Tag Archives: WAC/WID

Word by word, composing myself

I write about 3-4,000 words a week. At least. Some weeks, more than that. How do I do it? Word by word.

And I don’t watch much television.

Most of the time, I don’t worry too much about what I’m saying. I just find the most intriguing thing rolling around in my brain, a puzzle that’s killing me, an idea I can’t tease out by thinking alone, the thing I’m compelled to write about, the irresistible factor that I must understand that is pushing me forward, or what I’m fussing about and… just splat it out on the keyboard: bleh. There it is. Not lovely. Not organized. But it’s out.

Most of the time, this writing is highly unreadable and deeply unattractive. Still. It’s there, and sometimes I can pick from it for other work I need for my life: teaching, essays, smarty-pants-work scenarios (where I need to be the smarty-pants). It’s worth doing even if I never use any of it. The fact that it exists is proof that I’m alive, and furthermore, it’s proof that I’m willing to keep changing (unless I say the same boring thing over and over and over and over and over again). I have a focus of a kind: I love writing and this blog is about me writing and being a writer and making writing happen, but I try to let change infuse who I am and allow me to grow in new and unexpected ways–though growth is uncomfortable sometimes (just like ugly first-draft writing). Writing just flat out makes me grow, damnitall. And then I’m in the middle of changing before I know it. I have a friend who says, “When you’re through changing, you’re through.” Right on, sister. I’d like to be far from through, thank you very much.

Most of the time, I just let the writing happen. Most of the time. And even though I do write a lot, sometimes I have to throw things away: e.g., a blog post I started that was about visioneering. I just couldn’t make it work out; I guess it wasn’t meant to be. I love Disneyland, grew up not far from it, visited 1,000+ times, and it says it’s the happiest place on Earth on the sign out front, but the connections I was trying to make between Disney’s imagineers and the visioneers of open educational resources, like Writing Spaces, wasn’t working. The good fight was not staying good. In between the time I started writing that post, and when I had to kill it, I watched RiP!: A Remix Manifesto, learned about the Mouse Liberation Front, and I got tainted, or turned left, or fine-tuned. (Watch this film and learn why the Victorians are everywhere, by the way. And when you do watch this, as you should, be sure to check out the MLF founder, Dan O’Neill, because, ripped from the Wikipedia page for Air Pirates is this possibly life-altering quote from O’Neill for those of us who consistently do stupid things: “‘Doing something stupid once,’ he said, ‘is just plain stupid. Doing something stupid twice is a philosophy.'” Ah. I knew I liked him right away.) I couldn’t keep writing the imagineers/visioneers story–it had to go. I still think Writing Spaces is visioneering done right, but Walt Disney can’t be part of that conversation.

Writing a lot, then, does not mean I’m good at it. It just means I do it a lot. Or doing it more than once might mean I have a philosophy. (I write; therefore, I am. Is that it?) And heaven knows, not all of my writing appears here or is fit to appear here. In fact, most of it doesn’t and isn’t. It’s hard to commit to writing for the public. I worry about typos and heinous errors in syntax and mistakes in fact and graceless moments when I might reveal too much about myself. Sometimes, I write just for me (hard for you to imagine that, isn’t it?) and then come to this space to think in a more accountable way because it is a public location. Still it’s a good place to work out the next level of some idea or thing I’m thinking about–or to compose myself–this is a place that forces me to be true to a writing effort.

Some of my writing is slow and wobbly; I can certainly go to the place where my text is sprinkled with meandering thought bubbles of nuance, similar to the thinking of Harvey Korman’s character in Blazing Saddles (1974), Hedley Lamarr, who utters, in an epiphanic moment: “My mind is a-glow with whirling transient nodes of thought, careening through a cosmic vapor of invention.” “Ditto” says his evil henchperson, Taggart (played with glee by Slim Pickens). I am sometimes my own Taggart, too. Ditto, I have told myself after I’ve written something I really like. Why not be my own supporter when I need to? Writers can be so hard on themselves. We should stop that and let the words out and see what happens. Sometimes I write a really fine sentence or paragraph. I need to remember that. Once I had a boss give me a little hug about the waist and tell me, “Sugar, that’s the best damn memo I’ve ever read about sexual harassment and why it’s so wrong.” I live for the ironic. It was a damn good memo.

