Is it Wise to Return to School as a Mature Student?

This is an essay by Ruth Kongaika.

After raising a family and watching as each of my children graduated from college, I resolved to get a diploma of my own. Straight out of high school, I secured a job that trained me in a skill, and one which I found enjoyable. Being the independent person that I am, I kept on working. My brother was in medical school, and I felt that I could not burden my parents with more expenses. I began taking one or two classes at a time at a nearby vocational school. Thirty years later, I finally got my bachelor’s degree in my fifties. What a jubilant day that was for me. Several of my grandchildren were there to watch me receive my diploma.

Who is considered a mature student?

Any one over the age of 25 is considered a mature student. Other similar terms that are used are nontraditional students, adult learners, or mature learners. Currently, the world’s oldest graduate was a Nola Ochs, a woman from Kansas, who graduated alongside her granddaughter.

Reasons for returning to school as a mature student.

Who would subject themselves willingly to homework, lectures and exams? Often individuals have taken time out from their education to have a family, see the world, serve in the military or a church mission, take care of ailing parents, or a myriad of other reasons. More recently, unexpected layoffs, and economical turmoil has forced more than a few individuals to give university a second look.

Other motives that may drive a person to return to school include: changing a career, personal ambitions, fulfillment of a dream, learning a new skill, improving an inborn talent, starting a business, or just learning to keep the cobwebs out by stimulating the mind.

One reason I wanted to get my degree was to be able to have intelligent conversations with my children. They were always telling me what they had learned in their university classes, and I often found it so interesting. My main reason for returning to school was to prove to myself that I could do it. I was a mediocre student in high school because I did not really apply myself. I knew I had it in me to get better grades. I also wanted to improve my knowledge and skills for personal and professional benefits.

Differences between regular and mature students

Perhaps the biggest difference in younger and more mature students today is their knowledge of the latest technology. I remember how apprehensive I was when I first started taking my courses. I taught myself how to use the computer, but was not sure if I was up to the level required to complete my assignments. Some classes required class discussions online, and I had to learn this skill.

At times I would not understand an abstract idea or not know how to use the appropriate technology, and would ask the student sitting next to me for help. Often they were willing to help me out, but a few of them changed seats the next time we met for class. I tried hard not to bother the younger set with my mental deficiencies, and would often save my questions for the professor.

I was older than many of my professors, but the majority of them were very polite, respectful and helpful. I think they knew I wasn’t there to play around, so they were generally eager to assist me.

Just walking in and seeing all the youthful faces was trepidation in itself. Often the teacher would ask us to separate into small groups to discuss the topic at hand. I felt a little awkward, not wanting to push my elderly self into a group that may not appreciate my life experiences. Many of the youthful students were there because someone else wanted them in school, and they were more interested in the social aspects of college life.

In one of my classes I got quite perturbed at the childishness of some students. The same ones would come and sit in the back of the room, and talk and laugh the whole time. The professor didn’t kick them out (although I wish he had), and I couldn’t concentrate with that nonsense. I would turn around and look at them, hoping they would notice my frustration, but it didn’t seem to phase them.

I was always amused at the students that would put their heads down on their desks and go sound to sleep. The professors usually ignored them, since the students (or their parents) were the ones paying dearly for their naps.

At one point, I decided to take an online course, thinking that was the way to deal with the impish actions of my classmates. However, I soon discovered that it was harder without personal interaction with the professors.

So, maturity is definitely a big difference between regular and mature students. Thus, the name!

Disadvantages to being a mature student

Often the mature students have more obligations. They may have to balance work, family, and school, with multiple pressures from each. Late-night study sessions can take a toll on you when you have to get up and perform at your job the next morning. Babies and little children don’t really care that you are taking classes, because they think that they should be the center of your world. Even spouses need to get on board, otherwise they may feel neglected when you cannot be there because of scholarly obligations.

Unlike the younger students, there are not so many other mature students to interact with. It is advantageous if you can find one of your peers at school to befriend. They can better understand where you are at in life. One thing I did not appreciate was when my classmates called me “madam,” but I guess they could have called me much worse!

The physical aspects of an older student may affect learning. The inability to see, hear, move freely, and keep up with assignments may be impaired and affect learning. Cognitive impairment and personality disorders can also affect a mature student’s ability to perform in college.

My biggest challenge in going to school, as a mature student, was getting over my phobia of tests. I would fret and worry before a test, and get myself into such a state, that I could not recall the facts I had studied so hard. I would read, reread, and review my books and notes until I had it all down. Then I had to force myself to take a break before the test, to watch a show or listen to some music. I learned that taking a bike ride or walk also helped. Once I got to the testing center, I would take a deep breath and then begin the exam. The more I took tests, the better I got at it. Then, of course, I would reward myself afterward with an ice cream cone or chocolate.

Advantages to being a mature student

Today’s educational system offers much more for the mature student compared to a decade ago.

Flexible schedules are offered, which include evening classes on campus and online. Some universities let you take classes at your own pace, rather than expecting you to complete a fixed number of credits in a semester.

There are grants and scholarships available for nontraditional students, and some institutions will even consider your work experiences and professional qualifications towards your degree.

