Deep Icelandic Thoughts 4


One of the towns we visited in Iceland is a place called Borgarnes. It was one of the first settlements on the island and was established by a guy named Skallagrímur, who is written about in the Icelandic Sagas as a rather brutal fellow and generally not a very nice person. He made it into the Sagas partly because he was one of the first settlers and partly because his son, Egil, would go on to become one of the heroes of the Sagas. The photo above is a monument in Borgarnes. It stands on a small cliff overlooking the bay and memorializes a Celtic slave, Þorgerður Brák, who was owned by Skallagrímur and who served as Egil’s nanny. As the story goes, one day, the father and son were playing a game, and the son did something that angered the father. The father, being a horrible person, went after the boy to beat him. The nanny stepped between the father and son, giving the son a chance to get away from his dad. Now angered to a murderous state, the father began to chase the nanny, and she ran for her life, knowing that if he caught her, he would kill her. She pelted, with him on her heals, up to the edge of the cliff and, seeing it as her only chance for survival, bravely jumped, plunging into the bay below. When the father arrived at the cliff’s edge, he looked over to see that his quarry had survived her valiant leap, so he picked up a large stone and hurled it down onto her head, killing her.

The monument to this slave stands in honor of her bravery in her willingness to give her life for the life of a child who was not her own and of her compassion in saving an innocent boy who was the son of a horrible man who had wronged her in life and who would be the cause of her death. This beautiful statue says so much about Icelandic culture, that they would memorialize a woman who was not from their country but who, when the chips were down, did the right thing and sacrificed herself so that their hero could live. They also renamed the bay so that the body of water where her body was laid to rest bears her name. While there are obvious connections to make here to current events and the way those from other countries are treated and the way innocent children are being thrust into, rather than out of, danger, what strikes me most about it, perhaps from a broader perspective, is how much the things we memorialize matter. Our memorials, what we put up in stone to show the world tell that world who we were, who we are, and who we want to continue to be. They should remind us of the best of our culture, the best people among us (regardless of where they come from), and the best actions that have been taken on our behalf.

This idea, though, goes deeper than just statuary. I attended an academic conference a few weeks ago, and one of the speakers talked about working with her memories and how she had these bad memories from her childhood that came back to her over and over again. It was like the memories had a hold on her and wouldn’t let her go. She began writing them down as a way to better understand them and also, possibly, as a way to exorcise them or at least give them less power over her. I empathized with her, because I too (as maybe we all do?) have memories, mostly bad ones, that creep up on me and play themselves through my mind, often taking me off guard. In thinking about the idea of memorials and the power that they have to tell us who we were, who we are, and who we can become, I kept coming back to this idea of these powerful negative memories. I began to see them not as just memories, but as memorials in my mind—things that, for whatever reason, my subconscious had decided to erect monuments to, had set in a kind of stone to try to dictate not only who I was, but who I am, and who I can become.

Once I made that connection, I decided that it was time to try to tear down some of the monuments that I had erected. When I find myself dwelling on a negative memory that has plagued me for years, I now attempt to deliberately tear that memory down and, in its place, put up a monument to something more positive, a memory of a time when I was happy, when the people involved were good to me, when I felt safe and at peace. Just like some of the actual monuments in our country that are being torn down, my process is not about forgetting what happened. The events of my past can’t be rewritten. But, I can more carefully and deliberately choose that which I memorialize, that I put on a pedestal as important, that I set in stone as a reminder of who I was, am, and will be. Putting up a memorial to the Celtic slave woman did not bring her back to life and make everything peachy, but it does say that she was important, worthy, someone to be revered and remembered. Working to lessen the presence of the negative stories that run through my mind won’t make those events less hurtful or impactful on my past, but perhaps, by more carefully choosing the memories that become memorials in my mind, I can make them less hurtful and impactful on my present and my future. I’m going to give it a try anyway. Being deliberate and selective about that which we memorialize and what those things say to us and about us is certainly worthwhile.

