Tag Archives: writing

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

“Well… in Who-ville they say…”

One of my favorite books, ever, is How The Grinch Stole Christmas. The best part of that book is:

“Well… in Who-ville they say / That the Grinch’s small heart / Grew three sizes that day.”

Why is this the best part?  Because it means that Christmas wasn’t really stolen after all, that it could never be stolen, not really, not ever. It’s always in our hearts–it’s untouchable. It’s a feeling, not a thing. Feelings can’t be stolen. The Grinch gets that, and it changes him. AND why does that matter? It’s about redemption, resurrection, renewal. It’s moving. It’s about what I keep hoping life is really like. And I’m rarely disappointed. Sure, there is ugliness, but really, isn’t there always something remarkable, too, something that makes us gasp, or wonder, or sigh, or dream? Sydney Carton willingly being executed in place of Charles Darney in Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities… Is there a more moving moment than that one in all of literature? Not for me. It’s why I read books. It’s why I love Joseph Campbell and the power of myth. It’s why I can and do watch Star Wars over and over and over again (despite Jar Jar Binks). It’s the thing about being human that is the most amazing to me: our willingness to give to a cause greater than ourselves, our willingness to see a place where we are needed and taking that place, sometimes at a cost to ourselves or who we thought we were. It’s why I like Rhett Butler so much more than Scarlett O’Hara.

As I think about open educational resources (OER) and how that can or should be a part of my life and to what degree, I think the connection between the Grinch and Carton and me is about how hearts, souls, lives are changed by being open to change, to giving, indeed, to forgiveness. (See how give is a part of forgive–how cool is that? How many years did it take for me to see that? A lot.)

I am smitten with the whole notion of OER and higher education. What it all means to me might be best described by the Grinch hearing the Whoville-ites singing Christmas morning though all the accoutrements of the holiday are missing. I have been locked in tight to what I saw as knowledge, the grasping ownership of knowledge, and who gets it and when, and thought that I needed to be defined that way–even though it felt like a dress that looked pretty damn good on me, but one I couldn’t sit down in. Now I’m beginning to think I understand why the whole thing appeals to me: it’s the word open. It makes my heart grow three sizes. It’s transformative. (Not that I’m small-hearted or bent on stealing Christmas or a drunken British attorney madly and sadly in love with a French girl I’ll never have.) If you looked up “open” online, you’d find a lot of possible definitions for it as an adjective–add in its verb meanings, and you’ll find even more.  Well over 80 ways to think about open. My, my.

So is open redemptive? Why not? It’s not closed, or barred, or covered. It allows passage; it’s extended or unfolded; it’s without restriction; it’s accessible and available; it’s unreserved, candid; it’s free of strictures or hazard; it’s unguarded, bounteous, generous, liberal (it can also be undecided and unsettled–isn’t that just perfect?); it’s free; it’s clear; it’s… open. After hundreds of years of higher education being a closed system–here is a chance for it to become an open system. Or parts of it can be open (not everyone needs to be wide open–in fact, there are some folks I might prefer remain enclosed–even if that sounds petty, I’ll have to just be petty). Didn’t the monks lecture to anyone interested, but those who wanted the “degree” had to pay–and got some special attention for the price being paid? What’s different about open and access and knowledge and degrees now? It’s the essence of what college was and what universities became, yes? Open strikes me as very Medieval really. (I get the trouble with such a system–it’s easy to become corrupt when your only income are students who need something and your ability to eat is contingent upon their funding or not–but the open system has its checks and balances–less like hungry monk-teachers and willing, rich noblemen buying degrees for their second sons…)

I especially like the part in which the guts of higher education becomes available to anyone who wants to learn. I taught a course on Victorian literature and science a long time ago–a continuing education class (for which I was paid $46.73 for eight classes–or maybe it was about drugs, sex, and the Victorians?). One of my students was a plumber. He took the class on a whim but fell so in love with the Brownings that he took time off from work to travel to Waco to visit the Armstrong Browning Library. I wonder if he’s thrilled with the open movement, if he’s one of the students of Khan Academy, if he wanders the cyber-halls of MIT. Wouldn’t it be great if he was, if he did? His visit to the ABL still stands out as a monumental part of my teaching history, a triumph not just for me, but for everyone who teaches, yes?