Despite my willingness to be my own cheerleader in writing, it’s still really hard work. It’s grunt work as much as it is: “Wow, I have something really important to say and this really marvelous way to say it… I’ll just sit down at the computer and the words will simply flow.” Inspiration can come to me but only occasionally. It’s not something I can rely on. Years ago, I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994) and still think it’s one of the best books ever written about getting over the fear of writing and about how it’s vital to just get the writing done, stick-a-fork-in-it-done. If you want to write, own this book. It’s worth having. The title comes from a report on a bunch of birds her brother had to do for school and put off until the last minute. (I’m only vaguely recalling here… be warned.) Their father tells him he must do the work; her brother asks how he will ever get the work done in time; the father replies, “bird by bird.” Bird by bird. That’s the only way.

And she’s funny. Writing advice from someone who’s funny: it’s priceless. Pay whatever it costs to own the book. (Or get see an excerpt on “shitty” first drafts from the WAC Clearinghouse.)

In as much as I can choose inspiration, I have been inspired by that as a writer and as a human: Lamott’s “shitty” first draft concept. I can indeed eat the whole elephant, but I can only eat it one bite at a time. So I write word by word. And sometimes it’s awful. I suppose one way I think is in phrases or clauses and string them together in sentences and sort of arrange those into paragraphs and occasionally link a few paragraphs together with transitions, and hope it all makes sense somehow, but mostly it all comes out in a big whoosh, word by word, stumbling and chaotic, occasionally airy and light. But usually I have to revise to the point that the writing becomes something new again, something fresh, something liquid that moves smoothly (I hope so) on the page or screen and peacefully into the eyes and hearts of readers.

My process is mainly about getting it out, down, away from myself, because any additional thinking I engage in might just muck up the works and keep the ideas in my head where they do no one any good, including me. In this way, writing also works as a way to “compose” or calm my wild, uncharted heart. (“Wild” because I am willing to let “free” rule my very being–it’s not always about being free, though, because free costs a lot sometimes. “Uncharted” because I do believe the world is made for those not cursed with self-awareness, and I am NOT one of them, but I can dream, and I can try to not focus too much on the inward. Ha. Like that’s going to happen to someone who writes a blog about writing and process and myth and the Victorians and Star Wars and open… and baseball. If you hadn’t noticed the Bull Durham (1988) reference, I bring your attention to it now: Annie Savoy about Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh and his gift of being not cursed with self-awareness.)

Focusing then, on the inward, I say, with no irony at all: “writing is definitely an emotional business for me.” Even when I write dry as dust administrative memos or reports–I’m very passionate about how they sound and what to include in just this way or that way to be firm or forgiving or to wheedle or to be just precisely grateful enough for the moment. Hard stuff, man, hard stuff, no matter how or when you write or for what audience. It’s just like Red Smith said, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” At least he didn’t say artery, though I admit, my writing is arterial in so many ways: bleh. There it is: bloody chaos on the page.

It’s not hard getting words down for me, or getting words out; the hardest part is having the discipline to clean it up and make it pretty. I like pretty. Pretty feeds my soul. It nourishes the part of me that needs visual delight to go along with powerful words and language structure. And with practice I can write first drafts sometimes that work for a singular purpose–down and dirty emails, quick notes for teaching, a swift-kick-in-the-shins reminder of work that needs doing. These can be artful moments, too, even without revision. Art for art’s sake; I’m okay with that. Writing for writing’s sake, too. Learning for learning’s sake. I’m down with all the sakes. Even Pete’s. But it needs to mean something, too. A good crafting of prose can be as cleansing for the writer’s soul as sweeping out the cob webs by brain dumping. Revision gets at meaning in deeper ways, richer ways, fancy ball gown for the Academy Awards ways, and winning the Oscar for best original screen play ways.

Some idea must matter and be apparent when it’s over, for a clear message to be conveyed, short or long piece. But composing myself word by word is calming no matter the purpose, the audience, the genre, the length. I feel better for having done some clarity work. Yet, no matter what, I feel horror after it leaves me and goes into someone’s possession to be judged. Despite the stunning dress for the red carpet and the awards show business that I try to bring to a text in the revision process, I still feel naked sometimes. Ick. I want to be adored and told by the editor that despite the lone typo on page 14, “Your text is the best text ever–moved me and transported all our staff to the next realm of divinity toward nirvana, we had to share with accounting, now the CFO is mad in love with you, every one in the world will want to read this work, just as it is, because (we worship you five times a day) this is perfection.” You see how sick writers get in the head when the sweeping out of gunk doesn’t happen. It’s not really just like that; though, I must confess a weakness for CFOs at nonprofit companies, bean counters who care–hard to beat that.