Some employers are willing to send their employees to school to benefit their business, and pay for tuition and books. Also, educational expenses can be used as a tax break.

Mature students are not as intimidated by the teacher, since they are often their peers. They have usually gained confidence in their former interactions with others.

Because of life experiences, a golden ager can put the class material into context better than an overconfident inexperienced person.

Older students have had time to figure out what they really want out of life, and can choose a field of study that they are passionate about.

Another advantage to going to school later in life is that you can ask your kids to help you with your homework.

Is it worth the struggle to return to school?

Even though it was difficult to take care of our children, be supportive of my husband, work, and go to school, I feel it was well worth all the sacrifices I may have made. It definitely was not easy being the senior citizen in the group. I felt I had to validate myself to the other students as well as my professor. The sense of achievement I felt after reaching my goal is immeasurable. It was so fun to see the adoring faces of my grandchildren as I accepted their leis and balloons on my graduation day.

So, is it wise to return to school as a mature student? It definitely is if you have not quenched your desire for knowledge and college is a good match for you. There is so much more in this beautiful world to learn.


Ruth Elayne Kongaika was raised in the mainland, USA, but has been living in the South Pacific for the past forty years. She enjoys trying to capture the beauty of the islands through her photography, painting and writing. She has a blog which shares some of her art and favorite subjects at:

Photo: Some rights reserved by Collin Harvey.

Memorial Day: The Reason to Read about War

“In books I find the dead as if they were alive; in books I forsee things to come; in books warlike affairs are set forth; from books come forth laws of peace. All things are corrupted and decay in time; Saturn ceases not to devour the children that he generates; all the glory of the world would be buried in oblivion, unless God had provided mortals with the remedy of books.” Richard de Bury.

Men kill men. When we aren’t killing men for no reason we go to war, often for the wrong reasons. These books show us what going to war is like. To me, a good war book must either show us that the war was inevitable, for a justified purpose, or help us to understand war’s true effects on men. That way, books on war make us want to avoid war when possible.

In On War, Prussian military general and theoretician Carl Von Clausewitz defined war as follows: “War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”At the heart of war is the imposition of one’s will on another by force and usually for political means. When I say political, I refer to the decision of who gets what, where, and how. From ancient raiding parties to modern tactical strikes the purpose is the same.

I’ve recently been reading The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall. The book explores the many uses and purposes of stories. In the context of war, though, this quote seems particularly relevant:

“Stories change our beliefs and maybe even our personalities. In one study, psychologists gave personality tests to people before and after reading Chekhov’s classic short story “The Lady with the Little Dog.” In contrast to a control group of nonfiction readers, the fiction readers experienced meaningful changes in their personality profiles directly after reading the story—perhaps because story forces us to enter the minds of characters, softening and confusing our sense of self. The personality changes were “modest” and possibly temporary, but the researchers asked an interesting question: might many little doses of fiction eventually add up to big personality changes?”

If this research holds up then reading books on war, particularly stories, may allow to us truly understand its effects. In the case of war, we would be looking for an understanding in order to avoid it unless no other option remains.

These great war works provide stories that might change our views on war:

1. The Iliad/The Odyssey
2. The Aeneid of Virgil
3. War and Peace
4. For Whom the Bell Tolls
5. The Red Badge of Courage
6. Catch-22
7. Slaughterhouse 5
8. Gates of Fire
9. The Things They Carried
10. The Killer Angels
11. A Farewell to Arms

As always, what did I miss? What fictional accounts of war seem particularly important for us to read?

Can reading stories about war make our personalities more peaceful?

Photo: Some rights reserved by Bernt Rostad.

The American Perspective: A $212.95 Investment

The “American” idea is not wholly contained in the Pledge of Allegiance or “The Star-Spangled Banner.” What are the ideas that Americans have traditionally embraced? What events in our countries’ history have been cataloged? What has been the effect of those events? In the literary timeline, what American works have endured or do we expect will endure?

All of these are different ways of thinking about the same problem. What does it mean when you identify yourself as an “American” and what has it meant for the last two hundred years?

The Evolving American Story

The story of America is that of an infant born into this world with endless untapped potential. As the child comes into the world he is given every opportunity to be better than everything that came before him. America is educated on the failures of others which leads to unprecedented opportunity. Along the path to adulthood he makes some mistakes, but he recovers and youthful indiscretions are forgiven. With new focus and experience there is no indication his future is limited.

Eventually, greed, bad decisions, broken promises, and unfair judgments hinder growth. The struggle is to find meaning and come to terms with free will, to find one’s place in the world, to overcome our violent nature. Each of these threaten to lead America away from fulfilling its potential. The fact that we struggle, though, gives us hope. Hope that we can realize our potential.

This, to me, is the story American literature tells us. America is always becoming something different, for better or for worse. At our literary core is always then, the struggle with who we are and how we can and should be better. That desire imposes pressures and stresses that are sometimes too much for us to cope with. Books can help.