I often have thought I’d like to go back to school to finish my math degree… there’s no way I have time to do this or could even do it now–I lost some basic knowledge along the way to English professorhood. BUT if I wanted to dabble in math at some point, well, I could certainly do that now, couldn’t I? How lovely. I won’t dabble, not even stick a toe in, but I like knowing I could dive in head first at any time without reapplying to school, filling out painful financial aid forms, finding a parking place, getting to the right building, or buying a $200 textbook I’d only read halfway through.

Open also means resurrection. When all else is failing in one’s life, learning can change everything. Jude the Obscure might not be so obscure if he’d had access to higher education in the way it’s being conceived of now by the visioneers of OER. Doesn’t my heart break for him 1,000 times now, more than when I first read Hardy’s sad sad story? It does. And he’s fiction for heaven’s sake. What if my ancestors (whoever they were, I suspect there were horse thieves or cattle rustlers among them) had access to learning modules that were unbounded, unbarred, unfettered by admission standards, tuition, FAFSA, registration prerequisites, and more? Would I have been different because that culture of learning would have inhabited the very essence of my childhood? I was lucky to be raised in a library with reading as a valued activity, but without real knowledge of educational structures that were effectively closed to a majority of my family, I was all over the place. Still am. I know at least my immediate predecessors were prevented from attending college because it was never an option–farmers from North Dakota, immigrants from Germany (bummer to be German for a good part of the 20th century in America), and Irish from someplace very poor where they starved and when they did have money, they probably drank to forget their cares before they emigrated. Education was something I must have, so I was told, but decisions about what that meant were impossible for me to make… and sometimes still feel like that: anthropologist, historian, geographer, Victorianist, writer, dancer, what? The smorgasbord was too huge, so who could make those choices? Steak, or turkey, or fish, veggies, or pasta. How about 20 years of feasting, and I take a little of everything? The benefit to all that is I’ve never been hungry.

I’ve seen higher education resurrect lives, careers, souls. But one’s savvy about how to work the system is part of that resurrection–or at least it has been in my experience as one in and of the system, so far. Open means something different is possible now. MERLOT, Connexions, MIT are a few of the places one can find open educational resources–and there are so many more folks making open happen (Open University is a long time love of mine–I met folks in England a few years ago who teach for OU–it was wondrous to hear them talk about their students who lived, literally, everywhere… it’s less open than you think: you have to pay a price for admission, but admission is not based on test scores or grades or even really age). In some ways, you have to hunt for what you want in some of these open places, but I see how that could be evolving, too. (I mean, have you seen page one of MERLOT? I was sure I needed a degree of some kind in order to even begin deciphering the contents–overwhelming, to say the least.  And the crawl thing at the top… do we really need that sort of thing? Google really understands me–clean, easy, simple, doesn’t hurt me to look at it–sometimes, it’s even fun.)

So open is good. I want open. I’m dancing with open in Writing Spaces. And it’s a fine dance. It’s about writing. I love writing. I love doing it. For me, for you, for friends, for family, for colleagues, for students. It’s easy, it’s beautiful, it’s all kinds of open for me. It’s without boundary. It’s the light I need for my own photosynthesis. It’s the ultimate dance. But here’s the thing: Writing Spaces is NOT all over the place. The music is defined; it’s writing music, but the dance I do isn’t defined entirely. The content is about writing, but who doesn’t DO writing? I can’t really think about a life that wouldn’t be enhanced by writing. Mine certainly is. Even in aviation, I defined myself by writing and publishing in aviation journals. In extended education, I defined myself by writing and publishing about life-long learning. I haven’t always loved the scholarly path–I have really lived the journalist’s life, writing when and where I felt like it. And though I have fallen out of love with many things–politics, law, numbers (and even people)–I’ve never fallen out of love with writing. Never.

It saves me, it redeems me, it resurrects me, it sustains me. When I need to think, I write, and when I do, my heart grows three sizes. Maybe that’s because I can write because it’s utterly who I am. Utterly. I am the words I write. If that’s not one possible definition of open, what is?

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Write like a Victorian, or write all the time

Victorian writers wrote a lot. Professional writers in the Victorian period published a lot.

