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Writers Should Write Book Reviews with Tony Eprile

On the podcast: Author and book reviewer Tony Eprile makes the case for why every writer should write book reviews and how to do it.

Find the full transcript after the Episode Notes.

Episode notes

MFA in Creative Writing faculty Tony Eprile has reviewed books, and of course, been reviewed. On this episode, he gives us a peak into his workshop on book reviews and shares the reasons why authors should write them, the pitfalls many new reviewers fall into, and the best practices (hint: don't go full Simon Cowell).

Mentioned in this episode

Colson Whitehead's scathing review of Richard Ford's "The End of the Affair"

Parul Sehgal finds racial and gender imbalances in her review of 125 years of New York Times reviews.

About Tony Eprile

Tony Eprile is the author of "The Persistence of Memory," winner of the Koret Foundation Jewish Book Prize and a "notable book" or "best book" by The L.A. Times, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. He is also the author of "Temporary Sojourner & Other African Stories." Learn more about Tony here.
 

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  • Transcript

     

    Georgia  

    This is Why We Write, a podcast of Lesley University. Every episode, we bring you conversations with authors in the Lesley community to talk about books, writing, and the writing life. I'm Georgia Sparling. And today we're going to talk about book reviews and why writers should write them. My guest is Tony Eprile, who teaches a workshop on this topic. Tony is the author of "The Persistence of Memory" and "Temporary Sojourner and Other South African Stories." His work has been featured in a number of anthologies and publications, including The New York Times Book Review, Esquire and The Massachusetts Review. He also teaches in our MFA in Creative Writing program. Welcome back to the show.

    Tony Eprile 

    Thank you, Georgia. It's great to see you again.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, it's great to have you. So before we talk about the whys, and how's the book reviews, I'm curious about the general landscape of book reviewing today. Like, where are we? What kind of role does that play in the industry?

    Tony Eprile 

    That is actually a really tough question to answer accurately, because it's changed so much. And one of the things I've noticed, as somebody who writes reviews and reads reviews, is how some of the places that really were central to the importance of a book's projectory of how a book was being received, places like The New York Times, for both better and worse, do not have that kind of impact anymore. And so, again, for better or worse, I think book reviewing has become a much more democratic process, where you have people who are professional book reviewers, like Ron Charles, for The Washington Post, who's terrific, and has a number of terrific YouTube videos. And at the same time, you'll have someone who buys a book in a store and reviews it, or buys it on Amazon and reviews it on Amazon. And the impact of the two are, there's some disparity but not as much as there used to be. And so one of the really big changes is that there are lots of people reviewing books who have either done it in an amateur, kind of personal basis, I don't know that amateur is quite the right word, but they're just doing it because they love to do it, and people who might be doing it for the first time. And then people who are very experienced in a field who review books in their field, or people who actually make their living as book reviewers. So it really runs the gamut now. And the difference between the professional or the well-known book reviewer, and the ordinary person is much, much narrower than it once was. So that's a challenge both for authors and publishers, because a book review can make a big difference in selling books and in getting readership. The downside of the democratic process is that, I've seen a lot of writers complain about this, is that you might get an Amazon review that is two stars because the packet was torn in the mail, and it's got nothing to do with what the author wrote and number of stars are drops for that. That's the first thing people look at when they're considering buying a book.

    Georgia  

    That's brutal. Over the past, I don't know, decade or a couple of decades, has there been better represent representation? Like, what authors get reviewed and who's doing the reviewing?

    Tony Eprile 

    I think it's improving, but it's been a slow process. And this is particularly true, I think, of international writers of writers of color, certainly there's a lot more interest now. There's also a lot more attention on the kind of disparity that has existed in book reviewing for such a long time. And some of that attention, interestingly enough, came from two faculty members at our MFA program who helped to start the organization Vida that looked at, they had something called the count and they looked at things like how many reviews are being done of books by women? How many of the reviewers are women? So there's a gender disparity, there's certainly been a an ethnicity and race disparity. In an excellent essay in The New York Times Book Review by Parul Sehgal, she mentioned that a study had been done of The New York Times in 2011, and that 90% of the books represented were by white authors.

    Georgia  

    Wow.