This reaction might come from the damage of having a bad reader more than once. For instance, having a valued friend read what I thought was a masterpiece say: “I liked it, but you have a comma error on page 3.” Nothing else. Or the time I had a boyfriend read a short story that I dreamed was truly fantastic: “I liked it expect for the cussing. That’s not very ladylike.” Crap.

Even now, after years of writing for a variety of people and diverse audiences, friends and foes, employees and supervisors, family and lovers, I cringe a little bit over how, You, Gentle Reader (please be gentle), might find this text: 1) you see this post as almost self-indulgent crap (Bull Durham reference again); 2) you think I’ve been helpful because you suffer from writing fears and have just read Anne Lamott’s “shitty” first drafts and feel oh so much better about writing; 3) you love this post, love the blog, wish I’d write more often.

No matter what the reality is, I’m going with 3).

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Filed under Almost Self-Indulgent Crap, Writing and Identity

Writing, dance, and math

Why don’t I teach dance, writing, and math together?  All three do the same thing: communicate.

Writing: expression.

Dance: expression.

Math: expression.

And there we have it.  Patterns, planning, movement, revision, stories, practice, rehearsal, communication, symbols, letters, signs, meaning. Word problems. Story problems. Honestly. Who writes about this intersection? Where would a logical place for such speculation be found? Here. Because I’m doing it right now. But where else? There must be interdisciplinary journals I’ve never dipped into whose authors write about the connections between math, dance, and writing. Perhaps a chapter in an open educational resource like Writing Spaces might be appropriate, if such linkage could illuminate something vital about writing for college students. Do we need to explicitly draw the lines between movement studies, writing studies, and mathematics? We might do well to shed disparate learning environments in colleges/universities.

Right this minute, I’m not sure what to do with this idea, so I’ll just keep wondering and wandering. If I take just a moment to envision the implications of all three subjects in one space, I can envision writing workshops in which math and movement are linked with writing projects in 2D, 3D, video, audio, numbers, words, paper.  I’d need a really big room with lots of space and computers and smart boards and cameras and lots of natural light. And an ash floor for moving around, lots of support and give–I love to dance on ash wood floors. And loads of mirrors. Dancers need to see dancing. Lots of paper, too. All kinds. And we’d need pens, crayons, chalk, paint, charcoal, pencils, ink, and a whole lot of “I don’t care how messy it gets.”  Younger students, older students, any students. We’d tell stories with everything we have.

Right this minute, as I’m writing, I’m listening to music. And, you may need to sit down for this one: phantoms dance in my mind’s eye with each note of every song, always, haunting me, calling me to move again, to see how words and numbers and counting and movement all come together, 5, 6, 7, 8.  Always someone is dancing when I hear music. Sometimes it’s me dancing, but mostly it’s someone else I choreograph for, someone else who dances now. When I was a dance major, I was required to take choreography. The course was called “composition” because we composed stories for our bodies to tell. I think we must have counted to 1 billion through the semester.  We composed.  We moved.  We moved others.  We counted, we moved, we composed.

Sharp intake of breath.

(That felt self-indulgent as I am just now working out the depth of the bonds in my mind between math, dance, writing, and, really did feel like I should inhale on the screen, for my own sake, and in case no one noticed THAT, I needed to reinforce the fact that I am just now working this all out here by drawing attention to the textual inhalation in a lengthy parenthetical–wish I could figure out how to use footnotes in a blog–I love Infinite Jest.  So. Skip ahead if you like because this next reference is so odd that it might make you, Gentle Reader, want to click away, though it does directly connect to baseball, mentioned later on: would Crash Davis, a faded/fading/starmaker/mentor/catcher in Bull Durham, call blogging self-indulgent crap like he did the works of Susan Sontag? It does seem self-indulgent, especially right this minute. But crap? I rather like to think blogging is a way to selectively unclutter my mind and explore ideas about writing which might lead to professional and personal happiness. Blogging: an online highway to happiness. Self-indulgent? Maybe. Crap? Hell no. Who cares what Crash Davis thinks anyway? He’s fiction.)

