What to Expect

Dated cover of "What to Expect When You're Expecting": Illustrating of a woman on rocker, reading a blank-paged book, wearing yellow sweater set and bright burgundy pants.

Dated cover of “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”: Illustrating of a woman on rocker, reading a blank-paged book, wearing yellow sweater set and bright burgundy pants.

Five years ago, in my last months of living in Berkeley, California, I found this old copy of “What to Expect” in a “free box.” I grabbed it, thinking it would be useful some day. About a year later when we were settled in Ohio, I picked up the book again, hoping to learn about my bizarrely changing body and the unknown tenant inside. But the book wasn’t helpful. It was condescending in places, infuriating in others, and completely unscientific. Plus, that woman on the cover — jeez. She was faintly creepy. So I wrote this poem, just published in Juked. Thanks to Collier Nogues for saying yes to the poem! Here’s the link, if you’d like to read.


Pregnancy Poems

pregnant-393364__180I started writing “pregnancy poems” in 2011, when I was, yes, knocked up with child number one. Only later did I learn that such a topic could be prone to more publishing rejections. Only later did I read Julianna Baggott’s thoughtful reply when her poem, “For Furious Nursing Baby,” was selected in The Best American Poetry 2013. (http://www.cincinnatireview.com/blog/news/triple-hat-three-cr-contributors-in-best-american-poetry/)

Three months postpartum, I’d originally read Baggott’s poem in The Cincinnati Review, and thought, Yes! More poems like these, please! But then I realized there’s a history of omission when it comes to poems about pregnancy and early parenting, a history that’s sexist and strange and supposedly changing. Here’s a good NPR article on the subject: http://www.npr.org/2012/07/23/157071197/its-a-genre-the-overdue-poetry-of-parenthood.

Anyway, perhaps The NY Times is right — perhaps the tides are turning — because the editors of Juked, The Florida Review, Unsplendid, Tinderbox Poetry Review, Newfound Journal, and Cimarron Review have all said “yes” to some pregnancy poems. Thank you, editors, for supporting art about fetuses!

rosie with baby

What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve been reading the November 2013 issue of The Sun Magazine. Whenever The Sun appears in my mailbox, I turn first to the table of contents, eager to see if anything by Brian Doyle appears. Half the time it does, which is awesome, because Brian Doyle is one of my favorites. The November issue is chock full of good stuff, Brian Doyle included. The opening interview is an inspiring one with feminist progressive nun, Sister Louise Akers, and one I hope theists and non-theists and atheists alike read to better understand why squelched voices such as those of women refuse to leave The Church. “We are the Church,” Akers says.
But above all, I found myself giddy over Michelle Cacho-Negrete’s “The Chanel Suit,” about the rhetorical power of a thrift store find. Goodwill stores and frugality, well-fitting clothes and the way they shape identity — for me, there is a lot to love in Cacho-Negrete’s piece. I hope you get your hands on the issue. I also hope “The Chanel Suit” appears in next year’s Best American Essays.

Fifteen Years

Fifteen years ago today, my stepfather died. He was joyful and bawdy and pensive. He was a philosopher and a working class man and an intuit of things he couldn’t explain. He was a skeptic of all politicians and a voter of Republican ones and a believer in a God I’d never heard about in churches. His heart was planet-sized and he brought me into it as his daughter, and he was the best father I had. But he was on loan. This is a piece I recently published in Sweet: A Literary Confection, about how I tried to keep the loss from hurting, a fool’s mission.

Yay for Amelia and Co.

Wolf-Hirschhorn Syndrome made national news a year and a half ago, and not for good reason. One member of our community was denied a kidney transplant explicitly because she was labeled “mentally retarded.” (Palm to face. For starters, Dear Doctors, we don’t use that term anymore.) Amelia Rivera’s family wrote a blog post that rallied not just our small WHS community but the entire nation. Major news groups like CBS and ABC picked up the story. Check it: Amelia’s family now has this news to share. Many thanks to any and all folks who rallied for her and for all people with disabilities, cognitive and otherwise. There is only one kind of “able-bodied” person on this planet, and that’s a temporarily able-bodied one. Who knows what will befall each of us tomorrow. We are born needing the care of others, and we will likely die needing the care of others. So when you reach out to support the health and dignity of a person with disabilities, in some sense, you are reaching out to support the health and dignity of yourself. Yay for Amelia and co.

Teaching Creative Essays in the Composition Classroom: An AWP Addendum

At the AWP Conference, I presented on a few panels, one called “The Creative Writer’s Survival Guide to the Composition Classroom,” which Michelle Burke graciously organized. In my talk, I emphasized the importance of teaching the essay as an exploratory form where students are freed to risk uncertainty and, hopefully in the process of writing, discover something new. As Philip Lopate said recently in his Feb. 16 NY Times piece, “The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt,” “The essay has become a meadow inviting contradiction, paradox, irresolution and self-doubt.”