    Tony Eprile 

    So I do want to just refer to that essay by Parul Sehgal, S-E-H-G-A-L, was in The New York Times, February 26, 2021. It's interesting because I've been teaching book reviewing and particularly the notion of literary citizenship and representation for a while, and then here comes an essay that addresses so many of these issues by a writer of color, that really looks, where she was tasked with looking at 125 years, The New York Times Book Review, and getting the opportunity to write a long, and I think, influential essay on the history of The Review, and how things have changed and how things have not changed. And so she mentions a number of those kinds of statistics. And also even just the change in the kind of language, I think that's an interesting aspect of representation is that even 10, 15 years ago, a lot of reviews had a kind of, either use the word "we" or had a sense of "we," and "we" was not really thought through as to who is that "we." Is it all literate readers? Is it writers? Is it wealthy people who live on the Upper West Side in New York and have fairly liberal, bent to their thinking? And it wasn't really thought through or considered or even self awareness as part of that. And I think that has changed a lot. I don't have a problem with using "we" when you're thinking about readers, that the "we" needs to be inclusive. The "we" needs to be all, people from all over the world and all different backgrounds and not, as it for a long time was, mostly white male, upper class.

    Georgia  

    So when did you get interested in writing book reviews? Or when did you start kind of analyzing them?

    Tony Eprile 

    So I started writing them probably before I started analyzing them. [laughs] Although, I was always aware, I think as somebody who has had a long interest in African literature in particular, but also much literature from around the world. I love Japanese literature, I read a lot of Indian authors from the subcontinent. And I've noticed how they were either not being reviewed or often being reviewed in ways that were more anthropological than literary. So I think that's something I became aware of very early on just because of my reading interests. I started writing book reviews actually at like the top because I got asked by a editor at The New York Times to write a book review after my of my first book of stories came out. And he was looking for someone to review a book of South African stories who had knowledge of the literature, and particularly knowledge of Black South African literature. And I fit the bill. And so I wound up working with him, I've known him for over 30 years now and we're still friends. He's not an editor there anymore, but he was a very, very helpful editor, an excellent editor of my own work. And I will say one anecdote about this, which is I wrote a book review for him at some point after I'd written a number of book reviews, and he said, "You know, this is fine, I could publish it as it is. You can do better."

    Georgia  

    [laughs] Ouch.

    Tony Eprile 

    [laughs] I was like, ouch. And I went back and I wrote a much more sharper, I thought, better review and he said, "Okay, that's what I was looking for." And so you need that kind of editor once in a while to just sort of knock off any arrogance that has crept in and just keeping us honest.

    Georgia  

    What value is there for a writer in writing book reviews?

    Tony Eprile 

    I think there's, well, a number of kinds of value. One is it really makes you think about what makes a book work, and what is a good book. An equally important one is that writers want to be reviewed as well and be intelligently reviewed. And so this becomes part of our being part of a community of writers. And part of the reason I teach book reviewing is I want to make sure that community is enlarged and is, again, much more representative. So that the kinds of books reviewed, but also the voices that are reviewing, are much more diverse and and for that reason, much more interesting.

    Georgia  

    So, when you teach your class where do you start? [laughs] How do you start to get people into the right frame of mind to write a good book review?

    Tony Eprile 

    So I started this, not as a class, I started this with my individual students, because one of the things we do in the MFA program is have people write craft annotations as part of their education. That's a way of learning, self-editing, editing of other people and your yourself, but also a way of focusing on how is the story made? How is this novel made? What are the techniques the writer is using? And that's a very useful thing to do, but it also is a very academic thing to do. So that I was thinking, you know, these are creative writers, they're not going to be necessarily teaching or not necessarily writing for the academic world, they're going to be writing for readers and for other writers, and the place to do that is in a book review. And there always are editors looking for good reviewers, so it's also a great way to get published. If you're a young writer, emerging writers, I use young in the sense of anyone who's just starting out, [laughs] young can be all kinds of ages, and you'd like to get your name out there and have some connections, and this is a great way to do it. And it's also, again, a way to think about the larger sphere of writing books, which is who's the audience? What are you trying to say? What are readers interested in? And really thinking about much more of that interaction between audience and writer.

    Georgia  

    How has writing book reviews affected your own craft?

    Tony Eprile 

    I try not to think about reviewers when I write.

