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MFA in Writing at Vermont College

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Too Many Cookies Are Not Funny!

I am stuffed!

I’m not kidding.  I don’t think I could eat one more Christmas cookie.  Not one more pinwheel, peanut butter ball, gingerbread man, thumbprint, pecan finger, ginger snap, shortbread, chocolate chew, molasses cream, nut ball, pecan tassie, or sugar cookie. 

No more.  My stomach feels like I just went over a roller coaster.  But those peppermint meringue cups look so good!  Maybe I could have one tiny taste.  No! Stop Jeff.  This has gone too far.  You are not allowed to have any more cookies.

Okay, I admit it… I have a tendency to take things past my limits.  My eyes are bigger than my stomach and I end up paying the price later.  There was the time I wanted to go for a day long hike and ended up back at the car an hour later exhausted.  Or the time I went on the 20 mile bike ride and coasted home on fumes.   Or the time I decided to walk up the stairs to work and got stranded two floors below my office sweating through my dress shirt.

I have come to accept this as a part of my personality.  I call him EXTREME Jeff!

But I never thought EXTREME Jeff would show up in my writing.  Yet that is exactly what has happened.  You see, according to my advisor I overuse humor.

The thing about humor is that, much like cookies, it is best in moderation.  Too much can make a reader a bit queasy.  One joke after another becomes tiring and draining.  A good comedian will pace and set up his jokes for maximum result.  I do nothing of the sort.  I hit ’em upside the head and hope they laugh. 

But that joke is just so funny that perhaps I can keep it in and… Stop it Jeff!  You need to know your limits.  You don’t need the whole tray of cookies. 
So how does one learn moderation?  Perhaps I could go to Humor Anonymous for help.  Maybe my friends will organize a funny intervention.  I may need to get a priest to exorcise EXTREME Jeff from existence.   I need some serious help here.  I am just too funny! 
Oh my stomach hurts.  Who needs this many cookies.  It is a good thing that Christmas only comes once a year and that my books are not published.  Otherwise we would live in a world of sugary, humorous gluttony. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Telling a story through Christmas lights

Writing a story is kind of like stringing Christmas lights:

It starts with one bright idea.

That strings together into a tale.

Before beginning to write, I make sure to line up my way so I don’t go adrift.

Once I have my path I am ready to get started.

I begin with one sentence that builds to another and to yet another.

It begins to turn, twist and grow in unexpected ways.


And before you know it I am tangled in an evil web that I have spun.


Sometimes I manage to come out unscathed and can breathe a sigh of relief.

Sometimes, no matter how hard I try it doesn’t seem to work!

I can't wait until I get to start hanging ornaments on my story!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Words that make me laugh!

There are certain words that crack me up.  It has nothing to do with their meaning or the context of how they are used.  Just simply the sound of the word causes me to burst out in laughter. 

Gaggle                                     Pumpernickle                        Succotash

Dimple                                    Huckleberry                            Goop

Baboon                                   Chinchilla                              Hornswoggle

Noodle                                    Babushka                                Ridonkulas

Tofurkey                                 Sputnik                                   Earwig

Gurgle                                     Jabberwocky                           Lederhosen

Malarkey                                 Periwinkle                               Oodles

Rhinoplasty                            Sassafras                                   Wiggle

Who knew words could be so funny!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Time for Giving Thanks

A list of things for which I am thankful:

·         Bacon

·         The Green Bay Packers undefeated season (so far)

·         Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups

·         Tom Waits' early albums

·         The new Andrew Clements book on my nightstand

·         Candy (those of the sweets variety and my wife)

·         Origami Yoda

·         John Axford’s fastball

·         The color blue

·         Pencil Thin mustaches

·         The Wine Pit!

·         The eloquence of Trevanian

·         Hannah, Kevin, Sarah, Ben, Charlie, Claire and Natalie

·         Root Beer

·         The PB&J stand at the Detroit Airport

·         My mother  (Hi Mom!)