I promised the attendees that I’d post the prompt on my blog. So what follows is the actual prompt I’ve used, and underneath that, a brainstorming exercise for pre-writing. Feel free to e-mail me if you’d like e-copies of the documents in Word form. Good luck, and let me know how it goes if you decide to take a stab at this assignment.

THE PROMPT: An Imitation of Cofer–Personal Essay and Analysis

Heather Kirn Lanier

Format:  This essay is divided into two parts.  The first part is 3-4 pp and divided into sections; the second part is 2-3 pp.  Double-spaced; heading (your name, e mail, instructor’s name, course, date, draft or final); title; page numbers; stapled.

Part I:  Writing as an Insider

(3-4 pp.) Your assignment is to write a personal essay that imitates Cofer’s rhetorical structure and/or approach and that captures a personal truth about an issue of identity. You are not imitating Cofer’s content, but her style.  Feel free to use similar subsections that Cofer uses or invent new categories of your own. You can choose to write a “Story of My Body,” as Cofer did, or you can write on a different topic altogether. Even though you are free to write on a variety of topics, your essay should still capture a personal truth about any issue related to identity.

Part II:  Writing as an Outsider

(2-3 pp.)  In this section, you will perform a close-reading analysis of your own text, similar to the analyses you performed in the first assignments.  You will write about yourself in the third person (using phrases such as “the author” and “Kirn writes…”).  Address the following questions: What is the personal essay’s overall meaning and how does the writer communicate it?  How do the significant parts of the text add up to create the whole?  You can choose to focus on any strategy relevant to a textual analysis, such as the development of a binary opposition, the structure of the sections, or the telling details and examples that communicate meaning.  Whatever your focus, you should still generate an analytical thesis for this section.


  • As Donald Murray said, “an effective piece of writing has a single dominant meaning, and everything in the text must advance that meaning.” While your essay will be broken up into sections, you must choose details and anecdotes to advance a single meaning.  That’s where focus is important.
  • You will not necessarily know what that meaning is until you begin drafting.  Just like essays of textual analysis, it will take you some time to develop your ideas and then determine the best way to present them.  Prewriting and early drafting steps are crucial in discovering what you want to say.
  • It might help to brainstorm some approaches to this essay.  Perhaps you’ll want to keep Cofer’s title, but not entirely.  What other stories could you tell?  “The Story of my Hands”?  “The Story of my Wardrobe”?  Be creative.  But think about whether that “story” (or whatever other approach you choose) would have larger significance to you and to issues of identity.
  • Here’s a strange paradox of writing: writers reach the universal through the personal.  In other words, the more specific you get, the greater impact your story can have on a general audience.  You might think it would be the opposite—“write generally, so everyone can connect with your writing”—but that’s not true.  Use as many details as you can! Think of the five senses, and appeal to all of them in your essay somehow.   The more detailed, the realer your essay will be.


A strong “part I”…

  • Is focused around a thoughtful (though implied) thesis that raises an issue of identity and answers the “so what” question.
  • Avoids offering morals, clichés or simplistic messages in favor of presenting and investigating complex ideas.
  • Represents those complex ideas through telling details, examples, and sensory imagery. (“Showing rather than telling.”)
  • Is arranged in a way that advances the essay’s implied thesis.
  • Makes use of some approaches used by Cofer, including structure, style, voice, arrangement, and/or epigraph.
  • Displays a competent, consistent style and a mastery of language by making artful choices in diction, syntax, sentence-variation, tone, and so forth.
  • Uses sentence structure, word choice, grammar, spelling, and punctuation correctly and in a way that enables rather than hinders clear and effective communication.

A strong “part II”

  • Offers a central argument about the meaning of the personal essay (“part I”).
  • Presents a reading of the text that is insightful, analytical, objective, and thoughtful.
  • Makes descriptive and analytical claims to advance the argument about the meaning of the text.
  • Uses textual evidence to support the claims.
  • Has coherence: progresses logically and smoothly, with appropriate transitions indicating connections between ideas.
  • Uses sentence structure, word choice, grammar, spelling, and punctuation correctly and in a way that enables rather than hinders clear and effective communication.
  • Displays a competent, consistent style and a mastery of language by making artful choices in diction, syntax, sentence-variation, tone, and so forth.

Personal Essay Brainstorming Activity

Answer the following questions in a “free-write” style.

  1. What does the word “identity” mean to you?
  1. After reading the definition, what else might you add to your understanding of the word?
  1. What constitutes (or “makes up”) YOUR identity?  What groups do you belong to?  What are the different parts of yourself?
  1. In what way do you have more than one identity?
  1. How has your identity changed over the years?
  1. How does your identity change, according to whom you are with?
  1. What has been an important part of your identity?  Why?
  1. What has been a difficult part of your identity?  Why?
  1. Looking over your responses, what important issues come up?  What might you like to write more about?

Share your ideas with a partner.  Discuss the following:

  1. What would be the focus of your essay?
  1. How might you title it?
  1. How might you structure it?  What subsections could you use?

Consider Chapter 1 of Tell It Slant, “The Basics of Good Writing in Any Form” and apply the advice.