    Georgia  

    Seems like probably a healthy thing [laughs]

    Tony Eprile 

    [laughs] I know that sounds a little hypocritical as someone who writes book reviews, but I think it's, I'm thinking more of the reception by a reader than I am of reviewing, because it's very easy to get self conscious about what you're writing. If you're thinking, "what are the reviewers looking for? What do readers and reviewers like to read? So, I'm hoping it hasn't affected my personal craft too much. I think writing reviews has helped me have a better sense of structure, of why some books don't work quite the way they should work, the places where a writer might have put a book out too soon into the world because there's lots of pressure on you as writers to have a book out, especially if you're a writer who teaches and you're coming up for tenure or something along those lines. And I do come across quite a number of books that I feel, "Gosh, I wished you'd taken another year to just really absorb and think this through and let it percolate." And so that's something that the reviewing has had me think about. That's not always the best thing because then I second guess and part of being a creative writer is you have an inner critic that you need to use wisely, but also know when to turn off.

    Georgia  

    What's the difference between a good review and a bad review?

    Tony Eprile 

    Okay, so we're talking about a good review in the sense of a well-written, effective, intelligent review, as opposed to the way that writers might say "I got a bad review" and a negative review. So good review and bad review in this instance is not negative or positive praising. So I think the first requirement is it actually addresses the book that was written. [laughs] And that's that sounds like a really simple thing, but you would be surprised how many reviews are complaining that this was a steak and not a chicken, and this was, I wanted chicken and you served me steak and this is why it's wrong. It's right about the book that was written and from there, the standards then become more about the author's intentions as much as we know them, but really what the book is. And it really is amazing how often that is honored in the breach and just ignored. When, I think a little more with nonfiction reviews, particularly when someone is in a specialized field, that they're too often a reviewer, will talk about their interest rather than the interest of the author and the interest of the book that's out there. So that, to me, is an important starting place. I think another really key aspect is to be aware that a big part of your duty as a book reviewer is to give a sense of the book. What's the architecture of the book? What's it about? Why should I read it, or why should I not read it? And another aspect of book reviewing is that it is also a form of essay and entertainment. The main difference, I think, between criticism and book reviewing is when you write a book review, you are operating under the assumption that the reader has not read the book. Whereas if you're writing criticism or analysis, you can either assume the reader has read it, or is going to read it, and then come back to your analysis. So part of what you're doing is you are providing interest and entertainment and a well-written essay, but you're also providing a service of giving a reader an idea of what the book is about, and what the book is doing and why it's valuable, why it's defective, or maybe why it's failing.

    Georgia  

    I read in some of the notes that you give to your students, that this is from Michael Anderson, who I think is the person you're referencing before, and he's a former New York Times Book Review editor. And he said that you're in the business of writing judgments, not opinions. Could you talk a little bit about that? Like he said, I think he said, ask the question, like, why did you like it? And not what did you think about it?

    Tony Eprile 

    Okay, well, that is Michael. [laughs]

    Georgia  

    [laughs] Or you may disagree?

    Tony Eprile 

    I don't always fully agree. But I do think, I do think it's an intelligent way of thinking about. Judgments are based on what you're presented with, and based on facts. One can have an opinion about something that you know nothing about. And I think that's the distinction he's trying to make here is that a book review is expected to make a judgment, it's one of the things that a book review is doing is it's curating the mass of literature out there and saying, read this book, or this book's gained a lot of attention, but it's not worth reading. So it's doing one of those two things. And especially if someone writes reviews regularly, then the readers get to know that person's taste. And they can say, "Okay, I love the books this person loves, I don't really agree always about the books they don't love." So then you know something about how they review and whether you want to use their reviews as a reason to, to buy an unknown author's work, not the author, but the

    Georgia  

    Yeah.

    Tony Eprile 

    So I think it is the business of judgments. And I often find that, increasingly today, writers are not providing judgments. I'll get into why that is a little later. But I think there's a lot less judgment now than there was in book reviewing 20 years ago. And I, I think that, again, the judgments are really helpful, because there's so many books out there, and relatively little time. And so having a reader, a reviewer with a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge, telling you, "this is a good book, this is why" it's can be very helpful. But it really needs to be based on, on the actual book, as I said before, not the book you wish they had written or you would have written if you had been the author. And it's really useful for to be based on a knowledge of the field and of the literature involved.

