You Don’t Have to Be Crazy to Study Humanities But…

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While I cherish the idea of autonomy, life experience and research argue persuasively that my choices are (while still choices) rooted in the bedrock of where I was born, to whom, how I was raised and what it took to get away from all that.

University majors and mental health

“Students who study humanities, social work and counselling were more likely to report childhood adversities, which are strongly associated with poor mental health” according to McLafferty et al. (2022) in the study ‘Variations in psychological disorders, suicidality, and help-seeking behaviour among college students from different academic disciplines‘.

The authors’ findings are not unique: “A large, cross-sectional study spanning 81 American universities found that students studying art and design presented with the highest rates of mental illness. Almost 45% of art and design students reported at least one disorder, followed closely by humanities (39%). Art and humanities students also had the highest rates of suicidal ideation and over one fifth of students from these disciplines reported having engaged in self-injury” (McLafferty et al., 2022).

This seems entirely plausible.

Unfortunately, it also seems like the sort of thing that could be weaponized against already beleaguered arts and humanities courses and practitioners. Touchy-feely BS for people who can’t hack a real job, etc.

McLafferty et al. (2022) note: “Disciplines demonstrating the lowest rates of mental illness included engineering (31%), public health (28%) nursing (28%) and business (27%). Likewise, a recent study conducted reported that students from arts and humanities, social work, and behavioural, and social sciences, were more likely to report emotional and substance use disorders in comparison to their peers from business or engineering disciplines.”

The bottom line

Observed through a certain lens, this suggests that pragmatic, socially desirable subjects attract composed, socially desirable students; with the obvious, if unarticulated, corollary that arts and humanities are for damaged bohemian types who can’t hold it together long enough to learn quadratic equations, or whatever.

I can see why people might think that, and perhaps they’d be right.

Numerous studies find a strong correlation between parental socioeconomic status (SES) and their children’s academic achievement (Saifi & Mahmood, 2011; Azhar et al., 2014; Lam, 2014, etc.)

Academic disciplines such as engineering and health sciences are resource intensive. Ideally, students will have access to high quality labs and IT equipment from primary school onwards. Ideally, they will also have personal tech — laptops, tablets, etc. — that facilitates connection and learning.

Students from families lower on the socioeconomic scale are less likely to have personal technology, reliable home internet, and so forth. They are also more likely to go to underfunded schools where resources are limited.

When I was in school in the 1990s we were lucky to have Bunsen burners and space to mix hydrogen peroxide and baking soda; my teachers wrote exam questions on the board because the school couldn’t afford Xerox paper. My family could stretch to the graphing calculator required for advanced math classes, but I wouldn’t get my first laptop until 1999.

What I did have access to was books. One thing the United States is blessed with an abundance of is libraries (cheers, Mr Carnegie, I’ll try not to think too hard about how you made your money). Even my home town, pop. 4800, had a substantial, well-stocked library with plenty of cozy reading spaces, stacks of periodicals and regular free activities. It was my refuge, my favorite place, a source of endless bounty.

Having a predilection for reading and writing, I also had a space where these were valued and supported. If I’d had a predilection for trigonometry or building radio cars, there would have been no such space or support.

Steered by circumstances

The Covid-19 pandemic threw learning inequalities into sharp relief: “Children from families with a low SES are less likely to have access to remote learning (UNESCO, 2021), are less often provided with active learning assistance from their schools (Tomasik et al., 2020), and spend less time on learning (Meeter, 2021) than children from families with a high SES. Moreover, parents with a high SES are more likely to provide greater psychological support for their children (OECD, 2019),” reported Hammerstein et al. (2021).

Take an imaginative leap with me: A fourth or fifth grader has a nascent knack for programming. But they don’t have a computer at home, or they do, but share it with several family members and they can only afford a cheap, shaky internet connection. During the pandemic, this kid was out of school for 12, 18, 24 months, with minimal access to educators or learning materials.

They are fortunate that their fascination with the logic of computer language applies to English too. They do still have access to books and reading materials, and they’re sharp enough to learn to craft a strong essay or article by imitation.

They get back to school and the language arts teacher notices their progress, encourages them, makes sure they have access to the school library, gives them extra feedback on their writing.

Meanwhile, they’ve dropped behind their well-to-do peers in IT, simply because they haven’t had the tools or training. The IT teacher, like the language arts teacher, focuses their attention on the strongest students and fails to notice the lost potential of this particular kid.

Naturally, the skillset that gets the most care and attention is the one that flourishes. By the time university rolls around, this student is poised for success in the humanities, perhaps never to realize how financial circumstances subtly but ineluctably shaped their academic trajectory.

Self-fulfilling prophecies

It takes courage and gusto to believe in one’s weaknesses. In my head, I’m terrible at maths and mediocre at science (until math gets involved, then I’m terrible at that too).

This self-perception solidified to fact in my head over years, following the switch from a pre-med track to English Literature in my second year of university. It was wrenching to give up on a long-held goal, but the hard reality was all my English and History professors were encouraging me to major in one or the other, and I was barely scraping by in science.

Telling myself I “couldn’t” hack the math and science was a self-soothing mechanism. However, like many palliatives, it may not have been entirely benign.

I took Algebra I and II, trigonometry and statistics, geometry, and calculus in high school: straight As (though seasoned with tears of frustration); I also took general science, chemistry, physics and biology: A, A, A and A. This rather complicates the “couldn’t” narrative. Sure, I’ve forgotten it all now, but I did learn it — even excelled — at secondary school.

What broke me was the leap to university level, where chemistry became calculus and physics became flat-out terrifying.

If I’d had access to more challenging high school courses, would I have stayed on the pre-med track?

If I’d had greater self-confidence…?

If I’d been aware of the help available…?

The right decision for the wrong reasons

Am I happier as a writer and educator than I would have been as a cog in the moribund US healthcare system? No doubt.

But I wish I’d made that decision from a position of self-confidence and clarity, not an overwhelming fear of failure.