Saturday, November 19, 2011


I want to be a whale!

Yes, this is partly because I think it would be cool to have a tail.
Yes, this is partly because I have always wanted to speak in moans and screeches.
Yes, this is partly because I love to eat seafood.
And Yes, this is partly because I think the name Killer Whale would be totally awesome.

But today I want to be a whale because they are so calm and collected as they glide through the ocean despite the fact they can’t breathe under water.   If I spent the majority of my day in an environment in which I could not breathe I would be thrashing and flailing like a madman.  But not whales.  They simply remain calm, coast around the ocean and surface every four hours or so for a little air. 

No big deal that they can’t breathe!

I want to be a whale because at the moment I feel as if I live in an environment in which I can’t breathe.  I am currently writing this post while staring at an overflowing in-box, a little red flashing light on my office phone is blinking at me, my email inbox says there are 34 unread messages and I am behind with my VCFA packet.   I sure do wish I could calmly look at all of this and gently glide away without a care in the world like a whale.  Instead I am thrashing and flailing like a madman.

Deep breaths Jeff!  Deep breaths!

It could be worse.

I could be Joe Paterno.
I could be a Wisconsin politician.
I could be at an opera.
I could be dog sitting my friend's Rottweiler.
I could be losing my hair (wait that IS happening!)
I could be napping in a bear’s den.
I could be out in the freezing cold deer hunting.
I could be watching a romantic-comedy (they are neither romantic nor comedic!)

Okay… I am feeling better. 
I have come up for air, now it is back to the ocean.


Thursday, November 3, 2011

My book jacket - these words could strangle my story!

What to do with a critique that pile drives your story to pulp?  How to react to a review that gives your story repeted dropkicks to the solar plexus?   How to handle comments that shred your book to confetti?

I reccommend turning them into book jacket blurbs. 

I will now attempt to take actual comments made during a critique last evening of one of my stories and turn them into blurbs for my book jacket.  I hope they don't strangle my book!

Excessive Humor, Excessive Humor, Excessive Humor - Humor can't kill you, can it?

This book rivals a novel of blank pages!

If you enjoy repetition, redundancy and someone telling you the same thing over and over then read this book!

Inactivity and Neurotic Characters =  a hit!   Like hit me over the head!

You should read this book!  And other things Mr. Schill will TELL and not show you!

A wonderful children’s tale told through Mr. Schill’s mouth and not his characters!

If you enjoy basket-case characters and neuroses then this is the book for you!

Who doesn’t enjoy useless Midwestern language?

Story, Plot and Voice are overrated.  Read this book!

Who needs likable characters… read about people you hate!

The perfect book to put you to sleep!

Monday, October 31, 2011

Playing for Cheescake

On Saturday evening I returned home to find my house filled with card playing women! 

That sounds like the opening to a great novel but in reality it was simply my wife’s turn to host the monthly girlfriend game night.  Not being privy to many “girl” moments in my life I will admit I was curious and purposely came home early to see what this game night was all about. 

I will now observe this rare species in its natural habitat and witness first-hand the communication skills of this utterly strange and confusing creature called… woman! 

This picture has been altered to protect the identity of those involved

I was surprised to see that the game in the center of table held very little interest.  There was no score, no leader, very little intensity and certainly no taunting.  I was entranced… this was like no card game I had ever witnessed before.  Conversation topics ranged from fashion to movies to recipes to the snacks on the coffee table.  I took a handful of trail mix and pondered my strange surroundings.

Observed in their natural habitat woman behaves in a dignified and respectful manner, never competing with another and frequently making use of compliments.  All competitive tendencies, natural to most animal species, appear nonexistent.

Frequently throughout the game I heard the comment, “Oh, we forgot to bet.” I do not believe this has ever been uttered at a card table before.  I looked away to the appetizer table for answers but only found more questions: how do they grow pumpkin spiced almonds?
I pulled myself away from the food to observe the action of the game as it was coming to an end and a winner would soon be crowned.