They were in the midst of a technological revolution. The industrial revolution was a publishing, printing, distribution, writing revolution, too. Steam engines hurried things up considerably for printing, paper making, and moving text into new places, previously unreachable, or unreachable in a timely fashion. Speed often confers reduced cost–in this case, text became a whole lot less expensive and cheaper, too (lots of Victorian paper is falling apart now because it was so cheap then). Big groups of people previously priced out of text were able to get at it. Perhaps the changes to education requirements (by various laws through the century but only slowly enforced) helped to revolutionize writing and consuming of writing. Perhaps the cost and distribution were what really changed things. No matter how it happened, it happened–writing happened and got published and got in front of readers as never before in history.

Charles Dickens, who was NOT paid by the word, helped to change the way Victorians wrote by working/writing/publishing serially in the mid-1830s.  Almost something he stumbled upon, the serial really worked for new readers, making story available a chunk at a time through periodical or part publication. (Alexander Dumas did much the same thing in France at about the same time.  Cool, huh?) Dickens published all his novels in this way, even becoming the mentor and publisher for more writers who published serially or in parts; I’m thinking here particularly of Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell (two of my very favourites–British spelling, thank you very much).

Dickens’s letters, the ones editors have been able to recover and transcribe, include something like 12 volumes (not sure if any more are planned), but that may not include letters the editors didn’t have access to at the time of publication. For example, 35 letters were just purchased this year by the Huntington Library. The Brownings’ Correspondence (BC) currently includes at least 16 volumes that I own, plus several more, that are currently bending my bookshelves, by Wedgestone Press (the BC publishers): letters from Elizabeth Barrett Browning (EBB) and Robert Browning (RB) to EBB’s sister, Arabella, two more volumes, and a collection of RB to a mutual friend, Isa Blagden, two more volumes, and a new collection of EBB letters to Isa, one big, fat volume.  AND the projected BC collection will be 40 volumes when complete in 15-16 more years.

So just including these three Victorian authors–Dickens, EBB, and RB–that’s a lot of letters. Oh, and they wrote a lot of poetry, novels, and journalism (well of this last, Dickens the most, EBB some, RB not very much). What else did they do? Because if you wrote that much–without benefit of a writing machine, like a typewriter, word processor, computer–you’d be writing all the time.

And they were. A Victorian scholar tried to write out a few EBB letters to see how much time it would take, and it took 8 hours to hand write a few letters (I have no idea who–so this could be one of those apocryphal stories like alligators in NYC sewers, but ones that Victorianists hear–anyhow, I like it). Given the amount they wrote, they must have been writing every day.

Nothing wrong with that.

Instead of whining that students never write, maybe academics who say things like that should shift their/our perspective and celebrate the writing students do: online, on walls, via phone, within social media. Sure, it’s not all great, but really, do we read ALL the writing Victorians created? No. That’s a silly thing to even think. But we do value all the writing they did and are recovering everything in proper literary, rhetorical, archeological ways in order to form broader and deeper visions of that time, culture, so on and so forth.

Are my students writing all day? Yes, they are. In fact, if they think I’m not really paying attention, they try to write to each other via their phones through the whole class, or they pray that while they write on Facebook on their laptops, I believe they are taking notes. What on earth could be so important that they need to write through class? What could they possibly be writing about if it’s not directly about me and the class I’m teaching? Why is it not about me? It should be. Wait. Maybe not.

As I recall, I wrote notes nearly every day in my misspent youth. I recall now a quite famous correspondence (famous to me) I carried on with my first boyfriend for full year while I as in 7th grade. I kept boxes of those notes for years and years along with notes from friends. I often was chastised for engaging in that writing by parents, teachers, authority figures who were dismayed that I would spend time exchanging notes with a boy, with my girlfriends, through individual notes, and through sharing writing notebooks. We grooved on multi-colored pens and dotting our i’s with hearts or happy faces, writing in all lowercase or all uppercase. We played with slanting our writing this way or that, printing rather than cursive, changing directions every other line, writing in patterns on the page (circles, squares, etc.) in the middle of the page or around the borders. Turned out to be not such a bad thing for my writing life, I think, I hope, I know.