Deep Icelandic Thoughts 3

One of the many interesting places we visited on our recent trip to Iceland was a geothermic field called Geyser. As you may expect, this location is where you can find two geysers. One was the inspiration for the term geyser (which is Norse for gusher). It used to be big and splashy and regular but now only shoots off every now and then. The other is called the butter churn, and it blows its top every two to ten minutes and can be big and bold or little and sputtery depending on how long it has been since it last spewed.

In addition to those highlights, there are several thermal “pots” and caves where you can see boiling water bubbling in the ground. All around the area, between the pots and running over the earth, are streams and rivulets of water. There are carefully cultivated paths between the sites where visitors can safely walk, and the paths are lined with yellow signs spaced every few feet that remind tourists that the water they are seeing is dangerous, since it comes out of the ground at over 100 degrees Celsius, or 212 degrees Fahrenheit, basically and literally boiling.

The spot wasn’t the most beautiful we visited. If you have been to Yellowstone, the attractions aren’t new or different. A geyser is a geyser, after all. Even in Iceland, just a few miles away, there are hot springs that are more prolific and amazing to witness. What made this place unique was the cognitive dissonance I felt while walking through the site. It was odd to see clear, sparkling water flowing over the ground, water that in any other context would be cool, refreshing, and at the very least, safe to touch, but which, in this context, was potentially, extremely dangerous. The urge to reach out and touch it, to let it run through my fingers and over my hand, was strong, even though there were multiple signs warning against it and even though, looking from just the right angle, I could see steam rising off of it.

I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. As we were walking through the thermal field and back toward the parking lot, there was a couple, a man and a woman, who looked to be in their 20s, walking along the path several yards in front of us. The young man was staring at the water running across the ground next to him, and apparently, the urge to touch it was just too much for him. As his companion continued to walk, taking a few steps beyond and missing the fact that he had stopped and squatted down, the man reached out his index finger and dipped the first knuckle of it in the stream of boiling water. He immediately pulled his injured hand out of the stream and up to his face. From my point of view, still a few yards away, I could see that the end of his finger, which had been perfectly fine a minute before, was a bright, cherry red. The man hopped up and trotted forward to catch up with his companion, holding his finger out in front of him, like he was E.T. getting ready to touch Eliot.

While on one hand this guy was a Darwin award winner waiting to happen, I sympathized with him. It was hard to look at all that water and connect with the idea that it was different than any water I had ever seen running across the ground. Sure, water that comes out of a tap or that is in a pot on the stove can be hot enough to scald, but all of my previous experiences of streams are as sources of cool healing and renewal, not harm. My personal history was trying to convince me that what I was seeing was safe to touch, as I’m sure that young man’s was.

A few days later, we visited a beach that sits pretty close to the exact center of Iceland’s southern coast. The location is stunningly beautiful, with large basalt rock formations jutting up from the sea and black sand beaches stretching in both directions. To the right side as you face the North Atlantic, the beach runs along open ground and up to a visitor parking lot, and to the left, it forms a swath, maybe 25 yards wide, between the sea and looming cliffs that shoot up into the sky. This site experiences what they call “sneaker waves.” This is a phenomenon where the ocean waves will continue for some time in the normal, expected pattern that anyone who has visited an ocean will recognize, but then, suddenly, a wave that is two or three times larger will crash, rushing up the beach much further than those that had preceded it. The travel book about Iceland that I had been reading prior to our visit warns readers who go to this beach to never turn their backs on the sea, as tourists are known to get caught unawares by the sneaker waves. Some have even been dragged out into the freezing ocean and drowned. The trouble with sneaker waves is that, try though you might and watch though you may, determining when one will hit is truly impossible. Each wave looks very much like the next until it hits and comes rushing up the beach and it becomes apparent whether it will stop as usual or continue on toward the cliffs.