    COMMERCIAL

    Georgia
    We'll be back after a quick break.
    Janet Pocorobba
    Hi, I'm Janet Pocorobba, an alumna of the Lesley MFA program in creative writing. And I now work in the program as their associate director. And one of the biggest strengths of the Lesley program is its intimacy. We have classes that are very small and Socratic. We don't have large lectures. There's just this exposure factor, I think, where they just get this up close look at many kinds of writers and teachers, including interdisciplinary ones people, not from their genre. And I think that really leads then to a very holistic kind of experience.

    Georgia
    Learn more at lesley.edu/writers. There's also a link in the show notes. Okay, back to the interview.

    Georgia  

    For your students, or anybody who is thinking about starting to write more book reviews, where, where do they start? What, how do they start to write a good one? Especially given that there could be, yeah, it could be a field that's covered in the book that they're not familiar with, or it could be a format that they're not familiar with.

    Tony Eprile 

    So, I would say the first place to start is to read book reviews. And one of the things that we teach a lot is close reading and reading critically. Reading to see "how is something made?" So you can read a book review to look at how it, how it's made? Why does this work? Why do I love this book review? Why do I like reading this reviewer rather than that reviewer? so that that I think is the first place to start is just too familiarize yourself with the territory. And so that's a start. Then I have the guidelines, I give students most mostly courtesy of Michael Anderson, which is--and they're just somewhat different if you're reviewing poetry, or if you're reviewing nonfiction, then if you're reviewing a novel, a book of stories. But I think an important one is learning to, to summarize the architecture of a work, and to do so in an interesting way. And also learning to pick out the voice of the author, to choose really useful quotes. And those are those aren't that difficult skills to learn. But that's essentially what makes for a well written interesting book review. So the other aspect is I'd also say, sometimes you have no choice and editor sends you a book and says, review this book. But I think the best way to become a good book reviewer is to think of what your own interests are. Think of what unique knowledge you have, because of your interests, or your work, or your life experience. And try to review books that connect with that. In my case, and I did try and branch out of that somewhat, but because I'd read a lot of African literature, I got to review books by African authors. And that was wonderful, I discovered authors I didn't know I got to write about authors I already knew and and whose work I loved. So, it became a niche. And it became something where I would hear from book review editors. Are you interested in reviewing this book or that book?

    Georgia  

    When you are reading a book that you're going to review? How does that change your reading experience

    Tony Eprile 

    That's a really good question, because sometimes I really missed just reading a book for pleasure, when I was writing reviews. Because, partly, you don't have time to, ideally, you would read it for pleasure. And then you'd go back and read it to review. But generally, you don't have that kind of time. And so when I'm reading a book, for review, I'm reading a little more critically, I'm making notes. I'm looking for things like the again, what's the, if it's a novel, what's the plotline here, if it's nonfiction, what is the main argument being presented. I'm looking for quotes that will stand out that will give a sense of the author. And so it's a little more like reading a book to write an essay about it, than it is just picking up a book and reading to get lost in the world of that, that book. And poetry is is different here, too, because poetry reviews not only look at what are these poems about, but they look at things like the, a lot of more technical craft related issues. And what kind of poems are being written? Are these formal? Are these informal? What kind of innovations is the poet doing? So? So one winds up looking at some of those kinds of things when you're reading to review?

    Georgia  

    Is there an ideal length for book reviews? Or does it really just depend on the publication?

    Tony Eprile 

    I think a lot depends on the publication. I give my students a requirement of 800 words with a minimum of 750. And say you can't go much over that 825 is fine. 900 is not. And the reason for that is that if you look at, say the Boston Globe book reviews, The New York Times Book Reviews, they are of a very specific length. And if your editor asked you to write a review of that length, you're not going to get asked back if you write a review that's three times as long and needs to be cut or you know, or half the length and needs to be expanded. So, and it's a use- again, it's a useful skill to learn to write, the length that you're asked to write and to really fit in the kind- the of the amount of material That will go there effectively.

    Georgia  

    Is there a place for the mean reviews? Or the really snarky reviews? And I think we probably all like to- well, I don't know if we all, but you know, there's that Simon Cowell effect that there's something like-.