When I taught 6th grade, I encouraged note writing–and my students did the SAME thing I did–boys and girls–and it wasn’t all that long ago. Experimentation on paper types, inks, pencils, computer and handwriting combined with images…all that was happening and hip. (I was “wicked” according to one of the veteran teachers for encouraging such casual writing with no attention to spelling and grammar, but by then I viewed that sort of criticism as a hallmark of success, may I burn in Hell.) Today, I would expect note writing from young students (who desire communication to define their places in the world), and still not on the phone/computer because most K-12 schools have banned cell phones for students (at least in my part of the world, but they must sneak them in), at least during the day (after kids get home, it’s a whole ‘nother story).  Still writing to communicate and define has a place in the identification of who we are. Writing is being done right now; it just may not look like what we want it to look like in college classes, er, that is, not academic writing, but maybe our students are training themselves for something greater than we can see. I certainly value the informal in my writing classes–writing every day is the only way to go, and some of it needs to be wretched–in literature classes, too. No one who works with me gets out of writing. (I know I write some of this in reaction to colleagues who fuss about how students don’t write anymore. When did students ever only write acceptable academic college-level papers? Frankly, if I were to hang out with people who only wrote academic writing, I’d pitch myself from the roof.) Writing all the time, no matter what kind of writing, is a good thing. (Can you imagine if we applied this to reading, as some do–sigh–that in order to be good readers, we should only read great literature? Egads. I’d be nowhere as a reader without Isaac Asimov, Dick Francis, Margaret Mitchell, Robert Ludlum, and Rosemary Rogers.)

I was Victorian; my 6th graders were Victorian; and a project I’m involved with today is Victorian: Writing Spaces, an open educational resource (OER). It’s smashingly Victorian, and thankfully, work that informs my current self-identification in really fine ways (partly because it’s open and because I see it as Victorianesque). Here’s how it’s Victorian: it’s on the revolution road. It’s OER at its best. It’s free to students and teachers–to anyone (which is the open part). So many Victorians were passionate about changing how education happened and making it universally available. OER, then is something many Victorians would have loved, though many would have swooned over educating everyone and did. Is universal education a Victorian ideal? Is open access a Victorian ideal? No and no, but they worked hard at both, public libraries everywhere they could do it and finally passing the Education Act in 1870 and improving literacy rates by the end of the 19th century whether people wanted it or not. Writing Spaces, the project, and Writing Spaces, the book, levels, it equalizes, it’s freedom. Everyone gets it whether they know about it or not–there it is–already owned by everyone who can click three times. Glorious.

So who is just like the Victorians? We are. We are just like Victorians–driven by the need to communicate–with so many possibilities for doing it (and just as confused, conflicted, and conscious about where we find ourselves). If Victorians had this kind of technology, such as the kind I’m using right now in this blog, you know they’d be all over it. They totally got the self-awareness thing we have going on now. And 100 years from now, folks will be ooohing and aaahing over the writing we have done in this way. Think what scholars in the future might be able to understand from Facebook as it exists right now, the web right now? It’s not inconceivable, but it approaches that. Or think what a scholar in the future might be able to learn from a cache of notes written by an 8th grade boy and a 7th grade girl covering an academic year in which they mostly talked about how crazy they were about each other, but which often dipped into historical events, pop culture, family, school, friends, and more.

Isn’t this the stuff that dreams are made of, that many of us scholars yearn for–knowledge of others and other times and what that means to our understanding of who we are? Isn’t that why we study, no matter what we study? Isn’t this our raison dêtre? (And why we studied French translation but never learned to speak French?) Isn’t this why we teach?

My answer is: yes, that’s exactly why I’m teaching and spend a lot of time thinking and writing. I want to keep learning, to keep getting there. It’s the journey. So, I write like a Victorian–all the time. Some of it’s awful; some of it might matter to my friends, students, colleagues right now; some of it might be good; some of it might give a future reader something to ponder or analyze or recover or chuckle over. But I write and partly to figure out how I connect with ideas and others. When I think about my writing and the writing of my students, I think we are very like the Victorians. God save Queen Victoria… and OER.

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SuperComposition Person and Ed.

