  The plot.  The characters.  It introduces us to the world within the pages.  If the world seems too bland, too predictable, too passé, then all is lost.  No person begins reading with the intent to be bored, no person reads to learn something they already know; instead, we read to escape, to be entertained, to become informed.  We can’t escape to the same world in which we live, we can’t be entertained from tired words, and we can’t be informed from which we already know.  A book must introduce a reader to a foreign world, an unpredictable world, a world in which they can see a possibility for entertainment, mystery, escapism, and information. It’s often said that “truth is stranger than fiction,” and in non-fiction authors often have the difficult task of taking extraordinary, unbelievably true stories, and making them believable.  From the man who was hiking and had to cut off his own arm, to the pastor who claims his child went to heaven, to the man who claims he slept with thousands of women.  Books implicitly introduce the reader to a foreign world and once we enter this world, we need to know that we will have a trustworthy narrator to guide us through.  Because if we don’t trust the narrator then we don’t trust the world they’ve created.

“This doesn’t mean that the narrator is boring, simply instead that we can trust them.”

How does the reader know that they’re going to be taken through a foreign world by a guide they can trust? Imagine going to a museum and there’s two tour guides that you can choose.  Tour guide number one is a nineteen year old, high school dropout, named Frank.  Frank’s a slacker who always wears his t-shirt too big and pants too low, he only gives tours so that he has enough money to buy drugs.  Tour guide number two is a sixty-five year old, retiree, named Blake.  Blake has a Ph.D. in art history, and only works as a tour guide because he’s loves art and needs something to do while he’s retired.

If you were going to have a tour of an art museum, and if you had a choice, which tour guide would you prefer? The answer is easy… Blake, of course.

We chose Blake because we trust him.   We trust the bow-tie that adorns the collar of his nicely ironed shirt, we trust the Ph.D. that follows the word “Blake,” on his nametag.  We trust the kind hearted voice of a man who’s poured over books of art, who’s seen the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, and who’s gazed up at the Sistine Chapel.  We trust Blake because when he doesn’t know something he tells us he doesn’t know.  He isn’t here to be your friend or get you to like him or go out on a date with him he’s only here to tell you everything he knows about art.  Everything about Blake, from the way he looks, to the way he talks, is what we would expect.  He’s congruent with himself.

“Dostoyevsky’s narrator may be a horrible, miserable person, but he’s a horrible, miserable person that we instantly trust as our narrator.”

Frank, on the other hand, we don’t trust. He seems unreliable.  He calls it the Sixteen Chapel instead of the Sistine Chapel, and he knows more about Kim Kardashian then Pablo Picasso.  Frank is covered in tattoos but tries to hide them with long sleeves.  Frank contradicts himself.  At one point he tells you that he’s been working at the museum for six months, and at another point he says three months.  He leaves out information about paintings during the tour; he pretends to know more than he does, he misleads you purposely, sometimes for his own amusement, sometimes just to get an easy laugh.  Frank gives tours in a certain way because sometimes he’s trying to impress some pretty ladies that are in the group and sometimes he’s just trying to get a bigger tip. Frank’s intentions as a tour guide are never altruistic, he’s never reliable or congruent, and frankly, Frank is a tour guide that we simply cannot trust.

The key to presenting a reliable narrator in an unreliable world is to make sure that they are more like Blake then Frank. This doesn’t mean that the narrator is boring, simply instead that we can trust them.  If we look at the beginning of Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky:

“I’m a sick man . . . a mean man. There’s nothing attractive about me.  I think there’s something wrong with my liver. But, actually, I don’t understand a damn thing about my sickness; I’m not even too sure what it is that’s ailing me. I’m not under treatment and never have been, although I have great respect for medicine and doctors. Moreover, I’m morbidly superstitious—enough, at least, to respect medicine.  With my education I shouldn’t be superstitious, but I am just the same. No, I’d say I refuse medical help simply out of contrariness.  I don’t expect you to understand that, but it’s so.  Of course, I can’t explain whom I’m trying to fool this way.  I’m fully aware that I can’t spite the doctors by refusing their help.  I know very well that I’m harming myself and no one else. But still, it’s out of spite that I refuse to ask for the doctors’ help. So my liver hurts? Good, let it hurt even more!”

“We need to know that the narrator is a real person, not an amalgamation of different people or ideas, not some idealized version of a person, but a real, flesh and blood, faults and all, person.”

We see that what Dostoyevsky does is set up a strong intense tone of the narrator.  He creates a character that has such a unique intensity that the reader is drawn forward to read more.  And what’s more, he keeps up the intensity throughout the whole first chapter, and ultimately the whole book.  Like Blake, he admits when he doesn’t know something, “I don’t understand a damn thing about my sickness,” he admits his mistakes, “I shouldn’t be superstitious, but I am just the same,” his vulnerabilities, “I’m a sick man . . . a mean man,” Dostoyevsky’s narrator may be a horrible, miserable person, but he’s a horrible, miserable person that we instantly trust as our narrator.  Everything that we read and hear in that first paragraph is congruent with the portrait that the narrator is painting.  We can see him.  Similar to how Blake’s bow-tie matches his shirt, pants, and personality, so too does everything that we see of the narrator match up with the picture being painted.  But the most important part is that we can actually see the narrator.  It’s easier to trust a narrator that we can see.

