“You’ve seen this baguette before,” or, How the Cliche Makes What’s Interesting Disappear

Inexperienced writers use lots of cliches. So I tell my students things like: “Don’t use a comparison if you’ve heard it before. Your reader will have heard it too, probably, and will zoom over it without thinking much about what you’re trying to show them.” Maybe they’ve heard that before, considering how often they don’t seem to think much about what I’m trying to show them.

Blogger Alec Nevala-Lee may have solved my problem:

What else is this man carrying? Who cares–he has a baguette!

You’ve seen this baguette before, he writes.

In any movie or television show in which a character is shown carrying groceries, a big loaf of french bread is invariably seen peeking out over the top of the bag.

And that baguette is there for a reason. For one thing, it’s a convenient prop that is unlikely to wilt under hot studio lights or after hours spent on location. It’s also a handy bit of narrative shorthand. If we see a character carrying a paper bag without any clues about what it contains, we immediately start to wonder what might be inside. The baguette poking out over the top is a visual flag that, paradoxically, actually makes the bag less visible: as soon as we understand that it’s just a bag of groceries, we stop worrying about it.

That’s it! Any image, any figure of speech, any phrase that our readers notice so casually and familiarly that they don’t care what else is in there, they don’t worry about it. If the sack of groceries is incidental, go ahead, stick a baguette in it. But if. There’s. Something. In. That. Sack, by golly, make sure it’s not french bread showing.

(Now, off to use this baguette metaphor–Baguettaphor? Sure!–so often my students ignore everything else in my bag…)

(Read Nevala-Lee’s whole article here.)

Free online education illegal in Minnesota? Well, that’s discouraging.

According to Slate, “the grand prize in this week’s unexpectedly heated competition for most creative use of government to stifle innovation has to go to Minnesota. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the state has decided to crack down on free education, notifying California-based startup Coursera that it is not allowed to offer its online courses to the state’s residents.”


I teach in Minnesota, and to a large extent, my job and the institutional health of my college depends on students paying for online courses. My colleagues and I work hard to make sure our online classes offer at least the same quality of learning as our brick’n’mortar classes do. So I suppose my legislators feel like they are protecting us.

But still, how short-sighted and generally chilling toward, you know, people learning things.

Until some entrepreneur and/or trillionaire-philanthropist figures out how to offer free accredited degrees online, Coursera et al aren’t the competition. Nope, they’re exactly the sort of resource we hope our students will become curious and passionate enough to pursue before and after our classes. (Heck, during class, too–definitely better than the Facebook, sports tickers, and celebrity gossip scrolling up their smartphones right now.)

Galway Kinnell Reads “The Bear” in 1973

I love this poem and read it aloud at least once to each creative writing class I teach. I could begin bullet-pointing the reasons why, but no.

Just listen, and if you want to spend more than 4:54 with the bear, there are a handful of questions afterward for your intellectual and/or meditative pleasure…

Read the poem along with the video. At what specific words does the feeling of the poem–or your expectation of the rest of the poem–or the significance of the poem–change? What happens to you or to the poem at each of these words?

Ezra Pound wrote that the proper and perfect symbol is the natural object, that if a man use ‘symbols’ he must so use them that their symbolic function does not obtrude; so that a sense, and the poetic quality of the passage, is not lost to those who do not understand the symbol as such, to whom, for instance, a hawk is a hawk. Is Kinnell’s bear a bear? Is the bear a ___? When did you begin to feel this in the poem? Why or how did that feeling overtake you?

What sorts of pain or pleasure might it have caused Kinnell to write this poem? Why do you think so?

This poem is rock ‘n roll. Why do you think so/not?

(“The Bear” is in Kinnell’s New Selected Poems. Which you can buy if you click that link.)

Repent and Believe

Here is what so many of my students don’t get: Using conventional grammar and deploying punctuation marks in traditionally correct ways has nothing to do with being a good person or with whether you have something valuable to communicate; however, I’ll be goshdarned if haphazard grammar and willy-nilly punctuation doesn’t stand right in the way of our taking in who you are and taking seriously what you have to say.

Case in point:

FAIL Nation: Weep For Possessives FAIL

This poor dude’s apostropharrhea is keeping him from getting the kind of attention he wants and the kind of attention he deserves.

(Image found by Facebook friend Phil at FAIL Blog.)

Protect Your Textbooks

It’s still early in the school year–maybe some of you will find this helpful.

Protect Your Textbooks

(Found at Fake Science.)