A few colleagues and I have begun creating cartoon characters to support and brand our composition program (they were adjuncts, now full-time employees–and two more coming on board soon).  We started with SuperComposition Person (SCP) and ninja sidekick editor, Ed.–no name, just Ed. which is short for editor.  Not sure Ed. ever speaks, but I really like him–takes down comma errors with grace, precision, and lighting speed.  SCP speaks–in fact, SCP is a writing professor by day, hero of composition all other times.

It all began when we decided we needed some unusual thing to do in a training–so we asked teachers to name a super power they’d like to have in the writing classroom. That was a fun discussion. The next day, a colleague and I cooked up the guts of SCP and Ed.; the week after, another colleague who happened to be an artist, created this first iteration (second image below). During a portfolio reading, we kicked it up a notch and got enthusiastic approval from colleagues in biology and history.

Eventually we added in a few more characters as time and talent allowed, pulling from resources as diverse as small children and parents related to this blogster, students, more teachers, friends, faculty, staff, local artists, high school students.

For our big celebration, AUM Writes!, on Oct. 20 this year, The National Day on Writing, we created buttons with some of the characters and got the help of our senior graphic artist on campus to create a t-shirt that we ran out of in record time.  Next year, we hope to have much more art work completed and put a Pantheon of Composition Heroes on a t-shirt to celebrate who we are and what we write (first image below).

Meanwhile back at the ranch, I’m working on a short film to introduce more characters to our community–I might be able to get that handled in the next week or so. We want more artists involved because we can’t do all the drawing; we want more writers working on the back stories of heroes and villains already created; we want visionaries who will help us turn this into a graphic novel. So we need to talk about it and ask for involvement.

But until all that happens, I plunge forward in the very best super hero-like fashion I can to work on projects I believe are important. I have been inspired by this work with colleagues and students and family and friends to not let go of it, to not let it rest too long… Writing here makes me accountable for commitment, I think. If I say it here, can it get out of doing it? Nope.

AND I have also begun giving writing advice to anyone I think needs it, swooping in during meetings and trainings when colleagues from across the disciplines display frustration over why students can’t write: “TA-DA…’tis I, your writing colleague come to save the day.”  Normally, I don’t like to talk in public much in this way, but lately, no problem.  I’m all about broadcasting open educational resources and how one can employ such to teach and help students learn. At the very least, I explain with much patience and sincere love, you should visit Writing Spaces to see what’s there that might help you and your students talk about writing together as you sort through their experience, your expectations, desired outcomes, and as you both craft a writing experience that could end up doing several things: 1) help you assess student learning; 2) help students learn more about writing; 3) give students more experience writing with expert guidance. There it is. Use it.

I felt very heroic yesterday when I was able to tell sociology, political science, and theater professors: “Here, check this out. It’s for you and your students. It already belongs to you.”

Ninja, right? Sure felt like it.

AUM Writes! 2nd Annual National Day of Writing Celebration

AUM knows how to celebrate writing.

Isn’t this spectacular?  “Fighting writing crime… one sentence at a time” was a collaborative effort between myself and a colleague–the kind of seamless joy that happens when one of you says ___ and the next one says ____, and it becomes something that delights everyone and makes work not work at all.

Composition Cartoon Heroes

SuperComposition Person & Ed.

When we first saw this art, of course it was a pencil sketch, but it was very exciting for all of us–then our artist did THIS.  We’d done something tangible, visual, creative, and fun. To protect the guilty/innocent, I refrain from mentioning names here in this blog, besides my own, but there were many, many people who worked on this project because no one could do this (or writing program administration) alone (and have a day job–we all teach full-time and do everything else on top of that).  When I manage to write this into article form for some academic journal, so I can keep doing what I do, then I’ll list the minors, adults, and seniors who made this possible.

For now, and I’m okay with this, I’m brainstorming what’s possible in this live space, hoping the writing here that feels both private and public will help me articulate how WPAs should be envisioning writing programs as the best entrepreneurial enterprises, publicizing their work across K-12, sponsoring workshops on writing in the community, branding their programs; we need successful, and I mean wildly successful, models to look at and draw from, because we are creating products that matter more than any other: students who can think and can be productive citizens of the world.  And if we need cartoon characters to inspire and/or capture them and keep them enthralled, or even in thrall, then that’s my 5-year mission.

Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning.

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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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Industrial Light and Magic at 35… and writing studies

As I watch a 35-year anniversary documentary about Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), I have begun thinking about the ways writing studies has changed in the same amount of time… or nearly so.

I’m thinking specifically about my life in this time, my writing, my education in literature and composition/rhetoric (better named writing studies?).  I was just called the “queen of change” on Facebook a week or so ago because I’m been listening to Bob Dylan’s “Things Have Changed” a lot and creating a playlist for Darwin because I’m teaching Darwin this semester (who doesn’t love Darwin and his big change?  Don’t ask.).  I embrace change because it’s poetic.  It’s life.  It’s my life.  It’s a way to live.  But change is very hard for many people.  Extremely hard.  Scary.  Still it can be incredible.

Many of the ILM folks in the documentary talk about the change that happened because of ILM’s innovations and the difficulty they encountered over the years in changing–they pushed hard to innovate and create opportunities for others to change and see the world differently.  Artists were reluctant to embrace the new computer generated art/characters/etc.  When one artist moved from the art department to the computer department, it was said she “went to the dark side of the force.” (Okay, settle in, it’s a long parenthetical: the documentary is a love letter from ILM to ILM, so I get that, but it’s not wrong–ILM has done amazing work–and do you know Edutopia?  A George Lucas-funded online resource for K-12 teachers.  I visited for years when I was designing curriculum for K-12.  I have been reading Owen Edwards for ages–a great writer/editor for Edutopia and Smithsonian–I like his work for both.  How does that happen?  A writer for Edutopia and Smithsonian?  His piece on making hot chocolate in Mexico was stirring in the Smithsonian.)

ILM changed my life as it did for many others–who hasn’t been affected in some way by Star WarsIndiana Jones and ____?  Transformers?  (Not the second Transformers.)  I still make references to these films and watch them with my son and students.  And the latest Star Trek?  It made me want to teach Star Trek and argument: race, class, gender.  And it was just what I wanted it to be: stunning.  I’m a creature of my generation and my generation is a visual one and my students loved the reading about writing, the thinking about the visual, and watching movies and episodes of Star Trek.  And my generation grew up on ILM.

(Are you still musing over the link between ILM/George Lucas/Lucas Films, Ltd. and an education online resource as great as Edutopia?  I am.  I always am.)

So in these past 35 years what sorts of changes have occurred in English?  Teaching writing in writing classes rather than teaching literature in writing classes.  Whole degrees in writing.  Master’s and PhD’s in writing.  This change is still frightening for some.  But like the ILM artists who feared CGI, but converted, or actors who feared blue/green screens, but managed to perform, so have many moved from literature to writing and many now can embrace the discipline of writing on its own.  But disciplinary change is not new.  Remember back at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century when ALL kinds of educated folk were up in arms over the ghastly change from classic Greek/Latin education in universities to a more practical education in vernacular…even, hush your mouth, studying modern literature?  It was revolutionary, roguish, daring. And women allowed in higher education, too.  Good heavens.  It wasn’t all that long ago.  Neither was allowing women to vote.  My grandmother was among the first women to vote in this country.

How hard was it for English literature professors to find validation from classics professors?  I wonder, but I wouldn’t be surprised at answers that included: hard, damn hard, impossible.

So change is hard.  And though lots of folks have moved from teaching writing about literature to teaching writing, not everyone has taken that trek.  Change theory is, perhaps, applicable here, especially as we are now, and for the last score of years, undergoing another change in thinking facilitated by the googleverse.  There are a number of theories to help us think about how change happens in communities, organizations, institutions.  Mostly the ones I know are social theorists, human performance improvement gurus, and instructional systems designer types.  But could such theories bring some peace to change within a discipline?  Sure.  Why not?  Kurt Lewin is a good place to start (that’s right, a Victorian, at least by birth); there could be worse places to start, but I like the historical, chronological, 20th-century sweeping approach to learning.

Back to the initial thinking: is writing studies/composition/rhetoric part of a big ol’ change in how the world goes round?  Like ILM is to special effects?  Sort of.  We do ask the world to see things in a different way than they have ever seen things before?  We say writing is worthy of study.  We ask people to understand it’s a field, a discipline, and they do.  Mostly.