In just the first paragraph of Notes from the Underground we get the sense of a man who is hurting, pleading, who is on bended knees baring his soul.  This is another way to let a reader know that they’re dealing with a reliable narrator: vulnerability.  By being upfront and admitting the faults within ourselves and our story—“I don’t understand a damn thing about my sickness; I’m not even too sure what it is that’s ailing me.”—the reader knows beforehand what they’re getting themselves into, and with whom; they know that the narrator’s not trying to pull one over on them, that they can be trusted.  It is the man adorned in armor who needs it the most.  But a man who takes his armor offer is a man unafraid, and it is the man who doesn’t hide that we trust.  So even though the narrator that we’re being introduced to seems to be a horrible, miserable, loser of a narrator, he is also a trustworthy narrator, he is a narrator that we feel safe with, in the sense that we can see that he’s hiding nothing.  He is vulnerable and we keep reading because we trust that vulnerability.

“We trust this vulnerability because she’s opening herself up, showing us her wounds, she’s not trying to hide, protect, or paint a perfect picture of herself, and it is vulnerability like this which makes a story great and a narrator reliable.”

Another way in which a narrator can set up a tone of reliability is with relatability. If a narrator is too far out-there, then they’ll be seen as unreliable and untrustworthy.  If a character is set up as smart and intelligent but keeps doing dumb things, things that we know no real, normal person would do, then the narrator loses our trust.  We need to know that the narrator is a real person, not an amalgamation of different people or ideas, not some idealized version of a person, but a real, flesh and blood, faults and all, person.

Dostoyevsky follows all these steps perfectly in Notes from the Underground.  The first thing that he does is he sets up the main character, the narrator.  He sets up the narrator so well and so succinctly that with each word, though, idea, and phrasing, the character becomes more and more alive, more relatable.  Within a few sentences we’re no longer reading a book, we’re now hearing a story from the person sitting next to us.  The words suddenly have eyes, and a nose, and a mouth, and fingers, and a beard, and a bald head.  Next he shows us that not only is this narrator a real person who’s sitting next to us, but also that this narrator isn’t like our typical neighbor, co-worker, family member, or stranger on the bus.  This narrator is sick.  He’s depressive.  He’s paranoid.  He’s a man so stubborn, so defiant, that he refuses medical care out of spite.  Spite for crying out loud!  He neglects his own health for vengeance against and unknown, unnamed enemy.  He’s “out-there” but not so far out-there that we would write him off as an untrustworthy, unrelatable, narrator.  He may be telling us that that he’s crazy but we trust him when he tells us that he’s crazy.  His actions are all congruent with who he is as a narrator.  Then combined with the vulnerability we have a narrator who we can see, relate to, feel for, and who we trust to be our tour guide through the pages.  We have our Blake!

Vulnerability, congruence, relatability, a narrator that we can actually see; these are the four things which most convince a reader that they’re dealing with a reliable narrator, and which ultimately keep them reading.  And now that these four traits have been identified in Dostoyevsky’s work, we will look at several other successful, and not so successful, attempts at creating a reliable, relatable, vulnerable, and congruent narrator in non-fiction.

The memoir A Three Dog Life, by Abigail Thomas, begins:

“This is the one thing that stays the same: my husband got hurt. Everything else changes.  A grandson needs me and then he doesn’t.  My children are close then one drifts away.  I smoke and don’t smoke; I knit ponchos, then hats, shawls, hats again, stop knitting, start up again.  The clock ticks, the seasons shift, the night sky rearranges itself, but my husband remains constant, his injuries are permanent.  He grounds me.  Rich is where I shine.  I can count on myself with him.”

“But its objective moments like this, where we may not actually believe that the narrator had the worst of the worst of upbringings, we may not believe that an Irish Catholic upbringing is the worst, but we do believe that the narrator believes it’s the worst.”

Immediately we’re shown a woman “my husband,” older “a grandmother,” who is stuck in a changing, “This is the one thing that stays the same…” never-changing, rut. The one place where she’s grounded, that lets her count on herself, is the one place that also gives her the most misery: her husband Rich.  She invites us into her world, shows us the tedium of everyday life, and she, ultimately, spends the entire first chapter showing us how vulnerable she is: “I got stuck with the past and future.  That’s my half of this bad hand.  I know what happened and I never got used to that.”  We trust this vulnerability because she’s opening herself up, showing us her wounds, she’s not trying to hide, protect, or paint a perfect picture of herself, and it is vulnerability like this which makes a story great and a narrator reliable.  She is taking the armor off, and like a man at a strip-club, it’s the removing of the clothing which is the most alluring.  She’s showing us her tattoos not hiding them under her sleeves.

The narrator of A Three Dog Life is immediately consistent with the picture being painted.  She’s congruent.  From the image of an older women, to the talk of her knitting, to the fact that she has only a twenty-seven inch TV.  Most kids nowadays have iPads that are twenty-seven inches.  But not her.  She’s older.  A writer.  A reader.  She lives in a “cozy house,” with “pretty furniture,” where “Time passes here.”   She sits quietly with her husband, plays with her dogs, talks to her grandchildren.  She immediately becomes a person that we can see and relate to.  We recall images of older women we’ve met or seen on TV.  Wives, mothers, grandmothers, friends, co-workers, the narrator shows us a glimpse of her life and it’s something that we can immediately relate to; a woman who is simply living her life as best she can in the face of tragedy.  These all help us to see the picture of a woman, and when the picture matches up with the words and actions, combined with vulnerability, congruence, and relatability, then we have a reliable narrator, one that we believe we can trust.  This narration is kept up throughout the book and on every page we see a narrator who is giving herself to us, who we can see, relate to, trust, and care about.  This is why Stephen King called A Three Dog Life, “The best memoir I have ever read.”  This means another Blake!

Let’s look at one more good example—Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt—before moving onto an example where the author doesn’t set up a reliable narrator. Angela’s Ashes begins:

“My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene barley one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.