We and the other 50 or so tourists who happened to visit the beach that day witnessed a good number of sneaker waves. Yet, I watched as many of the visitors turned their backs on the waves. People climbed onto rocks in the surf that were safe to reach one minute and completely engulfed the next in order to take selfies. When a sneaker wave would hit, people would shriek and laugh and run up the beach, as if they were being chased in a game of tag, giving no sense that they understood the peril of the place. As we were concluding our visit and heading up the beach toward the parking lot, with one eye on the sea as our travel book had encouraged, we saw a wave crash and heard the commotion of those between us and the sea that accompanied a sneaker. Looking fully back, it became apparent that this was the biggest one yet, and we turned, put our heads down, and ran up the beach. Our flight was complicated by others between us and dry land who kept stopping to look behind them and watch the rush of water heading for our feet, and I am not at all sorry to say that I kept running and shoving my way away from the wave that, in its final reach, was only a few inches from my boots. While no one was pulled out to sea, a few of the revelers got very, very wet with very, very cold ocean water.

Again, like at Geyser, it seemed that people’s history, what they knew about beaches and their use and existence as places for play and fun, seemed to work against their ability to take seriously the dangers that the landscape presented. In just a few minutes at the beach, it was easy to get lulled into a sense of what the waves would be like and to forget that each wave had the potential to be very different from the last. In trying to make sense of these experiences, I keep getting stuck on the idea of history and experience and the ways in which those things can blind us to something new and, perhaps especially, something dangerous. If all we have ever experienced from an environment is safety, it is difficult to conceive of danger in that space. But, more than that, if we read our surroundings only through the lens of our experience, not considering that things may be vastly different than how we are perceiving them, we may miss opportunities to learn and even to experience something new. Our minds constantly try to offer us context, to make our experiences line up with what we have experienced in the past. This is part of the learning process, coming to recognize patterns so that we are not constantly relearning but can give things a nod, say to them, “I know what you are. I’ve seen you before,” and move on to, hopefully, either a deeper understanding of them or moving past them to encounter new material.

While the dangers of doing this in Iceland are physical and tangible (the same guidebook I referenced before has a section in the beginning called, “Ways Iceland May Try to Kill You”), in other ways, in our everyday lives, the dangers of assuming that everything will be the way it was, the way it always has been, are subtler. We risk missing new ideas, and we may fall into a trap of believing that our past experiences encompass more of the world than they actually do. It is easy and natural to presume that the world works in ways that fall in line with things we have consistently seen and felt over our lifetimes, but we do ourselves and the world a disservice if we take for granted that our experiences are held in common with others, are predicable, and, maybe most importantly, that they will remain true and consistent in other contexts. The pull to do so, to heed our brain’s urging that the water is cool and that the beach is a place of fun and frolic, is strong. If we want to truly experience new things, which is at the heart of remaining a growing, learning person, we have to hold open the possibility that the very things that seem most fundamental to us and to our experiences of the world may not serve us well in every context. We must accept that things in the world have the potential to be radically, mind-blowingly, beautifully, and, yes, dangerously different than what we have known.

Autobiographical Dissertation Study

If you are on this page, you have probably agreed to engage with me in an autobiographical examination of the dissertation process. While we may get together for some focus-group-type discussions of the subject at some point in the future, I would love to also have participants write about their dissertation experiences. The prompt for that writing is simply to write as much or as little as you like about any memorable moment from your own dissertation development, writing, and defense process. While I really hope that people will simply think back and be able to grab onto those high- or low-lights of their own experiences and write about those, should that not really get the writing juices flowing, you could also consider telling your story around any or all of the following:

  • How you chose your topic, method, research site, etc.
  • What your writing process was like, especially moments during that process that were difficult, challenging, heartening, fulfilling, etc.
  • How the process impacted you (physically and emotionally, as well as intellectually)
  • What your defense and/or committee interactions were like
  • How you chose/worked with your dissertation director
  • If/how your dissertation process impacted who you became during or since
  • If/how your dissertation process may be seen as potentially impacting your future

I have written a few samples of memories from my own dissertation process below. The three samples are on differing topics and of differing lengths to give you an idea of what I have in mind. Feel free, though, to work from any perspective and in any length. I’m really just interested in how you will answer the general question: What was your dissertation process like? What do you remember most about it? And maybe even—What, if anything, do you think those memories mean?