Specifically, I think it’s the magic part that equates what we do as writing professionals in writing studies to the pros at ILM.  Hard work=magic in my experience.  ILM gurus break down the hardest possible tasks into the smallest possible pieces so that they can manage a system to create something complex and meaningful that we can all see.  We do that, too.  We demystify writing, break it down into smaller pieces so something complex and meaningful can be created… that we all can see. We ask students to pay attention to the person behind the curtain.

ILM gives us the ability to believe what we see–that is the magic they do.  We give students the ability to believe they have the skills to write or can acquire them.  It’s a kind of magic.

Change is hard; no one wants to do it; but when it’s done right, it’s magic; with open educational resources becoming a bigger player on the college scene, the magic is spreading.  Are we wizards?  Writing Spaces…like magic.  Maybe we are a little bit wizardly.  But we are definitely the people behind the curtain, too, showing students how they can make their own magic happen.

And may I say: what a fine documentary.  What a lovely way to spend an hour.  What a nice moment of joy and inspiration.  What a grand connection between special effects and writing.  Lucky me.  Watch whenever you can as often as you can.  I liked it so much I forgot Tom Cruise was the narrator.

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The National Day on Writing…

“The” National Day on Writing… as if there should only be one.  I’m always going to celebrate this day as if my life depended on it (and secretly every day of the year).  It’s a day perfectly made for me (though I’m sure Congress and the originators of the whole thing never considered my needs for a hot second).

Tomorrow is the big day.  This year I’m honored to celebrate the day with a former TCU student visiting AUM to talk about his writing, his music, how he works, and what it means to share words with the world.  My former TCU student.  (The lyrics of a song he recently wrote for the Susan G. Komen Foundation and TCU Frogs for the Cure contain the words of breast cancer survivors–that’s one way to share words.  Watch this video, all of it, and then go buy his song on iTunes.  If you don’t buy much music on iTunes, make an exception because you need to own this one song to help find a cure.)

He’s doing amazing things with music and writing.  I can’t believe I’ve got a former student who is doing such beautiful things with his life, or that I actually know what’s up with him.  Normally, I’ve got a lot of rabbit in me.  I’ve rarely lived or worked in one place for long.  I haven’t much seen my students again after I’ve taught for a term, a year, whatever.  Aunt Marianna nailed it when she said I was naturally discontent.  Not unhappy–just always yearning.  I distinctly remember her telling me when I was 15 years old, “Honey, you’ll struggle because of your natural discontent, but it’s also a gift.  Find the right use for the gift.”  (By the way, who says that to a 15-year old?)

Now I get it.

So Tim Halperin is making a difference in the world.  I’m proud of him–as if I had much to do with it–but whatever part I played for a semester, it is something that makes a difference… to me.  I often wonder if I matter.  Do my actions help anyone?  Do I say things that make people joyful?  Do I create an environment around me that gives people a chance to grow?  He says I did that.  Thank you, Tim.

He’s come to perform at my university for AUM Writes! Day.  We started a day of celebration last year, because I’m big on days that celebrate literacy. When I slaved for a publisher sometime in the mid-2000s, I celebrated International Literacy Day by begging the vice president, fellow employees, and a book distributor to find a way to give 1,400 books to a local elementary school.  We did it.  On International Literacy day that year, trucks and people rolled up to a little K-5 school outside Dallas and each student in the school got to pick out a book to keep and the rest, 750 books, were donated to the school library.  I thought that might have been one of the best moments of my life.  Only one of the best as it turns out.

Now I work for an education experience provider–a university.  We have a lot less money than publishers, but I really dig the freedom and what money we have is mostly well spent.  Would I rather have a talented musician talking to students about his writing process or a new rug?  No contest.

Talking with Tim, I realized how lucky I was as I said aloud how lucky I was.  Or perhaps, it’s just a kind of fate.  I seem to have operated my life like a boat: I point my boat in a direction I think I want to go and then hope some current will move me along where I’m supposed to go.  Occasionally someone climbs aboard and sticks an oar in the water and moves me around.  Sometimes a bigger boat crashes into me, and I really move around.  Fate got us both back into conversation–in a fashion much calmer than a mid-sea collision.