My “American” Research Project

So, my weekend research project was to put a price tag on appreciating the “American” perspective. Can you part with .60 a day? If you can you can own it. Alternatively, to quote “Good Will Hunting”, you could get the same thing from “a dollah fifty in late chahges at the public library.”

Here are the works that explain “America” better than I ever could:

Benjamin Franklin

What does it mean to constantly and objectively work toward self-improvement?

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

Cost: Free

Ralph Waldo Emerson/Henry David Thoreau

What are the influences of nature and solitude on the individual?

What does it mean to be self-reliant?



Cost: Free

Nathaniel Hawthorne

How do you describe the individual and social psychology of sin and guilt?

The Scarlet Letter

Cost: Free

Herman Melville

What are the perils of destructive obsession?

Can even the best systems be corrupted by evil men?

Moby Dick

Billy Budd

Cost: $2.99

Walt Whitman

The common people are the real people and the real people contain multitudes.

Leaves of Grass

Cost: Free

Mark Twain

What is right may not always be what everyone else thinks is right.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Cost: Free

T.S. Eliot

Modern man is identified by his internal regret.

The Wasteland

Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Cost: Free

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Following World War I, what are the effects of greed, love, decadence and how do the  three interact?

The Great Gatsby

This Side of Paradise

The Beautiful and the Damned

Cost: $12.99

Earnest Hemingway

Tell me about the sacred land and the sacred individual. Tell me how the individual can be healed by the sacred land.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

The Sun Also Rises

Cost: $25.98

John Steinbeck

How to live as a poor man and the effects of “The Great Depression.”

The Grapes of Wrath

Cost: $12.99

Harper Lee

The realities of racism.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Cost: $8.39

J.D. Salinger

There is something about adolescence that we never forget and maybe never fully recover from.

The Catcher in the Rye

Nine Stories

Cost: $19.97

Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs

Where can we find something to believe in and where can we find meaning?

Is there any hope for the true individual that refuses to conform?

On the Road

Naked Lunch

Cost: $20.98

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

What is fate? What is free will? Oh, how illogically we, humans, act.

Slaughterhouse Five

Cost: $5.50

Ralph Ellison

What is a man’s place in society? What is a man’s identity? What does race still mean to us?

Invisible Man

Cost: $11.99

William Gaddis

Proof we are still trying to figure it all out?

The Recognitions

Cost: $9.99

Thomas Pynchon

We still haven’t figured it out yet, have you?

Gravity’s Rainbow

Cost: $11.04

Cormac McCarthy

Power, violence, and our warlike nature.

Blood Meridian

Cost: $10.20

David Foster Wallace

Addiction of all kinds, depression, and popular entertainment are common demons.

What does it mean to be a hero in the face of extreme boredom?

Infinite Jest

The Pale King

Cost: $19.98

Jonathan Franzen

What happened to the American family and what do we do about it?


The Corrections

Cost: $19.98

Denis Johnson

What happened to America and Americans that brought us to this point?

Train Dreams

Jesus’ Son

Cost: $19.98

TOTAL COST: $212.95

The reality is I missed a lot. That’s where you come in. Tell me what I missed. Please. For example, I’m way light on female authors. Who would you include? Contemporary authors are tricky, too. Who did I leave off?

Photo:  Some rights reserved by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BP.

How Reading Can Improve Your Love Life

This is an essay by Andrew Blackman.

When you’re thinking of ways to spice up a relationship, reading doesn’t spring to mind.  It’s a solitary, cerebral activity, after all.  But I discovered recently that it doesn’t have to be that way.

My wife and I are both keen readers, so we’ve had plenty of quiet evenings, each engrossed in our books, in the same room but in different worlds.  Recently, though, we’ve tried something new: reading aloud.  The result: a much more intimate reading experience, but with some downsides too, which I’ll get to later.

It started with War and Peace.  Genie was planning to buy the audio book, but I offered to read it to her instead.  It’s one of my favourites, and a reread was long overdue.  I started well, but soon began to flag in the face of the sheer bulk of pages awaiting me.  It became clear that my voice would give out long before Bolkonsky had his epiphany on the battlefield of Austerlitz, so we reached a compromise: I’d read one chapter, and Genie would read the next.  We alternated our way through Tolstoy’s epic, had a lot of fun, and a habit was born.

The Benefits

  1. An individual activity has become a shared one.  We spend more time truly being together.  But, more than that, our reading experience is enriched.  As one person reads, the other naturally interrupts to make an observation, and our reading becomes more like a conversation.  We always talked about books before, but there was a lag of weeks or months or even years between our readings of the same book, so it was often fresh for one of us and faded for the other.  Now, the conversation happens in ‘real time’.
  2. We only read half a book each.  For half of the time, we get to relax and listen while the other person makes the effort.  It seems a better use of time than each of us reading the whole book individually.  We seem to have stumbled on what the productivity gurus would call a ‘reading hack’
  3. It’s fun to play at being actors, in the safety of our own living room.  If a passage is getting boring, we ham it up, or do dodgy Russian accents, or put on special voices for each character.  I’ll never think of Natasha Rostova the same way again after Genie’s rendition!