  • When you grow up poor and see an escape route, you really, really don’t want to miss out.
  • When you feel excluded because of how you dress, where you live, what you can’t afford, you will do most anything to blend in.
  • When your financial situation has never not been precarious, you want to stay safe.

Failing classes, tanking your GPA, needing more time to graduate: these have different consequences for well-to-do students and those scraping by on scholarships, loans and work study jobs.

Links in a chain

Difficult circumstances are not always merely socioeconomic; there are certainly young people from affluent backgrounds who have had adverse childhood experiences. It would be wrong, though, to discount the exacerbating effects of poverty on issues like intimate partner violence, child abuse and neglect, substance misuse, incarceration and mental health difficulties.

There are many ways poverty shapes people’s choices and chances, from birth onwards. My hypothetical scenario is just one of many that could shed light on how socioeconomics influence an individual’s choice of study and mental health.

What are your experiences or observations regarding the relationship between study/career choice, mental health and socioeconomics? Please share your reflections in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke

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On Leading by Example

Teachers, like writers, should show not tell (as much as possible).

As a writing teacher, it is imperative that I set an example as a writer.

My first gig outside of the university newspaper was Pennyblackmusic.co.uk — an independent online music magazine and shop that has outlasted countless best-selling, robustly funded publications.

Though not continuously, I’ve written for Pennyblackmusic for more than 20 years. In slow, desultory fashion it’s become a modest but valued body of work, and a chance to keep my journo skills sharp.

One of the regular features is called ‘Ten Songs That Made Me Love…’

Here are my contributions to the long-running series:

Echo & The Bunnymen

“Some bands are linked to an event or time in life; others, to a person. Echo & The Bunnymen entered my consciousness when I was about eight, via an album cover pinned to my brother’s bedroom wall. ‘Echo & the Bunnymen’, their eponymous 1987 album – was to the right of U2’s ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ and above Depeche Mode’s ‘Some Great Reward’. In grainy black-and-white, Ian McCulloch’s inkwell-explosion hair, eyes downcast beneath thick brows, gave a general impression of dark wool and wind-chill. Yet the music encoded in that vinyl dazzled. It made sense that my brother, the coolest person I knew, bought an overcoat and grew his hair. Who wouldn’t want to be them?

My brother moved out when I was 12; for the next few years we saw little of each other. I bought Sting’s ‘Fields of Gold’. Possibly in despair, he compiled CDs for me. Those songs – Echo, New Order, Depeche Mode – were the basis for a new relationship. More than siblings, we became musical co-conspirators. These 10 songs, only a sliver of Echo’s expansive oeuvre, encode a deep friendship. Apart from their personal significance their freshness, verve and originality make a case that Echo were the seminal New Wave band. Let’s run with those dancing horses.”

Read the full article

Patti Smith

The first time I saw Patti Smith it was like seeing a flesh-and-blood human after a lifetime among holograms. In a world where everyone is obsessed with image Patti is always, ever and gloriously who she is. Poet, rebel, musician, mother, artist, crusader, writer, warrior, deity of rock’n’roll and inventor of herself, Patti never wanted to be anyone else, never pandered, never tried to please.

Her music reaches deep places because it is born from an authentic self, and that’s why it will last.

Read the full article

Pulp

“It’s not chocolate boxes and roses/ It’s something darker/ Like a small animal that only comes out at night”. Jarvis Cocker’s memorable assessment of the titular emotion in ‘F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E’ (surely one of the Top 10 most awkwardly titled songs pop history) is a perfect epithet for the bands’ oeuvre.

The magic of Pulp is the mingling of sharp, danceable guitar pop with lyrics that veer from cynical to downright sinister. Their most radio-friendly hits are rife with violence (‘Joyriders’ “Mister, we just want your car/ ‘Cos we’re taking a girl to the reservoir”) and voyeurism (“I wanted to see as well as hear and so I hid inside her wardrobe,” in ‘Babies’). Love songs in Pulp world include lyrics like: “You are the last drink I should have ever drunk/ You are the body hidden in the trunk” (‘Like a Friend’).

Studying the arc of their career, it’s clear ‘Different Class’s’ arrival in Cool Britannia was coincidence; the subsequent lumping of Pulp with Britpop a music journalists’ convenience. Pulp never shared Blur’s mockney smuggery nor Oasis’ apolitical performance of working classness. Pulp was on a different trajectory: one that began in Sheffield in 1978, contained more than a decade of obscurity, and survived Britpop notoriety to deliver an acerbic welcome to the new millennium.

Its curve is marked by a rare, unflinching insight into the human psyche. Pulp takes love as a subject but, unlike most pop confectioners, doesn’t sugar-coat it. Cocker sees love as a slippery amalgam of baser needs: status, self-worth, revenge, amusement, actualisation, to see the darkest parts of ourselves reflected in another. Attraction doesn’t lead through flower-dappled fields at sunset but down gnarled alleys stale with fag smoke, booze and latent violence.

Rarer still, Cocker understands that society is an echo chamber of our dark hearts: it isn’t just individuals who behave in warped, self-defeating ways, but our whole culture.

Read the full article

Photo by Chris Bair on Unsplash

Memphis Soul

Ibiza, October 2016: What was left of my library was stacked on a slat-wood shelf awaiting collection; the clothes worth taking were crammed into a scuffed purple nylon suitcase; my car was one signature short of belonging to my ex-boyfriend, who was also adopting my cat.

In a few days I would embark for Memphis, Tennessee, a city I best knew as home of Sun Records. To pass time, I was reading ‘Respect Yourself’ (a loan from my Memphis-based boyfriend).

Robert Gordon’s meticulous account of the rise/fall/slip/slide of Stax Records was the history of an alien land and culture. ‘(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay’ rang a bell, maybe ‘Shaft’, but my knowledge of Memphis soul ended there. Embarrassment at this ignorance was a welcome distraction from more immediate anxieties.