“Whoever wins this hand gets the first piece of cheesecake!”

I nearly fell off my chair. 

Men play for honor!  We play for bragging rights!  We play to conquer! 

We do not play for cheesecake!

It dawned on me at that moment that I could never in a million years write a woman character accurately.  They play cards for cheesecake for goodness sake!

That evening I went to bed and began reading Libba Bray’s Going Bovine and happened to notice she was writing from the viewpoint of a teenage boy!  This was all too weird.  Here I was just pondering how someone could possibly write from the opposite gender and Whoop here it is.

Now granted, to write from the viewpoint of a teenage boy you merely have to keep things simple, swear occasionally and have them get all squirmy whenever a girl comes near.  I know this because I lived it… I went through it… I was there!  Bray was not.  I give her credit for stepping outside herself and successfully creating an unfamiliar character.

It must have taken Bray years to write that kind of book.  I mean, I spent several uncomfortable years in the mind of a teenage boy and I never want to go back.  I can’t imagine the effort it took her to create an authentic and real character.  I spent a whole 45 minutes with a gaggle of card playing women and am pretty sure I will never be the same.  

Here's to you Libba Bray for getting in the head of the opposite gender and trying to figure out what is going on in there.  You are a brave woman.

And with this we end our lesson. Please tune in next week as we explore why women go to the restroom together.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Ghosts, Graveyards and Grammar

When I get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom I turn on all the lights and drag along my Louisville Slugger…  I am not going to get surprised by the unliving empty handed.

Just the idea of some former resident of my house scuffling down the hall, rattling chains while I’m trying to do my business gives me the heebie-jeebies.  I mean ghosts don’t come back to tell the current resident they’re out of milk… no they come back to haunt you out of the house.

The only good thing about a house ghost is that they are alone.  Now you go to a graveyard and it is a different story.  We’re talking gangs of ghosts prowling around waiting for you to come walking through the wrought iron gate. 

I do not like ghosts.  I do not like graveyards.

But I would rather face a bunch of Thriller video dudes coming out of the ground and chasing me down the street than try to understand grammar.  I mean why does the English language have to be so challenging?

The farm was used to produce produce.
We must polish the Polish furniture.
When shot at the dove dove into the bushes
They were too close to the door to close it
The buck does funny things when the does are present
Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear

Writers write but fingers don’t fing, grocers don’t groce and hammers don’t ham
The plural of tooth is teeth but booth is not beeth
One goose, two geese so why not one moose, two meese?

See why I am so confused!  I can’t take the insanity of it all.

Here is a compliment I received during a recent critique regarding a bit of dialogue in my story. Your character “talks too much and he gets usage a bit wrong.  He’s pretentious and a bit stupid.  Good example of showing character through dialogue.”

The problem is I thought the dialogue WAS grammatically correct.  Does that mean I am pretentious and a bit stupid? Oh goodness, I better get a handle on this grammar thing. 

Why do we ship by a truck and send cargo by ship?
Why do noses run and feet smell?
Why are a wise man and a wise guy opposite?
You fill in a form by filling it out!
When the stars are out they are visible but when the lights are out I am in the dark!

Grammar is scary!  Ghosts and graveyards have nothing on grammar.  In fact, grammar can easily get the best of death.  Just check out these grammar mistakes on headstones. 

I know this is going to be me.  I will be resting in eternity with a grammar mistake on my tombstone.  For the love of William Strunk please do not let this happen to me!  I can’t go down in a flame of grammar mistakes.

Perhaps I am overreacting.  I suppose things could always be worse.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


The science of dating events and variations in environment in former periods by comparative study of growth rings in trees and aged wood

By studying the cross section of trees scientists are able to analyze rings to determine the life span of a tree.  They can track weather patterns such as drought years and rainy summers.  They can analyze long harsh winters and prosperous summers.  The entire life of the tree is there for all to see.  Everything that has happened in the life span of that tree can be seen in those lines.