  1.  Make a list of concrete details that demonstrate or in some way connect to your issue of identity.  (Particular foods?  Sounds?  Smells?  Objects?)
  1. Leaving plenty of room in between, make a list of important “scenes” from your life that relate to your topic.  (Describe them in a brief fragment, for instance, “The time we lost the championship game.”)
  1. Under each “scene,” list any sensory details that come to mind when you recall that scene.  Also list any lines of dialogue you remember.
  1. Review your plans.  Circle any details or scenes that you definitely want to include in your writing.  Ask yourself, under what “subsection” would they go?  How might you arrange them?

IDENTITY–Some definitions

[From MSN Encarta]

1. what identifies somebody or something: the name or essential character that identifies somebody or something

2. essential self: the set of characteristics that somebody recognizes as belonging uniquely to himself or herself and constituting his or her individual personality for life

3. sameness: the fact or condition of being the same or exactly alike

4. mathematics equation true for all its variables: a mathematical equation that remains valid whatever values are taken by its variables

Next Big Thing

Sonya Huber, my friend and author of Opa Nobody (U of Nebraska), Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir (U of Nebraska), and The Backwards Research Guide for Writing (Equinox), asked me to participate in this blog-tagging thing, which she calls “all writer anarchy,” where I answer a bunch of questions about my recent book, and then tag a bunch of writers with book’s out, writers I deem “the Next Big Thing.” Thanks, Sonya! I enjoyed speculating about who would play Southwestern High School in the movie of my book.

What is the title of your book?

Teaching in the Terrordome: Two Years in West Baltimore with Teach For America

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

An idealistic twenty-two-year-old joins Teach For America—a program that thrusts eager college graduates into America’s toughest low-income schools—and she learns to rely on grit, humility, a little comedy, and a willingness to look failure in the face in order to survive as a teacher in West Baltimore.

What genre does your book fall under?

Creative Nonfiction

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I was a poet before I wrote nonfiction. A very young poet. Writing very mediocre to somewhat bad poems. When I joined Teach For America, the stories I encountered were so messy and complicated that I realized I had to learn how to tell a story through prose—with all the words and the small margins that prose affords. So I went to Ohio State’s MFA program. Which was good. Because not only is the program awesome, but it turns out Columbus is a fantastic town.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I tried writing the book in the first two years after my Teach For America experience. I wrote 100 pages and didn’t even reach my first day in the classroom. Then I tried writing a book proposal, having heard  “that’s how you publish a nonfiction book.” The proposal took me at least six months, and I sent it to one agent. She rejected it. I understood why. It wasn’t ready. The proposal wasn’t compelling. My writing was too talky back then, and I didn’t have a good sense of where stories began and ended, and what should be included and what should come out.

At that point I just got stuck. I didn’t feel like I knew how to write a book. I had tons of scraps, and I had loads of journal entries and notes, and now a bloated 100-pages and a book proposal I hated. But how to make a book? I learned at Ohio State. MFA programs rock. Or at least mine did. I wrote a lot of shorter, non-Baltimore-related pieces for three years, experimented with styles, wrote one solid essay that turned into a book chapter, but otherwise didn’t touch the material. Once I graduated, I committed myself to the book—the first draft took about a year. I wrote between the hours of 5 and 7 am, before I taught classes at UC Berkeley. I did more significant revisions and rethinking on weekends, when I had longer stretches of time. Then I printed the first draft out–300-some pages–and laid it on the living room carpet, smack in the center of the room, and admired its messy glory.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Many things. My former students. The sad, strange building I taught in. The cemetery I taught beside. The terrible movies Hollywood still makes about teacher-triumph in inner-city schools. The contrast between my experience and that Hollywood narrative. Anyone in Columbus, Ohio who heard me read my single, decent chapter, who then demanded I keep writing about west Baltimore. The nagging feeling I get whenever I sense that I have to get something down—the knowledge that I’ll feel release once it’s set on paper.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Neither. I found a home with Clair Wilcox and the awesome U of Missouri Press. Which was nearly strangled by the administration just as my book was to come out. But which is still alive and kicking thanks to the press’s many champions.

What other works would you compare this book to within your genre?

I hope it resembles Ted Conover’s Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing. That sense of being inside a place that a lot of folks don’t step into, and trying to make sense of it with compassion and intellect.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

The school is the biggest character. I would choose the love-child between John Malkovitch and Queen Latifah, but only if their love-child was a very large, multi-headed beast-creature. The school was a beast-creature.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

The title comes from Wire-creator, David Simon. The first thing I learned about the school was that, in Simon’s book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, the school’s referred to as “The Terrordome.” If you liked season 4 of The Wire, you might just like the book.

And now for the tagging. I believe these folks, all Buckeyes too, are The Next Big Thing. They might be so big already that they don’t have time to answer these questions. But that’s okay. They’re still really big:

Ida Stewart

Jon Chopan

Natalie Shapero

Doug Watson

and Joe Oestreich