    Tony Eprile 

    Firstly, those are, can be fun to read especially in a kind of real schadenfreude way. They can definitely be fun to write. I think they tend to more- there are certain reviewers who will write those kinds of reviews and people like to read them for that reason. They are often more likely to be written by beginning reviewers, who are a little bit nervous or self-conscious about their own abilities and their own place in the literary world and, and want to show how tough and critical they are. And I was one of those. I wrote much more critical reviews when I started out. I actually did have an author track me down, this was before the age of Google and so on, and yell at me because he said my review upset his mother. [laughs] I think, I actually said to him, "Well, I don't really see the point of this conversation, because I can tell you why I didn't like your book. But I've already done that, in print. And I can't see that making you any better, make you feel better about this." And he said, "Well, I hope I never meet you." So then we left it at that. That was a little, you know-. [laughs]

    Georgia  

    Did you ever meet him?

    Tony Eprile 

    He actually became a quite powerful figure in the publishing world. So I always somehow manage to pick fights with people much bigger than me. [laughs] But no, we, we've never actually met. That was quite- that was a while ago, and I did wind up feeling a little bad about the review, although I also thought my points were justified. I think that was one review where I wound up having a snarky last line, I regretted that, it was fun to write at the time. But I think, I think there's a place for the really critical, tough, even snarky sarcastic review, I do give my students the Colson Whitehead review of Richard Ford and talk about that, that the aftermath the story of that where Richard Ford spat on him at a party.

    Georgia  

    I don't know that story.

    Tony Eprile 

    [laughs] it's very been written about.

    Georgia  

    Sounds legendary though. [laughs]

    Tony Eprile 

    It also can be kind of literary gossip, it can be a lot of fun and, and. My feeling about this, though, is, again, very much like life don't punch down. You- it's, you don't want to see someone who's a well established writer trashing a new book by a little known author, it's just and that can also backfire. Interestingly, I've seen that happen, but it just it, it feels like just poor taste, bad behavior. Take on someone who's either bigger than you, or your own weight in this world. There is a tendency for writers, especially younger writers to try to take down the well known author to show, "I know what's wrong with that person." And we've seen that with Dale Peck had a famous review of- that mentioned a writer as being, "the worst writer of his generation,"- a well known writer. And that actually got Dale Peck a lot of attention and and raised his career profile, but it also was felt by a lot of people, "well that's what you're trying to do here is you want to be really controversial and you want to get a lot of attention. And again, this may just be kind of poor sort of behavior on your part." I do like, I mean, I will admit to enjoying really sharp sarcastic reviews, it's- there's something pleasurable in that. There's certainly no pleasure being on the receiving end of those. I have had my own bad reviews. Fortunately, not a lot of them. I did reply to one of them only because there was a factual error and it was a very negative review, but why I replied is, it basically criticized me as being anti-American because in my novel, I compare the war in Namibia to the war in Vietnam. It was very strange and I, I sent in some information to point out that the soldiers in selection soldiers in Namibia refer to it as the Nam. And there's I said picture of a T-shirt that has a map that says the Nam and it's Namibia. And so I felt fine if you want to state an opinion that that "every word I write is wrong, including "and" and "the" but, get your facts straight." [laughs] And what was funny is the reviewer then wrote a long rebuttal, which listed his credentials to be a reviewer, I think beginning with grade school, and mentioning how well he did at Yale and so on, and just, I thought it was actually very funny response because as I was like, "well, you're insecure." [laughs]

    Georgia  

    Yeah, he didn't take that criticism very well. [laughs] Yeah. So, is, is there then a big responsibility on the part of the reviewer to, to follow up on those things or to have sort of, I guess, yeah, to fact check yourself?

    Tony Eprile 

    I think there is a responsibility to be factually accurate. And it also really makes you look bad when you're called out. I mean, anybody can make a mistake, but I think most and again, this is a big difference between reviews like Goodreads and Amazon and so on, is that the New York Times fact checks like crazy. I think there's that responsibility. I also think there's a responsibility to, to the literature, to trying to get a book out in the world to get readership for books that deserve readership. And I felt this responsibility, particularly as someone who writes about African literature that when I was moving at one point, my editor wasn't able to find me, I didn't know he was looking for me for a book review of a South African book, and the book never got reviewed in the New York Times. If he had gotten it to me, it would have gotten I would have reviewed it, they would have run the review. So I felt you know, I do feel there's that responsibility that if you have an interest in an expertise, you can be the person who gets an unknown Trinidadian writer's work reviewed in a major publication. I do think as a reviewer with an expertise, that you also have that, that responsibility to try and expand what's being read by American and American readership.