When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood; the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.  Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.”

In the first few pages, McCourt sets up a narrator that we can see. Irish and Catholic we can see those rosy white cheeks and blue eyes.  We can see the tough-as-nails kid with a hard upbringing and a just as hard look at life.  We can see this rough narrator and rough lens which he views the world.  What is set up is a narrator who thinks that he had it the worst; that his upbringing wasn’t just the worst of the worst, it was the worst of the worst of the worst.  We know that this is a narrator who is going to tell us about how bad things were for him, and he does.  But its objective moments like this, where we may not actually believe that the narrator had the worst of the worst of upbringings, we may not believe that an Irish Catholic upbringing is the worst, but we do believe that the narrator believes it’s the worst.  And that’s all that really matters.  Memoir isn’t about perfection, it’s about point-of-view.  We’re reading about a person, their thoughts, feelings, action, and in-actions in life.  We need to see them and know their thoughts, no matter how faulty we may see them as.  We’re not looking to see our reflection but theirs.

“It is hard to trust a narrator that we cannot see. And even harder still when said narrator has covered themselves in armor.”

Like everyone’s infamous Uncle Larry who always says he’s going to stop drinking.  He might mean it every month when he says it, but we all know the truth.  We know that every month he says he’ll quit, then will quit for a few hours, a day at the most, and then is right back at it.  We don’t have to believe everything Uncle Larry says, or the narrator, but we do have to believe that we can trust the narrator.  And just as we trust Uncle Larry to keep at it, so too do we trust the narrator of Angela’s Ashes to keep up with the voice that is set up.  Frank McCourt gives us a reliable narrator.

Throughout the whole first chapter the narrator of Angela’s Ashes is shown as a man with a hard upbringing.  From the stories of his father being hunted by the Irish Republican Army (“a price on his head,”) to the stories of poverty (“dad loses his job,”), alcoholism, and death (“he died of the drink,”).  He shows us that he meant what he said.  That he had a tough upbringing.  He didn’t tell us that he had a tough childhood and then begin telling us about how rich his parents were and how much he loved them and them him. We see a narrator as a person who saw things not for better or worse but simply for what they were.  This is another clear-cut example of a narrator allowing themselves to be vulnerable on the page and stay congruent with the voice and image that they’re presenting.

Most people have dealt with troubles in their life and if we see a narrator who has dealt with similar troubles, whether directly mirroring ours, or in a deep enough sense compared to ours, we will make the connection and relate with the narrator.  If this is combined with vulnerability, congruence and a portrait, then we will once again experience the feeling of having a reliable narrator.

To look at something that isn’t the best of examples of the above mentioned techniques we will look at Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage a memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert. Committed starts off:

“Late one afternoon in the summer of 2006, I found myself in a small village in northern Vietnam, sitting around a sooty kitchen fire with a number of local women whose language I did not speak, trying to ask them questions about marriage.

For several months already, I had been traveling across Southeast Asia with a man who was soon to become my husband.  I suppose the conventional term for such an individual would be “fiancé,” but neither one of us was very comfortable with that word, so we weren’t using it.  In fact, neither one of us was very comfortable with this whole idea of matrimony at all.  Marriage was not something we had ever planned with each other, nor was it something either of us wanted.  Yet providence had interfered with our plans, which was why we were now wandering haphazardly across Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Indonesia, all the while making urgent—even desperate—efforts to return to America and wed.”

Although well-written, Committed, lacks several of the tenants which I believe make a reliable narrator, and ultimately, a good story.

For starters, though, we will look at what works well within the story: congruency.  Gilbert comes across as a confused, though congruent narrator.  She is in love with a man, wants to be with him, but doesn’t want to marry him—these feelings fluctuate, but we are shown a narrator who fluctuates, so we can trust those feelings.  We can (at first) picture a young woman, in-love, who is going back and forth on her decision.  But even this congruency eventually works against the reliability of the narrator.

Does she, though, paint a picture of the narrator?  No.  She does not.  What we see is the image of a generic, rich woman (middle-aged?) who is a writer.  We don’t see her wrinkles.  The burn marks on her skin, the cigarette between her lips and drink in her hand.  We see nothing.  A generic woman who has a slight problem.  It is hard to trust a narrator that we cannot see.  And even harder still when said narrator has covered themselves in armor.

“A reliable narrator is someone who puts themselves into the pages. They strip off all armor and make themselves vulnerable.”

The problem with the narrator is that ultimately, throughout the book, we don’t trust the narrator.  Which means that even though the “voice,” may be congruent with the image that’s being present, we don’t trust that voice, so the image doesn’t matter.  There is no vulnerability in the pages.  She is wealthy, in love, and simply has to decide whether or not to marry a man who she claimed “…loved each other unreservedly,” and which she had already made a life-long pact, “We had even sworn lifelong fidelity to each other already…”  She gives us nothing.  Her most famous memoir, Eat Pray Love, was a more personal book, something that showed her vulnerabilities.  But those vulnerabilities are lacking in Committed.  We don’t see a real person with a real problem—a woman getting over an awful divorce, like in Eat Pray Love.  Now, her only problem is that she is wealthy, in a loving, committed, relationship with a rich, good-looking, tall, dark, and handsome Brazilian, someone whom she loves and has pledged her life to.  And yet, her big problem is that she’s hesitant on getting married again.  And these feelings teeter back and forth.  She wants to get married.  She doesn’t.  Maybe she can find another way around this.  Get married.  Don’t.  Etc.  This is a situation that isn’t that relatable.  There’s no vulnerability, so there’s nothing really for us to relate to and this is where she loses us.