Responses can be written in word processing software or just as the body of an email and sent to me at When sending, do also please let me know if you would like for your anonymity to be preserved, should your stories be used in the final draft. If so, I will make sure that names are changed to protect the innocent.

I will be happy to answer any questions you may have about the project, so just let me know. I would like to have as many responses as I could get by the end of March 2018 so that I may get a clearer idea of how this project will take shape. I had a much bigger response to the initial query than I expected, so we’ll just have to see how it continues to progress.

Many thanks for getting this far with me and considering lending your experiences to this work.


Sample #1 – Committee Antics

I remember a scene with my committee. I believe it was during my proposal defense. One of the committee members said that he didn’t agree with me that the curriculum I had written for my students (and on which my dissertation was focused) was actually service-learning, although I had used that literature to create it and situate it. Another committee member said something along the lines of, “Well, if you don’t consider this service-learning, what do you think service-learning is?” He responded with a very narrow, old-school definition. Before I could respond that the definition had been broadening over recent years, etc., the other committee member said something like, “So, if her curriculum isn’t service-learning, what is it?” They continued to debate with each other for some time, with the others of us in the room watching it like a tennis match. It was a perfectly congenial and intelligent debate, on which I took copious notes. They finally agreed that, perhaps, moral imagination was a better fit for what I was doing. In the end, I took their advice and used moral imagination, rather than service-learning, as a lens for my analysis. In the moment, though, as they were debating, I remember feeling very satisfied with the exchange. Getting a PhD is, in my opinion, about becoming capable of engaging in that kind of academic debate. In that instance, I had successfully pulled two smart, learned, well-considered academics into a discussion on my topic of choice. There was something about it that made me feel as if I had arrived, and that gave me confidence as I moved through the rest of the process.


Sample #2 – The Emotional Weight of the Work

I prepared for writing my dissertation for about 3.5 years. I gathered data over three years, during which time I also collected sources, wrote literature review sections, and laid out my methodology and methods. I spent six months organizing and analyzing data, and then, I set to writing the final draft. By that point, I felt very ready to write, and for the most part, the writing came quickly and without too much difficulty. Sure, there were days when I hated my dissertation, and there were days where it flowed better than others, but overall, the writing didn’t feel extremely onerous. To the contrary, there were many days when I would sit down to write early in the morning with a cup of coffee and still in my pjs and get so engrossed in what I was doing that, before I knew it, it was 3 or 4 in the afternoon, and I had not moved from my desk chair, let alone eaten or bathed or any of that important life stuff.

Even though the writing generally seemed to go well, and even though I never really doubted I would finish, pass my defense, and graduate, the day that I completed the draft was a very emotional day. I wrote the entire final chapter in one sitting, very much in that way of binge writing described above. I remember feeling as if I were rushing to the end, and the closer I got, the larger that final paragraph loomed. When I began what became the last sentence of the draft, I was very aware that they were the final words of the work. Upon placing that last period on the page, I began to weep uncontrollably. I don’t really consider myself an emotionally demonstrative person, and I don’t get into a full on blubber very often, but in that moment, the emotions were so many (happiness, sadness, relief, anxiety, etc.) and so overwhelming that I couldn’t even try to hold them back. I cried for a solid hour.


Sample #3 – How I Chose My Topic, or Rather, How It Chose Me

One of the first classes I was required to take in my doctoral program was called an “Introduction to Doctoral Studies.” A running theme through that course was to attempt, as early as possible, to fix on potential topic areas for our dissertations. The idea, which was totally logical, was that, once we had at least narrowed our focus down to general topic areas, we could aim our course work and the writing and research assignments in those courses toward our topics, which would make the dissertation proposal, literature review, and other parts of the dissertation writing process easier. Having written my masters thesis using feminist theory, I figured I would generally stay in that area, and so I began to look for something that might be a suitable topic for a doctoral dissertation having to do with issues of gender. I settled on researching gender silo-ing in universities, which is the phenomenon of people sorting themselves into particular majors according to gender—where, regardless of the fact that female students out-perform male students in math and science in high school, over 80% of undergrad engineering, math, and hard science degree graduates are male. I conducted a literature review, and there seemed to be some interesting possibilities, especially when the subject was viewed through Judith Butler’s lens of performativity, as I would have done.