    Georgia  

    So does that mean writing more about the books that you liked than the books that you didn't?

    Tony Eprile 

    It does, I think, also, the more one writes reviews, the less you want to write bad reviews, because, especially in a world where you're aware that someone has spent years of their life writing this book, and they're relying on sales, and they're relying on good reviews to ever be published again. So one does not want to be mean spirited, if possible, even if you- So I've actually taken the option with not every editor likes this, but where I've actually said, "I'm just not the reviewer for this book, or I am not going to review it. If I hate the book," I was asked to write a review of a well known South African author who had been kind to me and to other young South African writers and I had not liked her recent books and I had told the book review editor, I'm happy to review the book if I like it. If I feel critical of the book, I'm going to pass. And the book review editor said "I'll give it to someone else." Which was fine. I think that was fair. I just didn't feel like I wanted to be the person to be pointing out, you know, the "Emperor's New Clothes" or whatever the [laughs] the right metaphor might be of a writer who I generally respected a great deal but wasn't always happy with the direction. There was an review I've just been I've been giving my students now came out recently. That was called- this is my begins saying, "This is my last review." And I believe it was by Elizabeth McCracken. And yeah, it's called "Mother Hen." And it's a review of a book saying- where she basically says, "this is a well written book, I can see why other people would love it. I just wasn't interested in it. I'm not sure how useful that is to you, the audience." And see, actually use this review to explore that question of "should novelists be reviewing other novelists? Should they be-, what do you do if you recognize that there's a lot of people who are going to love this book, but I don't? "And I think there she's addressing a little bit that question you asked me about earlier about judgment versus opinion. And so saying, "Well, I have an opinion about this book. I'm not sure, my judgment and my opinion, in this case, are totally together." So that was also kind of a fun review to read, because, [laughs] but it also felt a little bit like a cop out because dammit, I wanted a- "what did you think" [laughs]. But, I get the point. And I get that the- I think I mentioned earlier that we're seeing fewer critical reviews, I think, in part because we're so much aware of the economic impact on writers that this potentially can have, and on the publishing possibilities for that writer, so you really do feel it's not just a question of "do I like this book?" or "do I dislike this book?" It's, "is my review going to hurt or help this author?" And so I think that's, that's kind of a question and a problem, because you start to get a lot of, of bland reviews as a result where someone doesn't love a book, but they don't want to say anything bad about it. And you also start getting a lot of reviews that simply avoid making an opinion. They simply tell you what the book is about. And that to me is more like a book report. That is not a book review, a review involves saying "this was good, this was not good. This works for this reason, it doesn't work for that reason."

    Georgia  

    Are there any other things that you always try to impart to your students, when you're teaching them about book reviews?

    Tony Eprile 

    A couple of things. One is there are also retrospective reviews. I don't think I've mentioned that here. But there are particularly in literary magazines, they often will have column about lost books or forgotten books. So this can be a great opportunity to take a book that you read and loved that may not be well known or may-, maybe hasn't gotten attention in 20 years, and write a retrospective review that explores why this is still a great book to read at this time. So there, that's another thing one can, can do as a reviewer. You can certainly review- poetry, there's always a demand for reviewing because so often poetry books do not get reviewed. And finally, I would say, writing reviews also allows you to learn to be more critical, to read reviews more critically and with a more knowledgeable eye.

    Georgia  

    Yeah, that is great advice and lots of good information.

    Tony Eprile 

    Thank you, Georgia it's always wonderful talking to you. I appreciate it.

    Georgia  

    Thank you for listening to my conversation with Tony Eprile. Check out the show notes for links to many of the reviews that we mentioned today. And if you like what you heard, you can always take classes with Tony and our other creative writing faculty. There's a link for our low residency MFA in creative writing program in the show notes as well. And now that you know all about review writing, why not take a few minutes and go write a nice one for us over on Apple podcasts. It helps others find the show. Of course, you can leave the sticky ones to yourself. And last but not least, if you have an idea for a future episode, shoot me an email at news@lesley.edu. I'd love to hear from you. All right, we'll be back in two weeks with our next episode.