Vulnerability and relatability is in the details.  Like Thomas talking about her 27in TV in Three Dog Life.  It just seems so pathetic.  So lonely.  So perfect.  Or like McCourt in Angela’s Ashes.  The hard childhood.  The alcoholism.  The deaths.  The Irish Catholic guilt.  He doesn’t skirt the issues.  He doesn’t skirt the facts.  He gives it to the reader.  Gilbert does not.  She gives a vague problem, doesn’t let us see her, and then gives no real details to the story, or about herself.  Gilbert is the Frank of narrators.  She hides her tattoos and doesn’t let us see her.  We have no choice but to not trust her and cast her off.

As the New York Post wrote about the book:

“Ironically, Gilbert’s heart does not seem to have been in this book

The book is more filler than anything, just pages and pages of rambling encounters with poor Asian people who talk to her about marriage and teach her things, then some Wiki’d historical facts, then some paeans to her worldliness and personal growth — all the while continuing to evade any real personal disclosures.”

A reliable narrator is someone who puts themselves into the pages.  They strip off all armor and make themselves vulnerable.   “This is me, blemishes and all.”  No one wants to read a book that is layered in chain-mail.  We see nothing, only manufactured goods, we don’t see the flesh and bones and blood, which is what we want.  To create a reliable, memorable, trust-worthy narrator, someone who we want guiding us through the foreign world of a book, we need someone who is vulnerable, relatable, congruent, and who we can see.  Someone who we may not like, but who we can trust.

More related craft essays, book notes, and MFA notes.

Picture: Flickr/mpclemens

Best Of, MFA Notes, Self Improvement / Healthy Living, Self Improvement / Healthy Living, Uncategorized

AJ Verdelle – Revising Your Writing

revising your creative work with aj verdelleType A Revision – with A.J. Verdelle – How to Revise Your Writing

Write → Review → Tighten → Clarify → Reorder → Seek nuance → Move the story forward →

How do you know when your story is finished?

Finished: When you’ve said all you have to say.

Finished: When there’s a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Remember: “You don’t get the book you wanted, you get the book you get.” – James Baldwin

Sometimes a revision is simply an addition. If your addition doesn’t add tension, drama, or explain something, then maybe you don’t need it. Whatever you keep, make sure it serves the narrative.

Eliminiate excess! “The good shit wants to play with the good shit!” – Thomas Sayers Ellis. (Get rid of anything that isn’t “Good Shit.”)

Clarity is non-negotiable – Don’t make readers have to guess, don’t confuse them.

Get rid of redundancy: “The sun rose this morning.” Great. But the sun rises every morning, everyone knows that. The sun doesn’t rise at night. Revision would be “The sun rose.” (This is, of course, unless you’re writing some dystopian story where the sun doesn’t usually rise, etc.)

Revise only when the work is finished, when there’s closure. Don’t revise when you’re still working on it; don’t revise an unfinished piece of work. You need to be finished before you revise because you need to know where you want to end up before you figure out how to get there.

  • Rise above your work.
  • Circle the verbs (if they’re not necessary, then kill them!)
  • We want action and drama in our stories!
  • Action and reaction go together.

Think about killing your verbs: “Dan came into the room, clumsily.” VS “Dan came into the room late, like always.” Ask yourself if the verb is actually serving the story. Focus on accuracy. “The building appears…” A building doesn’t just “appear.”

When revising ask yourself: Why did I write this work?

(What did I intend to write? VS What did I actually write?)

*Look at places where you can get rid of the word “it” (more often than you think).*

*You need to be able to say what you’re writing about in 18 words or less.*

*Look at any word longer than 8 letters and make sure it’s doing it’s job.*

 *These notes were from one of my favorite professor at Lesley University: A.J. Verdelle.*

Click here to see more MFA Notes

Recommended book for this section: The Good Negress: A Novel, by A.J. Verdelle.

Picture: Flickr/Katie Sadler

 About these MFA Notes: Revising your creative writing

Recently, I graduated from Lesley University with an MFA in creative writing, and I decided that I wanted to share what I learned in a series of blog posts.

I decided to share for two reasons:

1) My notes, although not too detailed, could possibly  help other writers.

2) Rewriting my notes forces me to re-read and re-think everything I learned, so it’s a win-win.

But before we dive in, please keep two things in mind:

1) These notes are neither complete nor perfect. The classes at Lesley were not typical lecture/note classes; the classes were filled with writing and thinking exercises and often this left no time for notes (in a good way). However, even with that, these sparse notes, I do believe, could still offer value.

2) I may, from time to time, include actual writing prompts from the classes, please bare with me, they’re first drafts and were done in the moment.

I hope you enjoy this series of notes and if you have any questions about the notes, Lesley University, or MFA’s, please feel free to contact me.

Self Improvement / Healthy Living, Self Improvement / Healthy Living, Uncategorized

4 Ways to Spice Up Vegan Date Night

vegan date nightAre you vegan/vegetarian?

Could your date night use some spicing up?

Then keep reading…

“How come we never go out anymore?” My girlfriend, Emily, asked, for the third week in a row. It was a rhetorical question, something not to be answered immediately, if at all. But she was right, we never went out anymore.

When we had started dating years ago, the question of “What do we you want to do tonight?” seemed like one that needn’t be asked; because we were always on some type of adventure: hiking, sailing, cooking classes, ghost tours, etc. But as the weeks, months and years of our relationship carried on, our dates began to dwindle. Before we knew it, routine engulfed us and weeks and months would pass without even the casual dinner and a movie. Eventually, we had decided to try the all too typical approach of weekly “date night,” but even that, after years, came to a standstill. Television became our life and each night was a rerun: we made dinner, watched repeats of Seinfeld, and then slept. We were on the precipice of the worst thing that could happen in any relationship: boredom.