For some reason, it never occurred to me to aim my studies at my real reason for exploring a doctoral program in education in the first place, which was a desire to find some new ways to think about writing curricula so that I could get better at my job, which was teaching business writing. I was, though, rather excited about my first curriculum theory class, and it lived up to my expectations. I came to realize that my writing curriculum was difficult in part because it did not honor my ontological and epistemological leanings. Although I have an affinity for and most easily see the world through the lens performativity (very short and uncomplicated version of which is that we are what we do and we do what we are), my class was a case-based class that constantly put students in the position of pretending to be someone other than who they actually were, the person they identified as being, in order to complete assignments. I realized that I needed to align my curriculum with performativity, which would mean allowing students always to write as themselves. This would require creating a curriculum through which students would find a real, legitimate need to engage in business writing. I began to play with ideas of ways to rearrange my course to fit that philosophical commitment.

Over the summer, I hashed out a new curriculum. The center of it was having students work in groups to develop ideas for non-profit organizations that could be started at the university. They would write memos to each other proposing ideas, create reports from research conducted to support those ideas, draft letters and emails to university representatives and outside support for determining feasibility, give presentations to the class about their progress, etc. As the fall semester was approaching, I set a meeting with the director of the business writing program, who was my immediate superior, to run the new curriculum by her and get her approval and input. While the department gave us a curriculum to work with, they were very supportive and open to the instructors modifying the curriculum to meet their needs, which we had all done. However, to my knowledge, I would be the first requesting to basically throw out the curriculum altogether and start from scratch with my own ideas. As the meeting progressed and I explained my ideas to my boss, she was obviously on board and saying all kinds of nice things about my ideas and how she loved what I was doing. Toward the end of the meeting, I asked her, just to be clear, if I had her permission to run with my new curriculum. Her response was not only that I had her permission, but that I should apply to IRB to capture data from the course so that I could write about what I had done in the future. She looked at me and said, “You don’t seem to realize it, but I think this is your dissertation.” It was the first time I considered writing my dissertation about my work as a teacher of writing. My boss was right, though. It did become my dissertation, which totally made sense and was also in line with my theoretical leanings. What could someone espousing performativity possibly write about other than that which forms her identity, what she does, who she is, how she sees herself. First and foremost, to this day, I am a writing teacher, and my dissertation topic allowed me to lean into that identity and has shaped who I have continued to become.




Ask a Silly Question…

Does anyone enjoy reading rhetorical questions, ever? Don’t you think they make the author seem as if she doesn’t know what she is talking about? If I am reading something that has piles rhetorical questions one on top of the other, why should I believe what the author has to say about the topic? Shouldn’t someone with enough credibility on a topic be able to write in declarative sentences, rather than endless strings of rhetorical questions? Do authors really think readers will be fooled into believing that a rhetorical question is an invitation to a discussion in which she might be able to take part, rather than a sort of passive-aggressive statement?

I guess you probably have realized by now that I detest rhetorical questions in writing of just about any sort. I’m sure there is probably a situation in which a rhetorical question is useful and meaningful for the writer and the reader, but I have no idea of what that situation might be. A rhetorical question, by nature, is a question for which no answer is expected. That being the case, it is easy to argue that a simple, declarative statement, that is well-worded with the feelings of the reader in mind, would be clearer and less frustrating for the reader. For this reason, I counsel all of my clients to edit out all rhetorical questions from their writing.

This idea extends well beyond the written page and into other forms of communication. Several months ago, my husband went on a management training course that is offered by his company. When he returned, he asked me, “When you were teaching, what did you do when you had asked a question, looking for a specific response, and people were offering all kinds of answers except for the one you were looking for?” This, apparently, had been a common occurrence for one of the lecturers. My reply, “Don’t ask the question in the first place.”