Those anxieties faded but the embarrassment clings; as a born-and-raised Yankee, a music journalist no less, it is shaming to have been oblivious to one of the richest seams of my country’s musical culture. Shaming because – as ‘Respect Yourself’ and history report – it is no accident that Black musicians have been, and remain, ghettoised, denigrated, alienated.

That’s not why anyone should listen to Memphis soul though; not to pay tribute or broaden horizons. Listen to be immersed in music that grabs your gut and nether-parts. Listen to the sound of something at stake. Listen because, as the following 10 songs prove, it’ll turn you on and take you higher.

Read the full article

As an educator, how do you lead by example? Share in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke

On Reading Aloud to Older Students

Reading aloud is like breast feeding: everyone agrees it is vital for the very young, but past a certain age it gets side-eye.

There is ample research on how reading aloud supports early literacy (Wiseman, 2010; Lennox, 2013, etc.).

What about reading to older students though?

Should story-time, like nursing, be confined to the earliest stages of life, or should it continue beyond the point kids can autonomously digest texts?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

If primary function of reading aloud is to support literacy, research shows that reading to older learners “boosts their reading comprehension, increases their vocabularies, and helps them become better writers. In fact, students who are read to are more motivated to read themselves” (Blessing, 2005).

Zehr (2010) reported that, “teachers found by trial and error that reading aloud worked for adding interesting content or making literature come alive for students. And some educators say they read to their classes to model good reading, such as by asking comprehension questions as they go along.”

It is always gratifying when research supports my predilections, but I’ve been reading to older students — including adult learners — for as long as I’ve been teaching. Partly, it’s a failure of imagination: I loved being read to, cannot imagine anyone disliking it.

To be clear: my childhood pleasure in hearing books aloud had nothing to do with lack of independent reading skills. I could read by age four and would compete with myself to see how many pages I could read in a day. My record was 1,000. It was a 1,000 pages of the Paddington Bear series — not War and Peace — but the point is I read like a my life depended on it.

The pleasure of being read to was something else. Books I could (and did) read myself were still a joy to hear being read by my older sister, or one of my parents. We also tuned in to read-aloud radio programs, memorably The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Jeeves and Wooster.

***

What makes reading aloud so marvelous? And why should it be part of every literature and language teacher’s repertoire?

To get another perspective, I interviewed Andie Yellott, a lifetime English teacher, former Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth Writing Program supervisor and parent of a child with dyslexia.

  1. Should reading aloud be continued beyond reading competence?
    Yes. Absolutely. When my son was in fourth grade, I would go in for one hour during lunchtime and read to his class. It was the highlight of the week, they told me. They loved it. They always wanted one more chapter.
  2. How did reading aloud support your son with dyslexia?
    He could not have gotten through school without me reading to him. I read everything, even the godawful high school health book. One of the advantages to reading aloud is you can stop and springboard off into other paths, other conversations, which you wouldn’t do if the kid was reading alone. And if you want a kid to do well on a standardized test, read, read, read.
  3. How did reading to your dyslexic son facilitate his communicative abilities?
    He’s got a huge vocabulary. I’d read to him, stop, ask what a word meant, try to figure it out contextually. Reading aloud to him made a difference. He thought he couldn’t write; now, he’s one of the best writers I know.

Like Yellott, I’ve had lots of student enthusiasm for reading aloud. It is more than just fun, though. Reading aloud supports specific skills, depending on whether the teacher or learner is reading aloud. Here are six benefits observed in my classrooms.

Photo by Photo by Tom Hermans on Unsplash

Teacher-led Reading

Improve pronunciation

Native and non-native speakers alike struggle with the whimsy of English pronunciation. In extreme cases, this can lead to students understanding spoken words but not being able to identify them in print, or vice versa. Reading aloud while students follow along in a text is a straightforward way to ensure that kids are matching the right groupings of letters to the sounds they hear. This is especially important for those who struggle with reading and/or are learning English as an additional language.

Build vocabulary

When students are reading independently it is difficult to gauge how well they comprehend individual words. Students may grasp the main idea of a text but miss important vocabulary. As Yellott said, reading aloud is an opportunity to identify and define unfamiliar words in context. While reading to my students, I pause frequently to check comprehension. If they don’t know a word, we search for context clues, then look up the definition to verify our deduction. This is also a great opportunity to reinforce knowledge of parts of speech, e.g. ‘this is the noun fly; what does it mean when we use it as a verb?’

Create community

Reading is too often solitary and functional, the vegetable kids have to eat before dessert. We need to remember: independently reading printed texts is a novelty. For most of homo sapiens‘ time on the planet, stories were oral. People gathered around fires, or beneath fearfully and wonderfully made cathedral ceilings, to listen to a bard/priest/storyteller. Being read to was the only way most people could experience books until the advent of mass public education, which wasn’t all that long ago.

Reading aloud in the classroom reclaims the power of the story to articulate fears, hopes and desires; to delve and reveal. Students who have a chance to respond verbally to a book: express how they feel, ask clarification questions and debate it with their peers, are axiomatically more engaged than those who skim it in lonely silence.

Learner-led Reading

Correct decoding errors

Even competent readers often make decoding errors such as ‘stared’ for ‘started’. If a student is reading silently, there is no chance to identify and correct these slips that, as they accumulate, affect comprehension. Younger and/or less able readers are more likely to make these mistakes, so reading aloud is an ideal tool to support their literacy.

Understand punctuation

If Emily Dickenson was right and “a word is dead./When it is said” then spare a thought for punctuation. Students can learn the function of commas, colons, etc. through direct instruction but that doesn’t automatically translate to competent — much less creative — usage in their writing. One of the best (only?) ways to understand the delicious possibilities of punctuation is to read aloud. By treating the punctuation as a kind of score — lift the voice here, pause, slow down, shout! — students develop the ear for punctuation that every good writer must have.