Time and time again we tried to implement the infamous “date night,” but it never seemed to stick, things had always felt too forced, too contrived. And both of us being vegan certainly didn’t help. In fact, as we finally talked it through one night, we realized that it was only after we had become vegans that we had started to have trouble with our weekly “date night.”

After we had both become vegan suddenly even dinner and a movie seemed like a chore:

“Did you check out that restaurant, are they vegan friendly?” “Yes. I checked online, everything looked fine.” “Well, call ahead anyways to double check.” “Ok. I called. They’ve got a special vegan menu: we can get either pasta or salad.” “That’s it? Oh God. Let’s just stay home…”

“There’s this new great Vegan restaurant opening…but its ninety minutes away. Do you still want to go?”

“Do you want to go see a movie?” “I hate that movie theatre all I can smell is butter when we’re there.”

For a long time we tried to consolidate the idea of being vegans and being able to have a fun, easy date night. We fought, we laughed, we cried and then finally, after days and weeks and months of bad date nights, we came up with an unbeatable plan for unforgettable vegan date nights.

What we’ve learned:

1) Save up. Instead of forcing ourselves to go out once a week for “date night,” we realized that it can be better to plan just one really special date night per month, something that we could really look forward to. No one looks forward to dinner and a movie every week—especially if you’re vegan and your restaurants are severely limited.   And since dinner and a movie once a week can certainly add up. Instead, save up that money and use it all on one special date night. Do something out of the ordinary. Something a little more expensive—since you saved all your date night money for one night instead of four. Go to a spa together. Go to the theatre. Or mine and Emily’s favorite: Drive to that really great vegan restaurant that’s two hours away and stay at a nice bed and breakfast for the night. It’s better to have one unforgettable date night per month than four forgettable ones.

2) Stay in. We all know that cooking can be a chore, especially the cleanup afterwards; but we often forget how much fun it can be; there’s a reason why every cheesy romantic movie has a scene in a kitchen with one person playfully putting frosting or flour on someone else’s nose. It’s because cooking is fun and can be a very sexual, sensual thing. Put some soft jazz on and by the time the kitchen fills with the scents of seasoning and fresh foods all your stresses will have washed away. Surprise each other with different meals. Try the new recipe that you read in The Vegan Villager. Make a sampling of foods for each other and wear blindfolds—the blindfolds could be used for after dinner fun, too. For dessert have some strawberries covered in dark chocolate. Additional option: Make the food and take it to a drive in movie theatre.

3) Start something. The fact of the matter is, most vegans aren’t activists—although that’s how it’s often portrayed—but most vegans DO want to be more active in the community. Join that vegan society or go to that vegan Meetup group together. Grab a cup of coffee and leaflet your local college campus. It might not seem like a fun date night, but a crisp fall evening, with a warm cup of tea, on a beautiful college campus, talking to people about issues near and dear to your heart, it can be a life changing night. Kill two birds with one stone: have a fun, unusual vegan date night, and change your community.

4) Shelters. Go to an animal shelter. Although the idea might seem like a depressing date night it can also be really fun and memorable. An old brother of mine has volunteered for years at a shelter and when single he would take his dates to the shelter with him. Animal shelters often have large grassy areas near them and my brother and his date would take several dogs for a walk, play with them in the grass, and then have a picnic with the dogs. We can’t save all animals, and you might not be able to save all the animals in the shelter, but an afternoon spent playing catch with a half dozen friendly dogs, and then a picnic in the grass—bringing treats for your furry friends, too—it’s a vegan date night that will leave a lasting impact. And, of course, you could always take one, or two, or three of the puppies’ home with you afterwards…

Bonus tip: If you want to surprise your loved one with a fun vegan date night, tell them that you’ve got an amazing surprise date night planned for them in one month. Then ask them to guess what it is. In reality, you won’t have anything planned…yet. But as they tell you all their idea of what would make an “amazing surprise date night,” you’ve already got a head start on what you should do.

 Picture: Flickr/Alex Proimos   


Best Of, Blogishness, Blogishness, Book Notes, MFA Notes, Self Improvement / Healthy Living, Self Improvement / Healthy Living, Uncategorized

Annotative Essay on the book: ‘Let The Great World Spin,’ By Colum McCann

let the great world spin book

let the great world spin book essay

 McCann grabs you… at first. Starting with a tale of a man on a tightrope, he leads the reader through an interweaving story of human nature and internal and external connectedness. This beginning, and complex weaving of storylines, has shown me certain opportunities, and weaknesses in my own writing, and many ways in which I can improve. However, like all my readings, I’ve learned that every author has weaknesses, which can teach as much as his strengths.

“I see the characters. I feel them. I care for them. I want to know what happens to them.”

One thing that came up for me about the story’s, beginning, middle, and end, was that nothing about the story or plot actually captured me. A man is tightrope walking, so what? A priest is trying to find himself, so what? A mother misses her son, so what? Each theme is somewhat interesting, and each plotline somewhat intriguing, but enough so that it would keep me reading? No. Not for me. What did keep me reading, though, was the writing itself—and what was written between the lines. Although the pages weren’t dripping with philosophy and thinking points about life, there were enough moments scattered throughout which made me stop and think about life and death, and the meaning of everything. And that’s all a writer can ask for; to make his reader stop and think. In the military we say “Mission first, but soldiers always.” In writing this is best parlayed as, “Entertainment first, but thinking always.” McCann’s philosophical readings gave the book a deep ethereal feel, but his real strength is in his descriptions.