The Downsides

  1. Listening is a more passive activity than reading.  While this can be good – we all need to relax sometimes – I do sometimes find myself drifting off when Genie is reading, thinking about something else and just letting the words wash over me.  I pay more attention to the chapters I’m reading myself.
  2. You can’t go at your own pace.  You know how it is: sometimes you want to reread a passage, or make a note on it, or just stop for a while and let something sink in.  It’s harder to do that when you’re reading aloud to someone else, or when that someone is reading to you.  Sometimes I ask Genie to repeat something, or pause for a while in my own reading to her, but I’m conscious that if I did it too often it would be annoying.
  3. There are times when one of us wants to read and the other one doesn’t.  When reading separately, that’s not a problem.  But when reading becomes a joint project, if one person opts out, there’s no reading that day.
  4. And finally, we often read just before going to sleep, so the battle against sleep can be a problem.  There’s nothing worse than reading aloud for half an hour, putting your heart into it and doing as many funny voices as you can, only to be interrupted by snoring.


Andrew Blackman is the author of the novel On the Holloway Road (Legend Press, 2009), which won the Luke Bitmead Writer’s Bursary and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. His next novel, A Virtual Love, deals with identity in the age of social networking, and is out in spring 2013. He was born in London, worked as a staff writer for the Wall Street Journal in New York, and is currently living in Barbados while he works out his next move.

Photo:  Some rights reserved by lizmonsterx.

Conversations With Writer’s Block

This is an essay by Katriena Knights.

Many writers I know personify their muses. The muse is an attractive creature, an ethereal, celestial being who arrives at capricious intervals to sprinkle writing dust over your notebook or keyboard. But how many writers personify writer’s block?

While writers are catering to the muse, feeding her in whatever way possible, they usually ignore writer’s block, saying it doesn’t exist or hoping it will just go away. The closest many of us come to personifying this phenomenon is to blame it on the nature of the muse. He’s being a bitch today. He’s withdrawn his affection. She’s gone kayaking with all the other muses.

I’d like to propose another approach. Personify your writer’s block. Call it the anti-muse. Or George. Whatever works. Invite it in and sit it down for a cup of tea.

Why in the world would anybody want to do that? Writer’s block is the thing to crush, to smash, to banish by whatever means necessary. Weapons of mass destruction? Bring ’em on.

But I believe writer’s block is the flip side of the muse. It’s inspiration that’s gotten bottlenecked. And the majority of the time, it’s trying to tell you something about the work or your attitude toward it. Often it arrives to alert you to an outside factor you need to deal with, one that, if ignored, will lead to long-term struggle.

So invite that anti-muse in and ask it some questions.

1. Why are you here? This first question is often the hardest to answer. Why has the blockage occurred? Why has it become persistent enough to be labeled a blockage?

I’ve found in my own process that the answer is generally one of two things. The most common is that there’s something in the story that just isn’t working. A plot point is headed straight for a dead end. My protagonist is acting out of character. I’m trying to write about something I know nothing about and I’ve tried to handwave the research.

The second answer to the question is often related to me rather than to the work. Am I tired? Am I coming down with something? Am I overwhelmed with something outside the writing? Is it, you know, that time of the month? (Boys can mostly disregard that last one.) Do I love what I’m writing?

Being aware of when you find yourself struggling with the words, whether it’s back to school time for the kids or the winter holidays, can alert you to your personal patterns. Then, if you find yourself unable to get words onto paper around Thanksgiving, you’ll be less likely to beat yourself up over it and more likely to accept a couple of slow days. Just alleviating the stress of your own often stratospheric expectations can get the words flowing again.

2. What can I do to make you happy? When writer’s block shows up because of a problem with the work, the best thing we can do is let it talk to us. Pay attention, and often your blockage will talk you through the problem. Brainstorm the upcoming scene. Interview your characters, asking pointed questions about why they’re not cooperating. Often my blockage occurs because I’ve either written something that undermines or eliminates an important emotional conflict or because I’ve plowed into a difficult scene without establishing essential framework.

If the block is coming from you rather than the work, the solution might be trickier. The tricks you use to appease the muse will often get you through this kind of hump. Write something, even if it sucks. Take a nap. A bubble bath. Have a massage. Go for a walk. Or wait until a stressor event has passed, especially if it’s something you know will be over and done in a few hours or the next day.

3. Do you always drop by right at this time? This has to do with finding your personal patterns. I used to freak out every time I hit a wall at about two-thirds to three-quarters of the way through the story. Then I realized it happened every time. No matter the length or the topic of the level of passion I had for the project, there was always a point where I stalled. I’m still not sure if that wall shows up because of structural or plot issues or because I’ve hit a point where I realize I’m close to letting go of the story. I think it’s a combination of the two, though usually more one than the other on any given story.

I think these issues can be boiled down into three guidelines that, if practiced consistently, can help you keep major blockage at arm’s length.

1.  Honor your process. Know how your stories generally spin out of you and don’t panic when a story falls into a rhythm you recognize even if that rhythm is frustrating.