Improve verbal fluency and confidence

We tend to think of fluency in the context of learning an additional language, but it isn’t just language learners who need to practice this skill. Learning difficulties, lack of a richly verbal home life and shyness are a few of the reasons native speakers may struggle to express themselves fluently in their language. For students who struggle to articulate, whether because they are acquiring the language or for some other reason, reading aloud takes the pressure off of deciding what to say, and allows them to focus on how to say. Reading well-written texts gives students a chance to see how successful communication sounds; they can practice pronunciation, enunciation and tone without the risk of error. Ideally, they can inhabit the voice of the text and, in bringing it to life, experience the possibilities of their own voice.

Parting thought

In Sense and Sensibility the ‘sensible’ (i.e. sensitive) sister Marianne falls in love with Willoughby in part because “he read with all the sensibility and spirit” his rival lacked. In Jane Austen’s time, to read aloud well and fluently was a mark of refinement and good taste. As our world becomes more digitized, text-driven and fragmented, reading aloud is due a renaissance. Anyone can jab out a text; to read a book with eloquence and feeling, though? That’s magic.

How do you feel about reading aloud to older students? What benefits/challenges have you observed? Share in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke

Deprivation versus Education

Photo by Khalil on Unsplash

On Tuesday, around half-past-nine in the morning, my cat jumped onto the sink. An instant after I turned the tap, the power went out. Cue a three-day saga of landlord, electricians and plumbers clumping past my workspace and accusing glares from Teddy, the cat, as he nosed the unyielding tap.

Serendipitously, my three dry days coincided with reading from George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London with my students.

“It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty,” Orwell writes. “You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping.”

Replace ‘poverty’ with ‘no running water’, ‘no electricity’, ‘no food’ or any other noun phrase related to a basic necessity. The principle stands.

To lack something one requires for survival is complicated, squalid, boring, low, crust-wiping. Whatever one’s other resources, the absence, scarcity or precarity of water, food, shelter, warmth, etc. is destructive.

Deprivation makes education harder to attain. Moreover, it robs whatever education one has acquired of its value.

Attention

In the elegiac opening sentence of ‘On Being Ill’ Virginia Woolf writes, “Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed… it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”

For when the lights of health go down, let’s substitute: when you can’t flush the toilet, or wash your hands.

My first unnerved thought, when I realized the water wasn’t returning at the flick of a fuse-switch, was, oh shit.

Literally. I have had severe IBS for over a decade. Proximity to a clean, functioning, private convenience is high on my list of essentials. Higher, in fact, than food. Food, once consumed, rapidly becomes a problem.

Not having water turned the next three days into a pathetic war of attrition with my internal organs, which I’d rather think of as friends than enemies. Boiled white rice became the meal of choice to minimize digestive demands.

Disarranged eating and hygiene stress combined to drag my mind away from classes. And I’m the teacher.

Imagine how much harder it is for students to cope with scarcity, and the fatal effect on attention.

Intention

Education helps us learn to make good choices. We learn to think critically, plan, weigh options, critique, etc. (ideally, anyway).

Orwell was well-educated and possessor of a rare mind. He argues, “a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs.”

Science bears out this observation: the brain is around 2% of body weight but hoovers up 20% of the body’s glucose-derived energy (Mergenthaler, et al., 2014). Depriving the body of the energy it requires disproportionately affects the brain; an effect for which the body attempts to compensate by purloining glucose from other vital systems. Nevertheless, subpar nutrition takes a crowbar to cognitive functions (Glucose and The Brain: Improving Mental Performance, 2013).

Other forms of deprivation, such as lack of running water, may not have the same immediate physiological implications, but they swiftly cripple good intentions.

Not knowing when the water would be back, I couldn’t plan dinner, much less anything in the more distant future. Clothes and dishes needed washing, cat bowls needed refilling, plants needed watering, but it couldn’t be done nor anticipated. I learned to live in the moment, in the worst possible way.

Interaction

Working from home, my attire tends more towards casual than smart. But there is a huge difference between informal and clean and plan dirty.

I take the ability to be clean, and therefore socially appropriate, for granted; fortunate am I.

Day one was tolerable but by day two the BO was bothering me. The morning of day three there were some unavoidable errands. After slathering on deodorant and shoving my grimy body into clean clothes I skulked out, coat zipped to the chin and masked. During the brief exchanges that followed, I stood as far away as courtesy allowed, marrow curling with self-consciousness.

I need to start donating to clean water projects, I thought. Then thought of all the people who live in places clean water projects don’t touch: places like Spain, the United States or the UK. In developed countries, broad access to running water, hygiene products, etc. masks — and no doubt exacerbates — the trauma of those who cannot access these fundamental resources.

Not being able to wash and groom adequately is uncomfortable on a personal level. I was hyperconscious of my bodily fluids and functions. But it is fatal to the ability to interact with clean human beings on an equal footing.

If I were a student who couldn’t wash, stuck in a roomful of freshly-scrubbed peers, I’d want to crawl under the floorboards. Or maybe I’d act out, to distract from my discomfort. I was fortunate to not have the precise experience as a kid, but I can imagine.

One thing is for sure: my mind would not be on my studies. I’d be counting the minutes till I could flee.

______________________________

Thursday night, the kitchen tap spluttered to life. Borderline delirious, I pulled on the Marigolds and scrubbed the dishes piled in the sink, wiped the counters, refilled the cat bowls. After a long, hot shower I put on clean pajamas, sat on the sofa and stared at the unlit furnace, unsure what to do.

The tiredness that gripped me wasn’t ordinary, end-of-the-week stuff. My energy and volition were sapped, like I’d run a marathon.

The argument of Mani, et al. (2013) that “poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity… because poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks” made perfect sense.

Education is wonderful thing. There isn’t much I’d rather do than teach and learn. But deprivation is its undoing.

As a teacher, and an individual, I have a responsibility to work towards a more equitable society where people have the resources they need to benefit from education.

How can educators support a more equitable society? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke

37 – Atropos

A short story originally published on Medium. Atropos is one of the three Fates in Greek mythology, the one whose decision is final — her name means ‘inflexible’.