A man walking a tightrope across two buildings doesn’t interest me, at all, really. Even if the man’s life is at stake and there’s a chance he could die. Who cares? But… if I had a friend who was tightrope walking across two buildings and his life was at stake, then I would care. And that is McCann’s true strength. Through his physical and emotional descriptions he connects you to his characters. Someone, an event, that typically would not, and should not, interest me, suddenly compels me forward, to read more and more. This happens because of connectedness. I see the characters. I feel them. I care for them. I want to know what happens to them. This is why I continued reading. I didn’t care about some stupid story about someone walking across a tightrope or some stupid woman who lost her son; but it wasn’t just a man walking across a tightrope or some mother missing her son; it was my friend walking across a tightrope, my mother missing her son.

Combined with somewhat intriguing plotlines and inviting, inventive writing of emotional and physical descriptions, and the occasional thinking points, collectively, Let the Great World Spin, comes together to form a truly enjoyable book. Now, on to the lessons learned.

“The power isn’t in the story itself; because the story isn’t unique or original; the power of the story lies in the way it’s told and the way it’s written.”

McCann started his book with a man tightrope walking across two buildings. It wasn’t the best, most intriguing idea, but the writing was so descriptive that I was drawn forward to see more and find out what happens. Then, when I got to the next section, and scant a word was mentioned about the tightrope walker, I was mystified. At first, there appeared to be no connection, and I thought that perhaps the book was merely a collection of short non-conjoining stories. It wasn’t until deep in section three that the tightrope walker was mentioned again, and that I would begin to see how the story would take shape. And seeing how the author was going to connect the pieces, I became even more intrigued; not by the story itself, but by how everything was going to unfold.

In most books I read, and in my own writing, things are written in a linear format of a, b, c and d. There’s the occasional flashback and future whispers, but mostly things are written from point A to point B. But McCann has written his own indirect alphabet. Slowly things began to reveal themselves. And although, once I was done reading the book, I appreciated the uniqueness of it and loved how it was written, had the writing not been so descriptive and inventive and inviting, even a tiny bit less, I would not have finished the book; nor would I have gotten to the point where I would have realize that the stories were connected. What this went to show me is that there is no certain way in which stories need to be told or information to be given. There are other ways and other points of view. Had McCann written his book in the typical linear format then surely it wouldn’t be as highly praised or widely read.

The power isn’t in the story itself; because the story isn’t unique or original; the power of the story lies in the way it’s told and the way it’s written. As mentioned early, the book wasn’t mainly driven by its plotlines, and what really kept it going was the writing. Descriptions went on and on, sometimes too long, but still they somehow managed to capture my eye. Typically, I would find such writing as blowhard and overly verbose; however, McCann’s writing had a different nature to it, once in which I wish I could capture. His words and ideas flowed; because he combines the internal descriptions with the external ones. This can best been seen in an example from the beginning of book two.

“He surfs the thin metal platform as the train jags south out of Grand Central. At times he gets dizzy just anticipating the next corner. That speed. That wild noise in his ears. The truth is, it frightens him. The steel thrumming through him. It’s like he has the whole train in his sneakers. Control and oblivion. Sometimes it feels like he’s the one driving. Too far left and the train might smash into the corner and there’ll be a million mangled bodies along the rail. Too far right and the cars will skid sideways and it’ll be a good-bye, nice knowing you, see you in the headlines…”

One simple paragraph, yet it so powerfully captures the moment. This is the power of the writing and the book. McCann’s ability to combine the description of a speeding train with the internal feelings of one of its passengers; this allows us to see the train and the person, but more importantly to feel them both. In my writing I feel as though I would typically do one or the other; describe the physical aspects of the train, describe the physical aspects of the person, describe the feeling of the train, describe the feeling of the person, etc. But like the whole story itself, McCann combines them, he interweaves the physical aspects of the train and the person, the feelings of the train, and the feelings of the person, just as he weaves each individual story with the stories of the whole. He does this per paragraph. This is what I’d like to do in my own writing.

Like my stories, my own descriptions tend to be linear. The house is red. The man is fat. The house feels haunted. The man feels ashamed. Et cetera. How do I combine the descriptions and feelings of both? This is not a rhetorical question, either; please answer in your response with how I can better do this. Examples would be helpful, too.

For more annotative essays and other book related stuff click here.

Picture: Flickr/Matthew Allard

Self Improvement / Healthy Living, Self Improvement / Healthy Living

5 Rules for Vegan Camping

vegan campingThe five things you need to keep in mind while camping as a vegan.

As the days finally grow cooler, and the trees begin to change, there’s no better time to go camping then in late August or September. And there’s no better place to go camping then right here in New England. From the Berkshires of Massachusetts and the campgrounds of Rhode Island to the mountains of New Hampshire, boundless woods of Maine, and tranquil ponds of Vermont. Finding a place to go camping in New England isn’t the hard part, the hard part is being able to have that authentic camping experience, while still keeping it vegan.

Through all my years of camping and going from carnivore to vegan, my hunting knife has now been replace by a tofu press, my fishing pole by a portable blender, and my reserve of hotdogs—for when I didn’t catch any fish, which I usually didn’t—replaced by Seitan beef. When I went camping this year, though, I knew that I wanted to go back to just the basics. I didn’t want to worry about bringing extra batteries for the blender or that special grill and tinfoil for the tofu; I want just man, nature, and food. And luckily, for just a couple of bills, I was able to reserve a campsite for a long weekend. With two fellow vegans, I headed into the wilderness of New Hampshire.