Tim was a great student–a terrific writer who seriously worked the process and created smooth, easy-to-read prose.  I almost always tell students that the best papers are ones that don’t trip me up as a reader.  I am first a reader who wants to know something that they think is important to say.  If I stumble because I can’t understand, then I get all wrapped up in what I assigned.  I’d much rather just read than assess.  The gap between my reading pleasure and student writing is the teaching zone when I need to assess and guide.  Sometimes I’m good at finding what a writer needs to learn in order to improve.  At least I get my own motivations now and what purpose I might serve in the world.

I don’t remember all the work Tim created, but I remember it was easy to read and thoughtful.  One of his papers, though, was really fine; a profile on a musician/minister was visually well done (lots of green and photos of performances).  He was a breeze to teach: just did everything I said, was creative, thoughtful, and on time.  He was the first student I ever taught who invited me to an outside school event–an evening of his music at a coffee house (his then-girlfriend was in another class I was teaching).  I was delighted and entertained, and thought: he’s got it.  I also thought: 1) I hope he knows he has a gift; 2) I hope he finds joy in this gift always; 3) I hope he stays off drugs, then I bought four of his CDs and headed home to move away.

Of course, I lost track.  I moved away.  But I accidentally saw him graduate last year.  I went to see a long-time friend graduate from TCU (Maria who thinks I’m a ninja), and there he was.  We connected via email/Facebook later and got to talking about how I’d like to use his videos to teach project management and writing process.  One thing led to another (as so often happens when one chooses to live one’s life as an oarless boat); I got funding to bring him to the AUM campus to share his music and writing with my community.

Reconnecting meant I got to relive some of the most pleasant memories from that year.  I had been out of teaching for a long time when I started teaching his class: 8 am MWF in Aug. 2007, the first time I’d taught since the fall semester of 2000 when I’d been pregnant and working full-time for a publisher.  Not a brilliant move altogether, but there it was.  I’d committed to the department and to an elementary school partnership as well as to two dear friends who co-taught with me in a highly experimental three-teacher scenario while providing community-service credits to two high school students.  How did we think we could do it all?  We were full of ourselves and lucky (though, I will remind you, luck don’t go looking for no stumblebums).  We managed to do it.  I remember being engaged in that class and so full from the promise of the young people around me.  And yet I was exhausted.  That was it.  I couldn’t teach one more class ever again.  I knew it.  After the final exam, I remember crying because I knew I’d lost something, but I didn’t know what.  I walked home from that last class, two blocks was all, tears just streaming and steaming.  Christmas 2000 sucked.

Wait.  What happened to the pleasant moments I promised you?  Sorry.  Here they are:

My next walk on campus, seven years later, brought me back into the classroom–Aug. 2007.  (Much better, right?  On track and no tears.)  I was once again, employed full-time by a publisher, and had agreed to teach for the English Dept. at TCU (bless them always for the good they did me for so many years).  I remember thinking, hell, I can’t actually harm the students and maybe will do some good.  At the end of Ball Four (perhaps the single most personally influential book I’ve ever read, ever, ever, ever), Jim Bouton wrote about baseball, “You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end, it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”  The thing that gripped me was teaching.  I just didn’t know it until I taught Tim’s class.  Each class I taught that day confirmed it.  I was finally in a place I was supposed to be.  From that day on, I knew I should be teaching, not publishing. (Though I haven’t exactly stopped wrangling around with publishers, it’s not the major focus of my life or employment anymore, esp. as I push back from entirely feeding at the table of corporate publishing excess and am working on a project that feels right and open because it is both of those things and more: Writing Spaces.  If I knew how to create footnotes in a blog, I’d have inserted one at the end of that last sentence speculating on whether I could legitimately mention Writing Spaces every time I created an entry in this blog no matter how I started out or what the general topic might be.  Bet on it.)

The end of that first day back in the classroom, I joined MLA so I could embark upon a traditional academic job search that fall.  And here I am celebrating The National Day on Writing for the second time, at an event that means so much to me, AUM Writes!, with my current students, colleagues, friends, and one former writing student who rocks, literally.  Fate.  Luck.  Yearning.  Or something else?  Discontent.  Who cares?

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