“First, I want to thank you for the invitation. All the invitations. Thank you for asking until I said yes.

“The first year, I was too angry. The second year, I was too angry. Last year, I was afraid of what I might say. My gratitude to the faculty and administration — especially Dr. Harnett and Dr. Walsh — who persisted in asking without expectation. They were close friends of my father, meshed in their own grief, but they reached out again and again.

“I didn’t appreciate it to begin with — and by that I mean, for years. I was angry with this school, with them, with the students who survived, even — a little — with the ones who didn’t. I wanted my father. If I couldn’t have him,
I wanted to hoard all the grief in the world.

“But the world is adept at delivering low blows. Even in my depths of my deepest wallows, it was hard not to know how easy it is to be sucker-punched by fate.

“It has taken four years since that day, which some of you remember all too-vividly, for me to be able to stand here and hope to say something that is not untrue. Many of you, mercifully, only know what happened second-hand — as do I.

“You didn’t see the gun. You didn’t hear the shots. Didn’t smell — as I’m told they would have — the propellant. It wasn’t your hair that stood on end, or your body that shook with the adrenaline rush. You didn’t have to make a life-or-death decision, without knowing which was which.

“Dammit. I’m still angry. At everybody, everything, every minute that added up to the moment my Dad died because some warped asshole had a bad day.

“Forgive me, fellow family members, survivors. I mean no disrespect. But let’s not give what happened more credit that it deserves. We lost our loved ones to an act of madness. I don’t want to credit their killer with reasons.

“Sorry — I should stick to my notes.

“I thought hard before saying ‘yes’. I didn’t want to come here and pretend to have reached a resolution. Yet, it was time. Those of you who were lucky enough to know my Dad, to study with him, know the only thing he loved more than making wine was teaching future winemakers.

“He treasured education and when he retired from his first career as research scientist to start the winery, it was the teaching he missed. This program gave him a chance to combine the two great loves of his life. I wanted to honor that. It’s what he would have wanted.

“So I said ‘yes’, not knowing what came next. Knowing what to say was one of Dad’s gifts. It’s not one of mine. But my mind kept turning back to one story — one pivotal moment.

“Most of you know the winery, or will have at least driven past and seen the acres of vineyards spread across the hills. If you can, erase all that. Picture those hills with nothing but brambles and stones. Picture a decrepit clapboard house with clothes on a line out front, and a tractor parked next to a beat pick-up truck. Picture my Dad, humping that rusty machine along those hills ten hours a day. My Mom tending hundreds of tiny scraps of vine nestled in cardboard milk cartons. After school, my brother and I put to work planting, watering, propping, tying.

“It takes about four years to get a crop, as you know. I was 15 by then, sick of the dirt, convinced nothing was going to come of this stupid experiment. That first year changed my mind. We didn’t get a lot of grapes but they were good. And the wine Dad made was great — award-winning, in fact. Suddenly, my pea-sized teenage brain saw the potential.

“I was almost excited for the second harvest. A handful of friends from schol were coming to help pick at the weekend. The Friday night was warm and hazy. Sunset hung on forever — the sky turning from fuchsia to rose to powder pink. Mom and Dad were on the porch, drinking wine. Toby and I were playing checkers, which is this weird old thing that was invented before the internet. I was completely content — a rare emotion for me at 16 — everything was right.

“The next morning I woke up to Dad shouting, crying really, roaring. I was terrified, I’d never heard anything like it. There was something else, this sort of whirring, rustling noise in the background. Running out of my room, I collided with Toby, and we both staggered into the living room.

“That house overlooked the main, the only, vineyard. Through the open front door I saw this dark thing — this moving mass. Dad was running towards the vines, arms flailing like a Laurel & Hardy skit. Mom on his heels. After a confused minute we realized it was birds.

“Hundreds, thousands, who knows. More birds than we’d ever imagined. Hitchcockian levels, swarming our ripe grapes.

“That was break point for Dad. He had an academic job on offer. He had no harvest. We were broke. You’re familiar with the taut economy of wine-making so you can imagine…. I, in my adolescent wisdom, was convinced, determined this was a sign. Like, “Dad, we tried, we failed, now can we please go back to the city and a job where you can afford to buy me a car?”

“Instead, he remortgaged the property on terrifying terms, and went back to planting and pruning. I was furious, livid. What was going to stop it happening again? What were we going to do then?

“‘We can always start again,’ Dad said.

“It was a few years before I forgave him. My last two years of high school I wore clothes from Salvation Army and ate packed lunches. If a person could die of embarrassment, I wouldn’t be here.

“By the time I went to college, though, things were on an upswing, and just kept swinging. Suddenly, it was the coolest thing in the world to bring friends and boyfriends to visit. Mom and Dad built the new house and I had this huge, beautiful room and studio space overlooking the vineyards. They were winning awards, hosting dinners, giving lectures, appearing in magazines.

“They threw me a 21st birthday dinner at the newly built winery. I sat at the head of the long oak table in the library, surrounded by my friends, drinking amazing vintages Dad had saved especially for the day. I remember hugging him and saying, ‘Daddy, I was wrong when I told you to quit. I’m so glad you didn’t listen to me.’

“Rightfully, that should be where the story ends. The triumph of courage over cowardice, optimism over pessimism, fortitude over adversity.

“I lived with that smug, comfortable morality tale for my whole adult life — until four years ago. When I heard the news, I literally fell over. My legs gave out. Lying there, howling, I thought, ‘Why didn’t he just quit?

“Once again, I was furious with Dad. If only he’d heeded the warning, if only he weren’t so stubborn, if only he’d given up. I didn’t give a shit about the winery, his accomplishments, his pleasure in it, I just wanted him back.

“I still want him back. But I’m no longer sure he should have quit after the birds. However, I’m also not sure he shouldn’t have.