2.  Keep solutions at hand. Know the tricks that can keep you on track. Some people rely on outlines. I tend to recover best with meditation, naps and taking showers. (I can’t tell you how many tangled plot issues I’ve resolved staring at a shower wall.) When you find something that works, keep it in your toolbox even if it seems silly.

3.  Be gentle with yourself. Don’t ignore signals telling you you need rest, isolation, quiet, exercise or just a short break. Don’t beat yourself up over a low word count day. Just keep moving forward.

Once you’ve chatted with your writer’s block and found what it needs, often you can get past the block, give it what it needs to toddle off for a while, and invite your muse back to your table for a high quality, productive writing session.


Katriena Knights is a multi-published fiction writer with over thirty published novels, short stories and novellas. Her contemporary romance novel, Where There’s a Will, from Samhain Publishing, reached number 22 on the overall Kindle bestseller list early last year. She is also published with ImaJinn Books, Loose Id, Changeling Press, Torquere Press, Still Moments, Noble Romance and Etopia Press. She is also an editor for Changeling, Samhain, Etopia and Adams Media’s upcoming Crimson romance line.

Photo: Luca Rossato via Compfight.

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Relating to Unrelatable Characters: Mirror People vs. Door People

This is an essay by Joseph Dante.

Sometimes, I find myself browsing book reviews online just to get a taste of what I might be getting into. Stumbling upon accidental spoilers is inevitable, but I like being informed if I’m still a bit uncertain. Unfortunately, frequently, I also stumble upon a comment that never fails to irritate me: “Sorry, I couldn’t finish this book because I really couldn’t relate to the character at all.”

Empathy is always a nice feeling to experience, but I often wonder if it should be the primary reason why we read fiction at all. I don’t understand why some readers always complain about this lack of connection. If every character was so entirely relatable to you, would any be unique? Would any even have anything to say at all?

Because of this prevailing attitude, it seems as if many readers get stuck inside a literary bubble and are often unable to get out. As writer and social commentator Fran Lebowitz once said, “A book is not supposed to be a mirror; it’s supposed to be a door.” The people who complain about a lack of connection are mirror people—they want to see themselves in every character they read, they want to get cozy with words they agree with and nod along. But with characters always this palatable, we’d hardly see any opinions that make us reflect on or question our own. They wouldn’t behave in ways that frustrate or haunt us—they’d be parrots, echoing our own sentiments that were echoed by other parrots (who were probably a bit more colorful, anyway). It reminds me of people who can’t appreciate The Catcher in the Rye simply because they found Holden Caulfield too whiny or because they’re no longer teenagers, or people who avoid African-American or LGBT fiction entirely just because their own identity is outside of this realm of experience and they’re uncomfortable or unwilling to take that extra leap.

I think Ms. Lebowitz’s analogy is very appropriate—we should always try our hardest to be more like door people. We should treat books as a way in to a new world, of possibilities and ideas we hadn’t considered. Books should require some act of imagination not only on the writer’s part, but the reader’s as well. Shouldn’t learning and broadening your perspective be a much more important part of the process rather than slipping into another skin that’s a bit too familiar already? One that maybe, at times, you should have shed long ago?

I can understand why some people flinch at books that feature sexist or racist characters, or maybe even just insufferable misanthropes. But I think, every once in a while, we need to read more books that make us bristle a little and take us outside our bubble simply because these people and topics do make up parts of the human experience. Otherwise, it becomes the literary equivalent of the overprotective parent who sets out to preserve their own idea of innocence. We have to try to grow up and understand who’s out there. David Foster Wallace once said that good fiction’s primary aim should be to give the reader “imaginative access to other selves.” I also have a hypothesis that it’s really this friction (in fiction) that sustains and remains relevant to us. It’s often the literature that disturbs us that lingers the longest—it’s the books that get banned because a character is unacceptable or behaves in ways that are unsavory, for one reason or another. Ideas that are uncomfortable, taboo, question the social norms in novel ways. There are books like Lolita that can be so horrifying because you’re making a connection that you’d want to typically avoid.

What I think people really want the most out of good books is simply a way to burrow into a character’s personality (or story) and have it resonate. It might be a comfortable process, or it might not—personally, I think a few parrot feathers should be ruffled—but even if you disagree with their thoughts or behaviors, you should still be able to feel what they’re experiencing. It beats like a heart should, and you can trace their development and have it make sense, even when it appears irrational or incongruent to your own.

But here arises the differences.

Mirror people would say, “Oh yeah, I definitely would have done the same thing.”

Door people would say, “Well, I may never experience these things or think this way, but I can understand how it started and where it went, and my god, wasn’t it an exciting process from start to finish?”

Which would you rather be?

Some related video clips:

Fran Lebowitz on Jane Austen

David Foster Wallace on the role of literature


Joseph Dante is a writer from South Florida. He runs a blog at, and is currently a reader for online literary magazine Hobart. You can follow him on Twitter @storyforburning.

Photo: Some rights reserved by marc falardeau.

So You Want to be a Writer: A Personal Take on Practicing the Craft

This is an essay by Callie R. Feyen.