Back to my anaphora: “right this minute” (See how footnotes would have been so great here. I could have attached a footnote to the phrase at it appears a third time below and avoided another break in your reading, and my writing, and still kept this terribly pithy reference to rhetorical figures of speech in here somewhere–my favorite figure of speech is anaphora. The Wikipedia authors on the term say Charles Dickens was well-known to use anaphora. Of course. Of course it’s my favorite figure of speech.)

Right this minute, as I write, as I listen, as I dream, while I may be indulging myself in words and thinking, I know this, too: I miss quadratic equations. Oh, differential calculus, why did I let you get away? I loved you so much.

One day, long ago, when I used to say silly things like, “I love to read, but I can’t write,” I pasted a nine-page calculus problem on my dining room wall to figure out where I’d gone wrong. Something had been bugging me about the problem or formula–I don’t even remember it now–and I couldn’t find a solution for hours, perhaps days. On the wall, everything changed. I saw three things: a dance, a story, and the answer. The wall nearly came alive; the math certainly did. It was art, it was text, it was formula, it was freedom, it was the future.

I never said “I can’t write” again. I solved problems with numbers, text, movement–it was, for a time, all the same to me. I knew everything was story, everything was moving, numbers were everything. Math taught me how to think and wonder; dance taught me how to move, how to achieve control and exuberance together; writing teachers/tutors taught me how to be patient and persistent…all of which I needed to communicate through the symbols we call letters, arranged in words, arranged in sentences, in paragraphs, in essays, in books, on the web.

Are there texts on the intersections of these three disciplines out there and I missed them? Totally possible. Instead of exploring this topic by searching a marvelous library database this evening, I am reading two frivolous texts as I recover from my week: a book on the history of cocktails and a collection of short stories by Edwidge Danticat. (She might quibble with me about calling her writing frivolous–it’s not at all–but it sure occupies that space as I have a lot of other work I should be doing that I am purposely, and successfully, avoiding by reading those two books and writing here. Damn. Am I frivolous? What if I am? Damn again.)

Are writers writing about dance, math, and writing? Could be. Where are the dancing mathematician writers? You are my people.

I desperately wanted to study more about all three together in my master’s program in grad school, but I got sidetracked by bad knees, Samuel Beckett, then baseball. No kidding. The rhetoric, sociolinguistics, and mythology of baseball–not a bad thing but not THIS. Not writing, math, and dance. When all three meshed, I felt like there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do–a mind, body, spirit thing, perhaps, maybe, might could be.  Might could be it’s still a mind, body, spirit thing.

Math, writing, dance: even when I don’t consciously think about them, they weave together always, a tapestry of meaning wrapped snug around me like a smooth, thick, well-worn cloak in winter warming me to the core as I begin to think my education was never about getting a degree.

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Goosebumps and textbooks…

I do love my job. Almost all the time, but sometimes, I can say I LOVE my job. This last weekend, I LOVED my job. I spent a good amount of time around a lot of writing instructors who teach basic writing (one of the loves of my life that never seems to get old). Most were unhappy with textbooks in general. They did their own instructional thing with students, creating work that moved and transformed their students from struggling with sentences to composing essays. (This will come up again…)

We talked a lot about the future of textbook publishing and found that while we all loved books, we all believed to some extent, that the future would be full of e-books, many of them free and easily obtained by students on various e-devices from phones to readers to pads to _______. We also discussed the fact that we knew what worked with our students and it often wasn’t or couldn’t be put into one book.  If  we used a book, we never used all of it, and if we only used 30-60% of a $75 book, why were we using it again? Some of us are forced to use books by a program that dictates book use (I’m in one of those, and I’m the dictator–long story–won’t always be that, but it is now); some of us have to use books by certain publishers because that’s the campus system; some of us get to teach with our own materials. And there was not one among our group that wasn’t willing to give away every bit of their stuff.  Not one.

Point one: I would like to be textbook free. I’d love to have a handbook to teach from and with and some readings online that students could get and read anytime on anything. Oh wait. I already have that: Writing Spaces. But for such a move, I need to not be accountable for 40 other teachers and what they do. I need to know that everyone, no matter what they are doing, are moving toward common outcomes. I don’t know that yet. So I’m trying to staunch the flow of blood, congeal what we do, (and I say that deliberately though it sounds really raw) at the site of a wound left by the past. One day I want no textbooks and no handbooks. I want to be among student writers who can, like ninjas, move from their own text to many books and back, with me or without me, f2f or otherwise. And I’m not alone.