“God knows, I’ve tried to weigh it up. Tried to find some scale to balance my Dad’s pride, joy and satisfaction in the winery against the fact of his absence. Increasingly, I don’t think such a scale exists. His life was infinitely precious. Missing him is wound that doesn’t heal. But his life was inextricable from what he loved, and how he chose to live.

“Would he do things differently, if he could have seen the future? I don’t know.

“Not knowing, I can’t offer you a comfortable morality tale. Doing what you love can save your life. It can also cost your life. Every day, you make life-and-death decisions without knowing which is which.

“So you may as well follow the deepest, truest impulse of your heart. You don’t know when or where the journey will end, but you can choose your path…”

33 – Married Folk Blues

This short story appears in the Erotic Review, where you’ll have to go to read the saucy bits.

Photo by Hannah Dean on Unsplash

Abe remembered as he pulled into the rest area. Too late. Sixteen years of habit die slow. He rested his right palm on the frayed Navajo-style passenger seat-cover, feeling the faint prickle of Geordie’s short, coarse hair trapped in the rough weave. It felt like the spiky-soft tips of grass sprouting on the grave beneath the ash tree.

Killing the engine, Abe shut his eyes. Geordie always smelled like swamp water. For the first weeks Abe was convinced the pup snuck into things: drains, garbage cans, trash heaps. But patient stalking revealed no miscreance. The goofy mutt was just an eventual 97 pounds of slobbering, soft-hearted, small-bladdered stinker. Picked a winner, Hazel would tease.

He was though: loyal, tireless, curious, protective, the folds of his part-boxer, part-hound face arranged in a permanent tragicomic mask that could make Abe smile on the worst days. Of course, Hazel was the one who cared for Geordie weeks at a stretch. He wished he’d been there more.

Dusk was bleeding the day of its heat but remnants splashed Abe’s legs as he crossed to the cafe-slash-convenience store. He went to pee, more out of habit than necessity, then bought a bottle of Dr Pepper and a pack of beef jerky, not admitting to himself that would probably be dinner.

Gnawing a stick of dried meat, he paused short of his truck. Someone had pulled in at a 40 degree angle, the vintage blue Corolla’s bumper almost nuzzling his door. Faded Mississippi plates, long deep scratches above the rear wheel, a palm-sized patch of bare metal on the hatchback, no driver, a jumble of boxes and plastic crates stacked to the ceiling. Someone in a hurry all right. Abe could think of a few reasons why that might be, none of which he wanted to get involved with.

Hazel had laughed at his proclivity for rescuing things: Geordie, abandoned cats (usually pregnant), injured birds, hitch-hikers, drifters. But he was tired. He could climb in the passenger side and go.

“Please, Shooter, come on. Please.”

Click to continue reading

19 – Ibiza Noir Chapter 1

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of my novel Ibiza Noir. Available here.

Photo by Aaron Barnaby on Unsplash

Lou ducked instinctively as a jet lumbered through the syrupy air, landing gear down, scarred white belly near enough to touch. As he did, an upward-flying elbow glanced off his chin. He straightened and put a hand to his jaw as a thicket of tattooed arms rose to hail the passing plane. Whoooo! Vamos! Ibiiiizaaaa! Exhaust caught in Lou’s throat as he tried to join the cheer. Spluttering, he set down his canvas bag and wiped his eyes.

He had been standing on the same patch of gravel for over an hour, listening to a single bass note thunder from a small white building next-door to a vegetable patch. “Best party on the island,” the bartender told him the night before. “The last great day rave. Full of nutters that’d put Bedlam in its heyday to shame. Pure madness, mate, if that’s your thing.”

Lou stared at the cerulean sky and shivered with the heat. He didn’t know if this was his thing, but he was willing to try. The bus from Ibiza Town didn’t stop outside the club, though. It took him almost an hour to walk back to join the restless horde of party-kids waiting to be admitted to this inconspicuous techno temple.

Heat waves shimmered above the dirt parking lot and bolts of fierce light reflected from the cars. Were tattoos a form of heat-proofing? Lou wondered. Sweat was running off him like snow-melt but everyone else looked perversely cool. His initial sense of comfortable anonymity was gone. He was too tall, too dark – even in a crowd of Spanish and Italians – and above all too plain. Everywhere he looked were pierced lips, tongues, eyebrows, and cheekbones. Jewels glittered in girls’ cleavage and accented their wrists. Men in denim cut-offs and skin-tight tees flaunted bulging muscles. Scraps of cloth stretched over silicone globes on the chests of women who would otherwise pass for underfed boys. The ubiquitous sunglasses with enormous, bug-eye lenses made him feel like he was trapped in a swarm of colourful flies.

Some people were dancing in place, kicking up puffs of dust. He had a feeling they would continue, music or not. Others alternated gulps of neat whiskey and warm coke from the bottle. Nobody made any effort to conceal the wraps passing from hand to hand, or the mounds of powder being inhaled off credit cards and hotel keys. The girl beside him was so pale she looked albino but her arm was solid black from shoulder to elbow apart from an artful smattering of stars. It was the first negative tattoo he had seen. He’d also never seen a hoop as big as the one hanging from her septum. Her boyfriend had silver studs through his cheeks; his left calf and right arm were covered in tribal ink.

Photo: Cila Warncke

Lou shaded his face with his hands, wishing he had water, or a hat. The heat was making him light-headed. How much longer can it be? A long horn-blast sounded, as if in answer to his question. The bodies around him kept moving, eyes obscured, heads tilted up to the sun or down to the ground. Only Lou looked around to see green-and-white jeeps marked “Guardia Civil” bearing down like a fighter squadron. Officers in forest green jumpsuits and caps leapt out, shouting in Spanish. They wore white latex gloves and worked methodically, checking IDs, patting pockets, running hands up legs and down arms, pulling people aside as they found stashes of pills and powder.