I was reminded of these tree rings when I looked in the mirror after a recent haircut.


My forehead is shinier than glass in a desert sun.

At least a tree has to be cut down before a scientist can study its history; I have my rings on full display as I walk around town.  Look at all those wrinkles on my face!

I know… I know I’m getting older and losing your hair is part of the process.  I just didn’t think I would get old so fast!  I mean people put on their sunglasses when they see me approach.

        “There goes old shiny head!”

 “All of these lines upon my face.  Tell you the story of who I am.  So many stories of where I’ve been.  And How I got to where I am.”  – Brandi Carlile, The Story

Those lines on my face tell the story of who I am and where I’ve been.  Every joy, every disappointment, every thrill, every rejection, every fear, every blessing, every path I have chosen in my life.  It is the story of how I have gotten to where I am and the person I am today. Those wrinkles are like my very own autobiography. 

I sat there staring into the mirror looking at my receding hairline and wondering where the time had gone.  Wasn’t I young yesterday? 

But as I rubbed the tiny spots at my hairline I found myself more focused on where I am going than where I have been.
I was thinking of my future not my past.  And you know what… I think that is the way it should be.  I doubt a tree has ever stopped growing to analyze its own lines… it just keeps moving forward trying to add another line to its foundation.  So that is what I plan to do as well.

I now have plenty of room on my forehead for more lines.  I might as well make use of the space.

Where will my writing career take me over the next several years?  What will my VCFA experience expose me to?  Do I have a line on my face for writing?

All I know for sure is that I plan to keep plugging away and as I move forward more lines will appear on my face.  But thankfully my hair is moving out of the way to make room for more of a story.

I’m a writer after all... it’s all about the story.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What Is That Stain?

Let me begin this post by saying I am not a germaphobe. 

I drink water out of the yard hose.  I double dip my salsa chips.  I very rarely wash my coffee mug and I tend to use the same bath towel until it can stand on its own. I am not one to be concerned with germs.

Muck / [muhk] noun
filth, dirt, or slime.

But I must admit that library books freak me out! 

It seems every book I check out from my local library is filled with strange globs, goops and spills.  I mean what is all that stuff?  I swear the previous reader of the book was a hungry woodchuck slurping down mashed potatoes while turning the pages with sticky paws.  What else could possibly make those types of stains?

What are those mysterious chunks stuck in the spine of the page?  What is that sticky substance in the corner?  Where could that splotch of goop have come from?  Opening a library book is kind of like opening up a mystery surprise… you’re never quite sure what you’re going to find.

Gunk [guhngk] noun Informal .
any sticky or greasy residue or accumulation: gunk on the oil filter.

I feel as if I have to take a shower after every library book I read.  I vote to place sterilizer machines at each library checkout counter.  Perhaps we can laminate every page of every book or use handy wipes to scrub down every book on every shelf.  I am in favor of a law that makes it illegal to eat and read a library book at the same time.

Splotch [sploch] noun
a large, irregular spot; blot; stain; blotch.

For research sake I have decided to document the peculiar stains that I encounter in library books.  Maybe I will send all these photographs to my local Senator.  Perhaps I will create a coffee table book with all my photographs that others can check out from the library and spill things on.

But by drawing attention to this travesty I hope to recruit others to my cause.  We will call ourselves the Stainless Book Club or Those Against the Gooey Decimal System or The Dirty Librarians. Okay the name is a work in progress. 

Goo [goo] noun Informal.  
a thick or sticky substance: Wash that goo off your hands.

In the meantime if you see some strange guy at the library turning pages with pristine white gloves, it is not a famous archivist or a rare books librarian, it is most likely me just trying to get a little reading done.

sludge [sluhj] noun
any of various more or less mudlike deposits or mixtures.

Seriously, what is this stuff?