The following tips—learned from experiences, and fellow vegan campers—will not only help you preserve your veganess while having an authentic camping experience, but will also help preserve the campgrounds so that you can return year after year.

1. Bugs: It’s debatable, but most vegans are against killing bugs; especially for no reason, other than they’re annoying. During one camping trip last fall, a friend had brought with him one of those two hundred foot area bug bombs. The thing was crazy. The mushroom cloud it created reminded me of the bombs I’d seen exploding in Iraq. Not only was this thing killing every mosquito within a two hundred foot radius, but it was killing every bug in the area, and it certainly wasn’t helping the birds, or any other animals who breathed it in—namely, me.

Bug bombs, if you don’t already know, are not the best option. Any type of spray, whether it’s a bug bomb, or typical repellant spray, is not good for the environment or the animals in that environment. If you’re going to use a bug repellant, then the best option is a lotion rather than a spray, as fewer toxins are released into the air for birds and animals to breathe in. However, if you’ve got something against even lotion bug repellants, chemicals and all; you could always use the army method and just break the tops off a pack of matches and swallow those to keep the bugs away—it’s not recommended. The best option, though, besides bug repellant lotions, and swallowing matches, is to start a campfire.

2. Building a fire: It’s not camping without a campfire, plain and simple. There needs to be a place to tell ghost stories, sip beer, and listen to your friend play the same song on his guitar—over, and over, and over, again. When building a campfire, though, there’s more to it than meets the eye. A good campfire should have as minimal impact on the environment as possible, and it should leave no trace after you’re gone. To do this, you need to follow three simple rules:

  • Most campers tend to make their fires too large. A campfire should only be large enough to cook your food on and gather around. A two foot by two foot campfire is more than large enough to cook food for three to four people and the smoke from it covers a large enough area to repel the bugs. When making a campfire, err on the side of too small rather than too large.
  • Only gather sticks and twigs that have already fallen, they should be no thicker than a baseball bat. Do not break branches off and do not saw through fallen logs—fallen logs are a crucial key to the habitat of a forest.
  • After you’ve made sure the fire is out, take the ash and scatter it over a large area.

3. Food: It’s not camping unless you’re cooking something over a fire, and vegans have more camp-worthy foods than most would think. My favorites are Field Roast Mexican Chipotle sausages and corn on the cob. The corn on the cob and sausages also allow for those, all too necessary, male induced camping jokes that are not possible when eating a block of tofu or drinking celery smoothies, “Good sausage, man,” “Mine’s a little bit bigger than yours,” “I like to nibble on just the tip…” Anyways, a thin stick found in the woods can easily be whittled down to a point to hold your sausage and corn over the fire.

And then let’s not forget the s’mores! I was vegan for a full YEAR before I discovered there was such a thing as vegan marshmallows. Before camping this year, I bought a big bag of them, along with several dozen dark chocolate candy bars, and a box of cinnamon graham crackers. Along with our fire-cooked sausages, corn on the cob and s’mores, all three of us felt as though it was as close to an authentic experience as possible. We didn’t miss our blenders, Vitamix’s, tofu presses or stoves, at all.

4. Hiking: Keep to the trails that are clearly marked. I know that it seems lame, and like the ‘square thing’ to do. But parks often have suggested routes and closed off areas for a reason. Whether it’s the rare birds that are nesting in the area, the turtles who’ve just laid their eggs and which you’re likely to step on, or simply that the area is damaged, the rocks could be loose and the slightest nudge by an uninformed hiker could send the whole place into a disarray killing hundreds of animals and creating a landslide. And please, if you’re vegan, do not go hiking or camping when its hunting season, it just feels too much like the set up for some crude joke to have a vegan get shot by a hunter.

5. Trash: Do not leave your trash behind! Even if you think it’s organic, “But it’s compostable, man.” Screw what you do at home; the forest isn’t the same as that crappy compost heap you keep behind the shed at your mom’s house. The forest is a self-sustaining environment and our job as good vegan campers is to leave as little impact on the landscape as possible. Take everything home!

Follow these simple rules and your next vegan camping trip will be all the more fun, and better for the environment!


Picture: Flickr/Stelluccia

Best Of, Politics / News, Politics / News, Self Improvement / Healthy Living, Self Improvement / Healthy Living

Soldiers and PTSD, Part 1: Going Vegan

Nad-e-Ali, Helmand

“Blood, blood, blood, makes the green grass grow,” was the mantra we used throughout basic training. Our young boots hitting the pavement, grass, and dirt, each heel giving the cue to yell the cadence “blood,” then again, “blood.”

This wasn’t done to turn us into blood-thirsty sadomasochists (as some would have you believe). It was done to prepare us for the realities of what we were facing. We were a platoon of soldiers, recruits, who had joined the military in 2004. Our country was in the midst of two wars, and we were being prepared to fight, to die, and to take lives. For the soldiers who came before us the question was always, “If we’ll go to war,” but for us, the question was no longer “If,” but “when.” We were being prepared to live, to fight, to kill, and to die for our country. There’s no other way to put it:

“Blood, blood, blood, makes the green grass grow.”

“There is no reverse basic training to teach us how to come home.”

The problem, though, facing the modern military isn’t with training us to become soldiers and to kill, the problem is with training us to come home. In basic training, a Drill Sergeant’s only job is to turn his soldiers into “Lean, Mean, Fighting-Machines.” And that’s what he does. He’s good at it. It’s why the United States has the most powerful military in the history of the world. But once soldiers fight. Kill. Come close to death.

Then come home. And that’s when the problems begin.