Six years in the navy had taught Lou how to deal with this type of authority: keep your eyes down, follow orders,don’t give them a reason to notice you. He reached inside his bag. Time stopped. His heart beat on his ribs, looking for a way out. Sidling backwards, he found an empty patch of ground and dropped to his knees. Inshallah, let it be here. Subtly as he could, Lou groped through his seaman’s bag, feeling neatly folded tee-shirts, combat trousers, a frayed khaki jumper. He slid his fingers inside the pockets of a waterproof and fumbled with his shaving kit, feeling a disposable razor, a bar of soap wrapped in a rag, and assorted coins, but no passport or wallet.

Someone shouted as he walked away but Lou didn’t look back. Without a passport he couldn’t get in the club, or on a plane; he couldn’t even book a hotel room.

There was an abandoned newspaper on the bus shelter bench. Leafing through, Lou stopped on a back page. He knew enough Spanish to read the headline: 14 migrants drown when boat sinks off Alicante. A photo showed bodies laid out like a row of parcels. One face was visible: boyish, with dark, curly hair, a Roman nose, and high cheekbones. Lou ran a hand over his regulation military cut. It was growing fast, the natural curl coming back. He looked at the picture again. Apprehension balled his stomach like a fist. Normally if you lost your passport you went to the police. But the rules were different when you were a young Muslim man. He didn’t look like someone they would help. He looked like someone they might let die.

A bus arrived and halted with a huff of pneumatic brakes. Lou found an empty seat amidst a group of bongo-toting hippies and wedged his bag between his feet. Not that it mattered now. Where did it happen? Trundling along the motorway past billboards advertising “Cream @ Amnesia”, “Privilege: The World’s Biggest Club”, and “Pacha Ibiza” he mentally retraced his steps. The marina. A walk through town. Beer in some basement dive bar. Giving coins to a wandering violinist. Returning to the harbour and ascending to the walled old town. Following a narrow road on the seaward side till he reached a cluster of fragrant pines. Lying beneath the trees catching glimpses of starlight between breeze-blown branches.

He had woken with the sun, which rose from the sea beyond the city. Birds twittered over the softer whirr of insects. After brushing off the pine needles he shouldered his bag and walked the few minutes to Plaça del Parc where he breakfasted on black coffee and a buttered baguette. Then he caught a bus to San An and walked the beach all the way to the end of Sunset Strip. His next stop was an internet café: “Merde.” Someone must have been watching as he took out his wallet and the plastic folder with his passport, discharge papers and other documents. He didn’t remember the name of the place, only the smell of sweat and stale smoke; he probably wouldn’t even recognise it.

Photo: Cila Warncke

18 – Reading Like a Writer

This was another Ideas Tap feature that was mostly an excuse to interview a handful of my favorite people — dear friend and mentor Paul Hendrickson, another beloved writing friend Nick Lezard, and the man who saved my life during my writing Master’s, course director and prolific author Michael Schmidt.

Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash

Want to be a writer? The best way to start is by reading. But how can you make sure you reap the benefits in your own work? Cila Warncke asks writers Paul Hendrickson, Nick Lezard and Michael Schmidt for tips…

“It is impossible to become a writer without reading,” says Paul Hendrickson, writing professor at the University of Pennsylvania and award-winning author of numerous books including, most recently, Hemingway’s Boat.

There is a relationship between quality of reading and quality of writing. And a distinction between reading for pleasure and reading like a writer. The difference involves attitude, approach and appreciation. Michael Schmidt, poet, professor and author of the forthcoming The Novel: A Biography recommends reading, “with eyes wide open, full of anticipation.”

With this in mind, here are seven ways to read like a writer:

1. Compulsively

“You can’t be a writer unless you have a hunger for print,” says Nick Lezard, Guardian literary critic and author of Bitter Experience Has Taught Me. “I was the kid who sat at the table and read the side of the cereal packet.” In Nick’s case, the lust for literature paved the way for a career as a book reviewer. But regardless of the genre or field to which you aspire, all writers are readers first.  And “it doesn’t matter whether the medium is the side of the cereal packet or a screen,” Nick says.

2. Slowly

Cereal-packet readers tend to wolf words like they do breakfast. This is a trait writers should train themselves out of – at least sometimes. Paul defines reading like a writer as slowreading: dawdling on the page, delving, soaking in the style and rhythm. Don’t read everything this way, though. “I don’t read the newspaper ‘like a writer’,” he notes. “I don’t have time. Nobody does.”

3. Broadly

Time is of the essence for the reading writer, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore everything apart from the classics. There are, to borrow Orwell’s term, good bad books. Nick mentions Ian Fleming as an example of compelling though less-than-literary fiction. Paul gives a nod to Raymond Chandler, saying writers can learn from his “hardboiled, imagistic lines.”

4. Selectively

That said, don’t make the mistake of reading widely but not too well. “Reading crap is no good for the eye or ear,” says Michael. “Read only the best, and read it attentively. See how it relates to the world it depicts, or grows out of.”

Nick, who has read his share of bad books as a reviewer, concurs: “If you just read books like 50 Shades of Grey, or Dan Brown, you’re going to wind up spewing out a string of miserable clichés.”

5. Attentively

You get the most out of good writing by reading it with real attention. Michael advises writers to pay heed to metaphor, characters’ voices, how the author develops those voices and how they change. He recommends Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children,” as a rewarding subject of attentive reading: “There is a strong sense of development, nothing static there. I can think of no better pattern book for a would-be writer.”    

6. Fearlessly

Reading like a writer means going out of your comfort zone. When Nick was in his teens he tackled James Joyce’s Ulysses. “It was a struggle,” he recalls. “It took me a year or two. But that’s how you [learn] – you find stuff that’s above your level.”

7. Imaginatively

Reading above your level is valuable, in part, because it challenges your imagination. Paul talks about savouring the terse beauty of poetry and imagining “everything that’s between the spaces of the words, the spaces of the lines.” By observing the work of your own imagination you gain insight into how writers evoke images and emotions.