Point two: no teacher I’ve ever met, who really loves to teach, is selfish. A lot of scholars are, however, reluctant to share. There is a lot riding on tenure and promotion: all one’s life, it may seem (or may be). So making a model of how one can share and get T&P credit for it is important. Charlie Lowe and Pavel Zemliansky, editors of Writing Spaces, are making this model all the way live. A peer-reviewed collection of essays on writing, on the practice of writing, on the theories of writing… wait for it… for students. Why did all these teachers create materials for their own students? Because it matters. Why does a book like Writing Spaces exist? Because it does the same thing–it matters. It has the potential to re-create everything about a writing class–just like an individual teacher can.

Point 3: Lucky me. I get to be a small part of this. It feeds the part of me that was desperate to skip college and join the Peace Corps. It feeds the part of me who was a basic writer in college with no hope of graduating because I never learned anything about writing in school (though I read a lot–that ultimately was my salvation–and the writing center at Boise State Univ.). It feeds the part of me who is now a writing program administrator who is also the only tenure-track comp/rhet professor and the department Victorianist and often spread thin like too little butter over a huge piece of toast (no need to raise your eyebrows, I know it’s a crazy job)–because I want writing to be the subject of the writing classes at my university, in the writing program I’m supposed to be directing. Writing is a worthy subject, not just writing to learn or learning to write, but learning about writing. THIS project fixes what was wrong for me: lack of access to materials about writing written by writing instructors for writing students… and free. (The Subject is Writing (4th ed.) by Wendy Bishop and James Strickland is nice, but it’s not free.)

Point 4: I take back the handbook thing. I want no heavy, thin-paged, over-tabbed, overpriced books of any kind in my classroom. I want writing happening all the time with access to texts as needed, however needed, when needed and in various forms: audio, video, plain ol’ unburnished text. I won’t ever be anti-physical-book because I’m in love with books, but teaching with them–not necessary.

Point 5: I’m well aware that my colleagues may only value my publishing as it appears in book form, in traditional academic journals, etc. But what I know is that I can work successfully in a range of fields and have. I have no fear. In fact, it was that which moved me back to the academy. I was told once that I was a change agent. I was being insulted, but I took it as a compliment (and a complement)–and hold that accusation dear to my heart. I may be of the 20th century, I may value work in archives and the recovery of history (and do that work with great joy), I may be a Victorianist, I may be a director of composition, I may teach a billion things and nothing at all, but I am also of the 21st century and embracing all the time all that can be. Perhaps it was Gene Roddenberry who turned me to the future or Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein… maybe even the art of Chesley Bonestell. I’m not sure and don’t care because what I know is that being deep in the history of ourselves doesn’t mean we can’t invent a future different from our past. And if I need to, I’ll go back to publishing if I need food, clothing, and shelter because I’m an editor. Words will always matter in my lifetime. And I can play with them and make them shiny. The world needs me (and I know this will sound awful), the academy needs me, but I don’t have to need the academy (I mean, I need it desperately, in an emotional way–not financially). (More clarification, as if this will help: I want to teach, so that’s why I’m where I am–my friend, Maria, says I’m a ninja editor, and being such can suck unless you educate the next generation–in fact, I think you can lose your ninja card if you don’t teach.)

Point 6: The future must be free to everyone–all books all the time all to everyone (go Google Books and copyleftists everywhere now that I know you exist.) Remember public libraries–all books all the time all to everyone? This is the same thing, but easier. And writing teachers who share and give and give and create and give some more–they all know this. And that is exactly why I got goosebumps this weekend talking about the future of textbooks. The word “textbook” itself is terribly powerful to me and scary: not just book, but text, too, and that includes the connotation of megalomaniac control-freak massive textbook publishers taking over the world. A compound word that meant one thing in the last two centuries and yet can mean another thing now and as we move along to the 22nd century.

Point 7: Writing Spaces is a new kind of textbook–it’s an text-unbook. An un-textbook. It’s not the only open educational resource around, but it’s peer-reviewed and still free, and that may make the difference for those who work on it and publish in it. It’s also supported by a good press (Parlor Press)–a good press run by good people. Writing teachers can keep on creating and giving–but now they might get institutional credit for it. I’m emailing everyone I met this weekend with the link to WS. They’ll love it and be as surprised and pleased as I was when I was introduced to this project. I scoured the web site for the strings, the catch… no strings, no catch. This book already belongs to everyone.  Welcome to this century… maybe the next one.

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