A few months after my husband and I brought our beautiful baby girl home from the hospital, we were at a family gathering showing off her blue eyes and long lashes in between sips of coffee and bites of cookies. As friends and relatives took turns holding Hadley, and rubbing her belly in an attempt to win a giggle, one man, I’ll call him Josh, asked me, “So what do you do all day?”

I didn’t interpret the question as a challenge, though I was severely sleep deprived and didn’t have all my wits about me. I told Josh that Hadley and I went to play dates, ran errands, and spent time at the library together. “And when she goes down for a nap,” I continued, “I write.”

Josh laughed. Sleep deprived or not, I understood enough from his body language and the look on his face that he thought I was wasting my time.  “Well,” he said as he prepared to leave, “that’s nice to have a hobby before you go back to work.”

Standing in Josh’s wake in my uncomfortable dress and too high heels, I stared at the space he stood in seconds ago. It bulged with my very real fear that I would never be a writer, that what I did while Hadley napped was in fact, only a hobby.

My fear regarding writing is not ridiculous, but I don’t have to stare at it. I can give it a nod, but then turn around and go another direction. I chose to turn around after speaking with Josh, despite my fear that my writing would never be more than a hobby. I tried to keep writing.  Here’s how I did it:

I took a lot of classes. I live near the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and I take advantage of the variety of classes it offers. Classes help keep me accountable, generate ideas, and share my writing with others. I have also taken online courses which are nice because I can complete them on my own schedule. I love the GlenOnline Workshops because they are set up so you work one-on-one with an instructor.

I read books on writing. I love books that combine good stories, instruction, and suggested exercises. That way I am immersing myself in a captivating tale, getting a chance to study it, and trying my hand at a topic of choice. Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola is one of the best books on how to write well. It focuses on Creative Nonfiction, but any writer can gain wisdom and skill from studying it.  Other books I use frequently are A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves, The Observation Deck: A Tool Kit for Writers by Naomi Epel, and The Concise Guide to Writing by Rise B. Axelrod and Charles R. Cooper.

I joined a writer’s group. My group of six meets once a month for about three hours.  The week previous to meeting, we send each other our work so everyone has a chance to read it.  We all get written feedback, but three of us get our pieces work-shopped each time we meet.  We find that discussing three people’s writing in detail allows enough time to go in-depth with each piece.

It wasn’t easy finding a group of peers to share my work with, but it was worth the time and effort.  I have been stretched and have grown tremendously since sharing my work with the group of writers I now call my friends.

I set up a routine and a space for myself. I have never been a full-time writer, and I don’t anticipate that ever being the case.  However, I have worked my days out carefully so that I have time and space to practice my writing.

First, I always carry a notebook and pen around with me so I can jot down observations. Lots of times ideas for essays I’m working on come to me when I’m driving or at the park with my kids. It’s nice to be able to throw some words on paper when this happens.

Second, I set aside what I can during the week for writing. Currently, I write three days a week for three hours and 45 minutes every night after our daughters go to sleep. I write “currently” because our schedule changes depending on whether the kids are in school, or if we can afford a babysitter, or if I am simply too tired to write one evening.  However, I try and sit down at the beginning of each week and see where there will be times for me to write.

Third, I have an idea of what I’ll write about so that when I sit down I don’t waste time thinking up a topic. I like to begin with a prompt to warm up, then I look at the essay or story I’m working on.

Fourth, I set up a space where I keep my writing.  I share a two bedroom condo with my family of four so space is tight.  However, I have a lovely spot next to a window with a desk, my favorite writing books, pens, paper, and computer.  Having a space to go to saves time and allows me to step into my writing immediately.

Almost six years have passed since I stood talking to Josh, and when I think about our small conversation that left a huge impact on me, I still get upset at how stupid I felt after I told him about my dream. The memory of his laughter still makes me grimace. Still, it’s not enough to make me stop trying to write.

I think Hadley, who is now 5, is also beginning to understand that finding something you love to do is both filled with joy and fear. She came home from school one day complaining because she wasn’t the fastest kid in her class.

“I can’t fun fast so I just won’t run.”

“You can’t run fast yet.” I told her.  “You might run fast someday.”

“What if I never run fast?”

“Well, that might happen. But there are things you can do, like sing, and dance, and jump rope, and play soccer. Everybody’s good at something. Everybody has a talent.”

“Like your writing, Mama? Is that your talent?”

I smiled and said, “I’m working on it.”

I never told Hadley I want to be a writer, but she sees me with paper, scratching down ideas, or underlining sentences in books. And I knew Hadley wanted to be fast before she told me.  I see the look of determination on her face as she runs. Fists clenched, lips scrunched together, eyebrows furrowed.  I know she wants to win, and I know she loves to run.  I also know that when she’s in the middle of a race, when her breath is short and she pumps her arms in an effort to gain speed, that she is happy. That will be enough for her to run again. The same is true for me and my writing.


Callie Feyen lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and two daughters.  She is a graduate student working on her MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Her work has been published in Christian Home and School, The Banner, and Christian School Teacher. Visit her at

Photo: Some rights reserved by taiyofj.

Are Education, Socialization, and Indoctrination Positive or Negative “Ions?”