You don’t have to read every book (or cereal box) like a writer. But the more you immerse yourself in words and cultivate these seven skills, the better your writing will be. “If you are writing a potboiler, imagine how wonderful it will be if the work you produce is actually a proper novel,” says Michael. “Read the best, and read the best in your elected genre.”

In Focus: Writers’ Recommended Reading:

  • UlyssesJames Joyce
  • To The LighthouseVirginia Woolf
  • A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway 
  • Three Lives – Gertrude Stein
  • New York Review of Books

17 – Cheryl Strayed on Memoir

This was written for Ideas Tap, an organization (sadly now defunct) that supported young people pursuing the creative arts. Cheryl Strayed, whose Tiny Beautiful Things was my bible for several months, was as generous and gracious by phone as she is on the page. A case of meeting one’s heroes not going wrong.

Photo by Holly Mandarich on Unsplash

After writing her first novel, Cheryl Strayed turned to memoir and wrote her New York Times bestselling book Wild, about her 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of her mother’s death. Here, Cheryl tells Cila Warncke about mining memory and sets us to work with a writing exercise…

How does the emotional experience differ between writing fiction and memoir?

It doesn’t. To write fiction well you have to inhabit the consciousness of the characters you’ve created. With non-fiction there’s an extra layer of intensity because the character you’re building is yourself.

When writing memoir, how do you build yourself as a character?

The only way you can build yourself is to dismantle yourself. To take apart who you are, what your assumptions have been, what you hope people think of you. You can’t write: “I’m pretty and cool and awesome and interesting” because everyone would hate you. You have to say: “I’m human. Here are positive things about me. Here are negative things about me. And here are things that don’t make sense, don’t add up, and I’m going to present them to you”. Writing is like the deep work you do in the course of therapy where you take yourself apart.

What memory aids do you use?

I naturally have a very good memory – I think a lot of writers do. I kept a journal through my 20s and 30s. That helped me a lot in writing Wild. I do research where I can, going back and looking at pictures for example. When most people imagine what a memoirist does they think: “I don’t remember anything from high school, from 20 years ago”. But they do remember – they just think they don’t.

How can writers elicit those memories?

The process of writing is re-conjuring memories. It’s doing things so more memories come to you. Even looking at a photo can allow you to remember something accurately. The process is like running into an old friend from back in the day, somebody you knew 20 years ago. When you first start talking you only know a few things about each other. But as you talk and go deeper into your lives you remember things you thought you had forgotten. Just because you haven’t thought of something for years doesn’t mean you don’t remember it, it just means it takes a little work to access it. When I was writing Wild I’d think, “I don’t remember, I just walked” but once I started writing my mind would open up to specific memories.

Do you draw heavily on your own life for your fiction?

You’ll see a lot of details from my life. My next novel is set in Portland [where I live]. None of the characters in the book are me but there are all these little tendrils of the story that you can trace back to me.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

I never call it “writer’s block” but I always have trouble beginning. Writing is hard. I resist writing. I run from it. If I am left alone with a laptop I flounder for an hour or two, then I sink in and I’m in the zone. When I get stuck I go for a walk, come back and try again. I don’t force it. If something isn’t coming, I move on; that’s a good strategy for me.

How long did it take to write your first book, Torch?

Your first book is so hard because you don’t know how to write a book and there is no way for anyone to tell you. It turns out the only way to learn how to write a book is to write a book. I avoided finishing [Torch] for fear of failure, until the point where the fear of failing to finish was bigger than the fear of finishing a book that was terrible. I worked on it for about ten years in total, three years really diligently.

How did you overcome that fear of failure?

Once I let go of the idea that I was going to write a great book, I was able to write a book. I let go of any ego or fear or shame. That was an important moment in my writing life. None of us really knows what kind of book we’re writing. A lot of people think they’re writing brilliant books and they’re terrible. And the reverse is true too. It isn’t up to us to judge our books; it’s up to the people who read them.

In Focus: Writing exercise using objects

I take random objects out of my handbag like lipstick, a ten-euro note, and a pair of sunglasses, and tell my students to pick one and write a story about it.

To begin writing you begin with an image. You begin with a feeling. I encourage people to start writing and not think about it too much. Even if you have a good idea, usually once you start writing it will become something else.

I could do that same exercise with the world’s Nobel Literature Prize winners and something would come of it. Perhaps what came of it would be better than what comes to my students, but that’s how the [Nobel Prize winners] do it too – they begin with something then they make something else.

16 – Letting Go of Emotional Baggage

Gradually, my writing moved beyond all music, all the time. There is a heart of darkness in Ibiza’s club world; the shadows got long. It was time to look at things differently. This piece was written for Tiny Buddha. You can read the full article here.

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

“Sometimes the past should be abandoned, yes. Life is a journey and you can’t carry everything with you. Only the usable baggage.” ~Ha Jin

You’ve probably heard of the fear of missing out but what about the fear of letting go?

My father was volatile and mentally unstable. Criticism was his preferred method of communication. As a child and teenager, I learned to keep my thoughts and feelings locked away and became an expert at deflecting personal questions.

Without realizing it, I carried this habit into adulthood, avoiding any talk about my feelings or turning them into a joke. When a friend finally called me on it, the shock of self-recognition quickly turned to resistance. This is who I am, I thought. Why should I change?

I plodded on, working as hard as ever to keep my fortress intact. It wasn’t making me happy yet I wasn’t ready to change.

As I struggled with my desire to cling to hurtful memories and self-defeating behaviors, it dawned on me that I was afraid to let go because defensiveness was part of my identity.

The problem wasn’t that I had baggage—everyone has baggage—but that it had come to define me. I didn’t know who I would be without it. At that point it hit me: I had to dig deep, discover the person I wanted to be, and then act on it.

After I identified that I was holding on to the past because it seemed too important to jettison, I discovered that letting go is harder than it sounds. Relaxing a long-held belief isn’t a one-day, one-week, or even a one-year process. However, it is possible.

Read the rest at Tiny Buddha.