Teachers often fall into that trap, asking a question with only one, specific answer, and waiting, as the class and teacher get increasingly frustrated, while students try desperately to read the teacher’s mind. Sometimes, teachers do this in an attempt to determine whether or not homework has been done, but if that is the goal, they would be better off giving a quiz. If teachers want to make sure certain points are clear, they would get better results by just stating those points outright. Teachers who want to see if anyone is confused would be better served by asking questions that students can answer truthfully, without trying to engage in mindreading. Like, “What part of the homework was most difficult for you?” Which can then be followed up with, “Why do you think that gave you trouble?” Or even better, other students can get involved by asking, “Did that give anyone else problems?” Or, “Can anyone help clear up the confusion here? Does anyone feel like they have a good handle on it and could explain that for us?”

Questions work best, in writing and in life, when they are things for which we truly don’t know the answer. They can help us facilitate discussion and are often the beginning point for learning. I often tell my kids, “Admitting that you don’t know something and asking questions about it are the first steps to learning anything.” Using rhetorical questions to set up arguments or as the beginning of providing your own answer, though, can turn off the audience, whether they are readers or students or just people you are chatting with. My advice – don’t send a question to do a statement’s job. Am I right, or am I right?

Why I Do What I Do

While it is my intent for this blog to focus on practical writing and editing advice and issues of interest to writers of all sorts, I’m going to take time during this first post to write a little bit about setting up The Publish House. One of the most curious questions I have been asked on this journey of starting an editing company is, “Why do you do what you do?” Why, the questioner was asking without any further context, do you work as an editor? My first response (and those who know me will be surprised to learn that it was intended neither sarcastically nor in any snarky sort of way) was that I do what I do because I can. It has been rare, in the course of decades working in teaching writing, from working in some fine universities to tutoring students hoping to get their GEDs, that I have met people who consider themselves to be good writers. Almost everyone, when they find out that I teach writing and am a writer and editor, replies with, “Oh, I stink at writing.” Yet, it has also been my experience that most of the people I meet are beyond interesting, they are fascinating, with unique stories to tell amassed from lifetimes of individual experiences. I have been blessed with the ability to help people tell their stories.

Even though we live in a time in which writing has become a huge part of the way we interact with the world (my kids spend more time texting their friends than talking to them), it is nonetheless true that most people’s stories will never be heard beyond a handful of close family and friends. For their stories to reach a wider audience, they have to be written down, and most people will never commit their thoughts to the page (or the screen as the case may be). Whether it is just that they don’t believe they have anything to say or they just don’t know how to get what they do have to say out of their brains and down in words, most people’s thoughts will remain their own, captive within their own minds. This is why the mission of The Publish House is to “help authors set their ideas free.”

I would never argue that all ideas are of equal worth. My opinion of the performances on Dancing With the Stars are not as meaningful or important as Einstein’s thoughts on general relativity. A fascist’s opinion of what makes for a superior society, in isolation, is not likely to impact the world in a positive way. Yet, all of those ideas, from thoughts on popular culture to the development of scientific theories to the ravings of a dictator, have the potential, when combined with the rest of human thought and history, to provide us with the possibility of reaching for newer, better, more meaningful ideas.

It is my belief that the world of ideas cannot be diluted by adding to it. It only gets richer, more clear, and at the same time, more beautifully complex. A person’s ideas might not be original, but their perspective always is unique, which creates the potential for newness. I might not say anything new, but I will almost certainly say it in a way that no one else has ever said it, which means that it is possible that the idea might reach someone new or create a new understanding in someone who had previously thought of that same idea only in one particular light.

In all of the teaching and tutoring and editing I have done, I have yet to come across a document that I was sure would never reach an audience or mean anything to anyone. On the few occasions when I have read something and thought, “Well, that’s a waste of ink,” that document usually ends up being the subject of a conversation about how much it meant to another reader. That is why I find it to be a blessing to be able to help authors get their ideas out of their heads and out into the world. I view it as a calling and am rarely as happy as when a manuscript gets returned to an author who is pleased with the results. If we are to continue to face the problems of our world, we will need more ideas about all kinds of things, and we simply can never know where the next Einstein will get his spark of inspiration. Maybe it will be from reading about an idea that is in your head right now.