This is a continuation of our “Why Read” discussion. Remember, we started by defining the three broad reasons to read. Then we talked about pleasure and education. Last week, we continued our discussion by looking at  two beautiful Greek words that give our reading perspective.

Today, I want to talk about three concepts: education, socialization, and indoctrination. Each word carries a little different connotation. If you were to ask Noam Chomsky, he’d tell you they’re all potentially related depending on how they are deployed and how the target reacts to the technique. To a certain extent, I would agree. Your insurance policy against being unduly influenced by education, socialization, and indoctrination is your reading. Let me use three examples to show you what I mean:

An Example of Education, Socialization and Indoctrination

1. EDUCATION: You teach a kindergartner his ABCs in a couple of different languages so he has a basis for comparison and understanding.

2. SOCIALIZATION: You teach a kindergartner his ABCs in English only.

3. INDOCTRINATION: You teach a kindergartner his ABCs in English while you ridicule other alphabets like the Greek alphabet as looking like nothing but gibberish.

These three examples are obviously built for purposes of demonstration, but I think you could honestly label the first example education, the next example socialization and the final example a fairly extreme, if not ignorant, form of indoctrination. Working on an impressionable kindergartner you might even argue that indoctrination borders on a fire-able offense in some schools.

A New Perspective on Our Example

Let’s flip the example on its head, though, and instead assume the student being taught is an intelligent 20-year-old Greek immigrant. Let’s assume the Greek immigrant has read and studied at the sophomore level at a college or university. Now, let me ask this: Do you think the 20-year-old Greek immigrant is more or less likely to be influenced by the teacher in scenario three than the kindergartner? The answer is obvious, right? He would likely leave the class and seek a better source of instruction.

I use the most simplistic example I can come up with to make the point. Your experience, education, and perspective are brought to bear on how easy a target you are of improper forms of indoctrination and socialization.

For the reader, the benefit of reading is the experience, education, and perspective you gain from sources other than those in your immediate geographical vicinity. A citizenry of highly educated people are less likely to fall victim to evil forms of indoctrination and socialization, because, like the 20-year-old Greek, they have the background to know when to put their guard up.

The Takeaway

When faced with potentially ignorant forms of education, socialization, and indoctrination you are better off being in the position of the 20-year-old Greek than the kindergartner. It is a mistake to rely on socialization and indoctrination from your own small community to tell you how the world works. If you do that, you are, in effect, reducing yourself to the kindergartner’s status. Don’t rely on socialization to teach you about your world, instead stand on the shoulders of giants. Read widely. Read often.

To answer the question in the title, then, “are education, socialization, and indoctrination positive or negative ‘ions?'” It’s all a matter of perspective.

The first thing a fascist does is take away access to certain books and information. Spend some time today thinking about why that is.

Reading Banned Books – Oh, My!

This is an essay by Ruth O’Neil. 

If you are an avid reader, teacher, or a parent, you are probably aware that there is a list of banned books. Books are banned by school boards, parents, teachers, bookstores, and even governments. This list does change from time to time since new books are always being published and people change their minds about what others should and shouldn’t read. I find it completely entertaining to read these lists. Sometimes I even find myself chuckling at the titles and the reasons given. The first time I looked at the list I was surprised to see how many of the books I have read. While the list does contain book titles that I question why made the list at all, there are other books that I won’t read. The reason I won’t read them is because of my belief system. However, I do take the time to find out something about the books before I “ban” them from my own personal reading list.

I read a lot. I review books for magazines and individual authors. I am part of a book club that meets once a month. I homeschool my children, which forces me to read even more. Do I like every book I read? Absolutely not. In fact, I was so disappointed one time because I had actually paid full price for a book I had been wanting. Throughout the first few chapters there were things I didn’t like. But then I got to a scene where I just could not continue reading further. That book sits on my shelf, unread. Does that stop me from reading other books? Absolutely not.

Just because a book is published does not mean you have to read it. But it also doesn’t mean you should be ignorant of its content. Don’t be like some organizations that have banned books without reading a single word

Perusing the banned book list is entertaining, but it can also be educational and eye-opening for you. Reading the list and the reasons for banning can force you to realize why you believe what you believe. For example, The Holy Bible has made the list more than once. Who added it? Probably an atheist or someone whose religion was something other than Christianity. They didn’t “like” the Bible so it made the list.

Do you think the Bible should be banned?

The Little House on the Prairie series of book made the list at some point, too. Who added these titles? I have no idea and I have no idea why. Maybe it was because the Ingalls family killed animals for food.

Should they be banned?

Several versions of dictionaries have been banned because they contain the definitions to slang words. Let’s be honest; don’t you remember looking up “dirty” words in the dictionary when you were a kid?

Should we read books on the banned books list? You should at least read some of them. You might be surprised, as I was, at how many you have already read. If you don’t want to read them, you should at least research them a little and discover why they were banned in the first place. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was banned because it contains the “n” word. Is that a reason not to read the book?

Do I really want to read what Hitler had to say in Mein Kampf? Not really. So, I leave that book for someone else.

There are many, many books on the list pertaining to a wide variety of topics including sexual orientation, philosophy, government, religion, culture, etc. I dare you to examine the list and decide what books you think should or shouldn’t be there and why. It can challenge you to know why you believe what you believe. It can open your mind to areas of our culture, whether recent or past, that are not so pretty, such as the meat-packing industry in The Jungle. It can challenge you to change things in life.

I agree that some books should be on “a” banned book list. These are books that I do not encourage my children or family to read. Not all books are appropriate for all ages, but I always give an explanation to my kids of why and it’s usually something centering on the “garbage-in-garbage-out” theme. If the reasons for banning a book are minor this gives us a chance to talk with our kids about the way things used to be. If the issues are larger, it still opens the door for conversation of why you don’t want them to read it. However, you have to say more than, “I don’t want you to.”

There are numerous websites and even some books dedicated to noting which books have been banned over the years. Some lists give the reasons for the ban. Some of these are hilarious! When multiple reasons are given, some of them seem to contradict each other

Reading is a privilege, a joy, a learning experience, and an opportunity to escape to another world. It is an occasion for us to lean about people and cultures of the past. Don’t let the opinions of what a few people have to say ruin your chances of reading a book that could change your life. Look at the list and pick a few banned books to read in the next year. You might find you like them!

Photo: Some rights reserved by MLibrary.


Ruth O’Neil has been writing for over 20 years. She has published hundreds of articles in numerous publications. She homeschools her three children. In her spare time she enjoys quilting, crafting, and especially reading.

Why Read in a Foreign Language

This is an essay by Chris Ciolli.

When I finally made the move to declare Spanish as a second major during university, part of my self-imposed language-studies-in-earnest plan included reading anything and everything I could find in Spanish: not only so-called classics, but also newspapers, shampoo bottles, signage and travel-guides.

Years later, here I am in Barcelona, going through almost exactly the same process, but with Barcelona’s local language, Catalan, in the meanwhile doing my best to continue consuming books in Spanish.

Why do I do it? Because reading in Spanish and Catalan offer a chance to learn vocabulary and syntax that are less common in spoken language; because reading provides the language-learner with a real and useful insight into the culture associated with the language itself.

Reading Great Works in their Original Language

Who hasn’t dreamed of reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ 100 Years of Solitude in its original Spanish, or Rimbaud’s “A Dream for Winter” in French?  Everyone has heard about what’s “lost in translation”, but only a select few who make the effort to read a work in its original language can truly grasp exactly how much. In language, there is too often no such thing as an exact translation, and translators often have to search valiantly for whatever words and phrases they deem as closest to the spirit of the original text–hence the abundance of translated versions of great works of literature. You can verify said abundance by doing a quick Amazon search for English versions of the Odyssey.

What’s lost in translation aside, there’s a certain pride in being able to claim having read Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” in German, because even if you didn’t understand every word, at least you were able to capture a feeling, a glimmer of how a great philosopher thought and wrote in his own language, on his own cultural and linguistic ground.

Improving your Vocabulary, Grammar and Comprehension

Reading in a foreign language improves your vocabulary, grammar and comprehension in a way that even study-abroad and immersion in the everyday culture can’t. The language used in day-to-day speech, on the radio, and on television is very useful, but as a general rule, more limited and less varied than the language you’ll encounter in books, newspapers and magazines, not to mention riddled with grammatical errors.

Just as reading in your native language improves your vocabulary, grammar and language comprehension as a whole, reading in a foreign language does the same for your skill set in that language. This is easily observed in the case of bilingual individuals that use one of their languages exclusively in the home, and the other for public and academic life. While they can converse fluently and talk about everyday happenings, certain vocabulary and grammatical rules escape them, and their writing skills are likely to suffer—this from personal experience. In Barcelona, I’m surrounded by speakers of Spanish and Catalan, but only reading noticeably improves my command of the two languages in their written form.

Widening your Cultural and Literary Horizons

Reading classics in their original language is a great way to widen your horizons in a literature or culture, but it is far from the only way. Any content written in a foreign language will offer a deeper insight into how people think and write in the culture associated with that language.

An interesting tactic for learning more about the differences in culture and literature between two languages is to read books in both original and translated versions. Case in point: while reading Spanish translations of David Sedaris’ books, I was very entertained by footnotes explaining plays on words and concepts that didn’t translate well into Spanish or weren’t present in Spanish culture. For example “Holidays on Ice” isn’t a play on words in Spanish, so in Spain, the collection of short stories was sold as “Oh, Blanca Navidad” or Oh, White Christmas. This type of reading and analysis is particularly interesting with poetry, where in some editions you can read the original and translated poems side-by-side, as well as online versions of bilingual newspapers and magazines where you can read the same articles in two languages.

Have you ever read books or other publications in a foreign language?  Is there a book you’re dying to read in its original version?


Chris Ciolli: A writer and translator by trade, Chris Ciolli spends her spare minutes reading, traveling and playing with art supplies. Okay, so sometimes she sleeps, eats and slurps coffee, too. Learn more about her at, read about her travels at, or follow her on twitter @ChrisCiolli.

Photo: Some rights reserved by africatrip2039.