What war and the military does is light a fire in the belly of all who serve. A fire of intensity, for life, for passion, to be part of something greater than themselves. Coming home extinguishes our fire…but embers still burn, and there lies the trouble. In my own unit, since coming home, dozens have gone through drug, alcohol and PTSD clinics, dozens more have gone through divorces, and we’ve lost three to suicide. There is no reverse basic training to teach us how to come home, how to go back to the way we were, how to look at and deal with what we’ve seen and experienced. There’s no way to snuff out the final embers. The only option is to light the fire back up and channel it. It’s why service platoons and charities of veterans giving back to their community have become so popular. Because soldiers come home and they’re depressed, they’re anxious, and for a lot of them, the only thing that helps is giving back to their community. We’ve given until it hurts, and the only answer is to give back some more. It’s the irony of war.

For one soldier, Specialist Timothy Scott, his idea of giving back was to become a vegan (someone who doesn’t eat meat, eggs, dairy, or wear leather products, etc.). SPC Scott—a square-jawed, Flaming-Lips listening, southern boy, who’s an Iraq war veteran and former infantry soldier—was nice enough to sit down for an interview.

What inspired you to become a vegan and how did it relate to your service in Iraq?

“I got into it initially just as a diet. Like, I was having problems after I got back, stressed out, fighting with my girlfriend all the time, and just all kinds of shit was going on. It got pretty bad one night and I knew I needed to do something so I Googled some stuff on anxiety, and stuff about soldiers coming home. I don’t know how it happened, but I knew I needed to do something drastic. I somehow got onto a site about veganism and after a few hours reading things I don’t even know why, it didn’t seem like me, but I decided to give it a try. And I got my girlfriend to agree to do it with me.”

Yeah that’s definitely a drastic jump for someone to make. Did veganism help with anything? How?

“Yeah, it was weird once I got into it. I read the book China Study, and watched some YouTube videos like Earthlings, and, I don’t know, at first it was like this big distraction…”

What do you mean by distraction?

“I dove right into it and it just gave me something to focus on. I wasn’t yelling at my girlfriend anymore — I was suddenly yelling at my TV or the book I was reading. At first I was still… angry and stressed out and anxious, but it was like it just transferred from my girlfriend and family to the meat and farming industry. I guess it wasn’t much better, but it was a start. But that’s the thing. Before, what was stressing me out was reading about the wars in the paper—or the lack of reading about them—and then talking to people back home, and I don’t know…everything was just stressing me out, people’s attitudes just pissed me off. After I got into veganism though I just stopped focusing on the wars and how shitty I thought everyone was. I just focused all my rage on the farming and meat industry. It was like they were the ones who started the wars and who were poisoning us.”

So you were a vegan, and were angry and pissed off, that sounds about right. Then what happened?

“Then, I don’t know, I went to some meetings that I found on, and my girlfriend and I just joined this community. And I saw that people were pissed off and angry about issues but not like me, and then I don’t know. I didn’t notice anything really actually “Happen,” but my girlfriend and I started to become closer again, cooking food together, and bitching about how there’s nothing to buy at the store (but in a more fun light-hearted way) and we started to go to vegan dinners with people from the group…and…I still talked to all my friends but…it was like I was part of a new community. We ate together, talked about the same things, and the wars were still going on and people were still doing dumb shit, but I just stopped thinking about it so much. I feel guilty even saying it, that I stopped thinking about the wars and what was going on, but I needed to. I needed some space, something else to think of. Veganism offered that. Part of me feels like it could have been anything and it just happened to be veganism. But I’m glad it was. I feel healthier now, happier, and I can think about the wars and the military again, but more objectively now that I’ve had some space.”

What about veganism is it that you think helped you deal with your PTSD?

“I mean, it’s just like I said. It gave me something different to focus on. It could have been anything, but that night when I was on the computer it was just veganism that I started reading about. That’s the one thing I’d recommend to other vets. I’m not saying just to become a vegan—do your own research—and I know you’ll feel guilty for not constantly thinking about the wars and your friends, but just give yourself a break. Find something that can take your focus away because space from my thoughts was what I needed so I started thinking about something else. What a person focuses on grows…so just change what you focus on.”

The interview with SPC Scott went on a little bit longer, but the above questions and answers are the gist of the overall tone. And Scott seems to mirror what many self-help “guru’s” will often tell you, “what you focus on grows,” and it’s not to say that veganism is “The Answer,” or even that there is an answer, but what it seems SPC Scott wanted to share was that veganism gave him somewhere different to place his focus. And even though he was still angry and pissed-off, at first, what he did was break his patterns. His mind started to go someplace besides back to the war and all that had happened. Veganism helped change the way he looked at things, the world, his family, his friends, and his experiences.

About this Interview Series: We’ll explore stories from several different veterans—and family members of veterans—and what it is that they’ve done in their lives that has made a drastic impact in helping with their PTSD. Stay tuned for more articles and personal stories/transformations. Mine will be next up in the Series.


Full-disclosure: I’m a vegan, too, but for other reasons than Scott.

–Photo: Defence Images/Flickr

Best Of, Self Improvement / Healthy Living, Self Improvement / Healthy Living

New Writer for Good Men Project


Hey guys!  I’ve been hired as the new editor for the War & Veterans section of the Good Men Project.

I’ll be running some good articles there (and a few oldies from here as well, seeing if they can get another life) but I’ll be looking for anyone who wants to add some submissions!

Don’t worry, though, I’ll still be blogging here.  Writing, MFA school, veganism, military, PTSD.  Including, how I cured my hypothyroidism, naturally.

If you want to submit shoot me an email at: