Monday, July 17, 2017

What Students Leave

This past weekend, I attended my first writers conference, the “All Write Now-Missouri” conference in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I went with the intention of meeting other writers and publishing professionals. I am proud to say I came back with a 2nd place award in the Non-Fiction Essay category for “What Students Leave”, a piece I wrote about 3 years ago. I’ve posted this online before, but am happy to share it again as an official award-winning piece!

Every once in a while, someone will post a link on FB to Taylor Mali’s spoken word video of his poem “What Teachers Make,” and tag me. I like the poem. I get it. But the last time I heard it, I started thinking more about what impact students have had on me. Lots of my pop culture knowledge is because of them; I’m not a big moviegoer, although there are several hundred movies on our Netflix queue. I don’t listen to the radio; my iPod has me spoiled and I want to listen to what I want to listen to when I want to listen. But the movies I do watch, the books I read, even the music I listen to, are influenced by the students I work with every day.
Last month, I watched SLC Punk!, a movie I’d heard about but never actually seen. One of our seniors, Ridge, did a monologue from the film for contest last year and I finally watched it this fall. That movie, well, as Mad Men’s Pete Campbell would say, “A thing like that!” I loved that movie for the window into a little subculture it chronicled and for the weird sense of nostalgia I experienced minus the benefit of ever having lived in Salt Lake City or been a punk. It’s enough that I lived through the ‘80s, right? And that I’ve known guys like Stevo and Heroin Bob at different times in my life? I wouldn’t have taken that particular cinematic trip without a student pointing the way. The same is true of Juno (which I loved) and The Phantom of the Opera (which I hated).

And the books! I hold Kyle responsible for a sleepless night finishing up Ender’s Game when he recommended it to me. I started it and I couldn’t stop until I knew what was going to happen to Ender and the other boys in the battle school, and I stayed up until 3 a.m. on a school night to find out. Jenna and Christian convinced me to try the Lord of the Rings trilogy again; the first of Peter Jackson’s movies had just come out, and we’d just started a Reading for Pleasure class at my school. Every day during that class, I’d step into Tolkien’s world, and then step out at the end of the hour. I rationed it like it was the last bar of dark chocolate I’d ever have, and it was all the more intense for it. When I ‘had’ to read Tolkien for an undergraduate class, I’d hated it. Flunked the test over The Hobbit. When a professor asked me to read it, I failed. When a student asked me, I loved it.

Then there’s the music. Music has a power that little else does. I don’t envy Proust his madeleine. Music has the power to transport me to other times and places. “Welcome to the Boomtown” from David and David comes up on my playlist, and suddenly I’m in a college van driving up to Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas for a speech tournament in the late ‘80s. Anything from the Supertramp album Breakfast in America  creates a multi-sensory memory of sitting on the hot sidewalk with Eric in front of Shepler Center at Cameron University during July of ’86 or ’87, when the idea of a fitness center or a park with gazebo wasn’t even a spark in someone’s brain. We listened to the cassette on one of those silver boom boxes that seemed to be everywhere. REM’s “Stand” makes the opening school bell of our production of “Voice from the High School” ring, and all of a sudden Carly, Adam, Will, and all the rest are pouring out of the school doors on the set. It was the first play I ever directed. I look at the playlist on my iPod and see songs students introduced me to that I couldn’t get out of my head. Cass played “Ain’t No Reason”; someone else brought me Iz Kamakawiwo'ole’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, Skylar offered Gary Jules’ cover of the Tears for Fears song “Mad World” and we used it for our production of “…And”. So many students, so many songs. Just yesterday, pulling up music for an upcoming production, Emma asked me to find the video for Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,” and it wasn’t just the beauty of the song that broke my heart.

Students leave artifacts behind, notes and drawings and photos, and I cherish them. But they also haunt the movies and books and music in my world, and I cherish that even more.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Ate breakfast and watched “Parks and Rec”.
Leslie Knope is an inspiration. Even when she goes rogue, as she did when she was recalled as a city councilwoman, she does good. In this instance, she leveraged the power of social media to help improve her hometown’s dental health.

Posted an Instagram story about yesterday’s trip to the library.
Because it was special! The remodeled Tulsa Central Library is beautiful! Libraries aren’t what they once were, but yesterday’s trip had my old favorites…you know, the books, as well as a Starbucks in which to meet with a former student and talk writing.

Bonus: author Rilla Askew was there to launch her latest book, Most American: Notes From a Wounded Place, a collection of short pieces that she said “tread the border between essay and memoir”.

Put dishes in the dishwasher and cleaned the kitchen counters.
Anyone else use their dishwasher as an extra cabinet, so you have to empty it out before you can do another load of dishes? No? Just me?

Created a gif to respond to a tweet in the #clmooc.

Four years ago I would not have understood that sentence. The #clmooc is a collection of people interested in the principles of connected learning which comes together in digital space each summer. In the five years I have been a part of the mooc, I have built a professional learning network, opened up my students to more choice in demonstrating their understanding,  created stop-action videos, sketches, memes, gifs, maps, digital museums, postcards, digital posters, poetry of various types, and connections with other educators.

Created rough drafts for two future blog posts.
Neither of which is this one.

Tried to sound salty about the deficits of auto-correct on FB and then realized I was spelling “y’all” incorrectly.


Wrote this post.
Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh advises, “Wash dishes just to wash the dishes.” But one of my favorite authors, Crescent Dragonwagon, counters that with the saying that heads her blog, “Nothing is wasted on the writer”.  While I was rinsing dishes, putting them in the sink, boiling water for a pasta salad, washing down the counters, and getting trash ready to go out, I was thinking about sitting down to write.  

Was I better off composing in my head than I would have been focusing on the dishes and being in that moment?
I don’t think I was multi-tasking to avoid the job. Instead, I was succumbing to the siren call of the keyboard.  Maybe trying out ideas in my head while I’m engaged in other work is another way of dodging writer’s block. Once I opened up  this file and started writing, I had plenty to put down on the page.

How do you avoid doing what every writer must do? 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Perhaps the reason I have little patience for literary females who come off as wimps is because the girls I admired when I was young could have been poster children for “still, she persisted”. Argue about nature or nurture all you want; I know that a large part of who I am is due to the literary heroines Anne, Jo, Rebecca, Laura, and Evelyn.
 From Anne Shirley, L.M. Montgomery’s red-headed orphan heroine, I got my ability to see the best in any situation. Interest in Anne has flared up again with the newest film version of Anne of Green Gables, but I befriended Anne before I could even read her story myself. One of my earliest memories is of my mother reading from a condensed version of Anne’s story, a large, illustration-filled book. 
I found it easy to express my enchantment with Anne’s red hair, the bane of her early existence.  What I don’t think I ever explicitly admired but have always tried to emulate is Anne’s ability to find the positive in any situation, no matter how negative. Anne is the incarnation of the little boy who digs happily in a pile of manure because, he says, “There’s gotta be a pony in there somewhere!” Even when the woman who has called for her from the orphanage basically tells her it was a mistake that she was sent, Anne still treasures the sight of the beautiful landscape she experienced between the depot and the house where she has settled. Anne is able to colorize the drab world she inhabits with an imagination that usually puzzles and sometimes delights those around her. Eventually, Anne uses that imagination to become a writer.
Even though Jo March, from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, had the loving family Anne did not have as a little girl, she shares Anne’s literary bent. Jo writes plays for her sisters to perform and lurid stories for disreputable papers to help fill her family’s meager coffers. However, the quality I most admire in Jo is her bravery. She may grumble, she may excuse, but Jo always faces whatever has to be faced. Early in the book, she has to endure a social event that irritates her as much as it charms her sister; later, Jo faces her darkest hour when her younger sister Beth dies. Unlike her placid older sister Meg, Jo will not ‘put on a happy face’ when tasked with doing something she dislikes, but she does it, and she is usually stronger and wiser for it.
Rebecca Rowena Randall, from Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, is an underrated literary heroine. We hear much less about her than we do of characters like Anne and Jo, but Rebecca shared their creativity and optimism. When Rebecca’s mother sends her to live with her two maiden aunts in order to give her opportunities she wouldn’t have at home, Rebecca must learn to curb the flamboyant instincts that have survived her modest, even impoverished, upbringing. Like Anne, Rebecca has to learn to act in a socially acceptable way in a small, conservative, turn-of-the-century community. Like Anne, she longs for bright clothes instead of the drab ones her aunts sentence her to wear.
Rebecca’s key attribute is her optimism. Even though she has lived a hard life, she always seem certain that all will be well. In fact, accusing someone of being a “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” is one way of calling them out for their unwarranted optimism.  Rebecca’s optimism may seem odd to others, but the belief that everything will turn out for the best is what has allowed her to survive her sad upbringing. Like Anne, Rebecca expresses that spirit by writing poems and stories.
Ironically, the one heroine among these five that doesn’t write is Laura Ingalls, the autobiographical lead character in the Little House on the Prairie series. I admire her physical hardiness. Pa calls her his little French horse, and you know it had to take some kind of intestinal fortitude to survive everything the frontier threw at the family.  Many people remember Laura and her family twisting straw sticks to make fuel for the stove during the Long Winter, but I often think about how they’d wake up with snow ON THE BED. Laura never shirked work, at one point making the long walk into town to sew buttons onto shirts all day. Laura had psychological grit as well. As a child, Laura had no problem handling the disgusting leeches in the creek to torment her nemesis Nellie. Later, when she got her first teaching job, she managed to survive the weird, psychologically strained atmosphere in the house where she boarded.
And then there’s Evelyn.  
The protagonist of Jane Langton’s novel, Paper Chains, she had the long red hair I’d always wanted since I read about Anne, and she was intellectually curious in a way I wanted to be. I loved Paper Chains so much that I kept it checked out of the library constantly and wrote the author to tell her so. She responded with a delightful letter and a copy of the book so I would have one of my very own.
The novel is about Evelyn’s first semester at an Eastern university, and I formed many of my ideas about what college was going to be like by reading it. Evelyn’s writing consists mostly of notes from her philosophy class (which introduced me to philosophical concepts like the allegory of the cave) and unsendable love letters to the professor on whom she develops a crush.
Evelyn’s wild enthusiasm for the everyday inspired me. Keeping a dog hidden from campus authority figures, cartwheeling across an intersection, or loping up stairs to the forbidden bell tower, Evelyn always takes big bites out of life. She seems to echo Rosalind Russell, who said in her Auntie Mame incarnation, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.”
Who am I today because of these characters? I feel that being a reader made me a writer, so I can partially credit all five of these young women for that. More than that, though, I think the curiosity they all share helped me develop my own curiosity about people that helps me as I try to be the best teacher, writer, and human I can be.

Friday, July 7, 2017

We may joke about the ‘blue screen of death’ that appears when a computer crashes, but an even more frightening sight for a writer is the ‘white screen of nothing’ we see when we can’t seem to get started writing.
That blank screen or page is so scary because a writer’s job is to fill it. Not just any fill the page, but populate the barren field with words that tell a story or convey an opinion or, in the best of outcomes, make someone feel something. Whether the page stays blank because of procrastination or some kind of writer’s block, the words won’t write themselves. Having a variety of tools at hand can help when the white screen of dullness overwhelms you.
Deadlines are motivational for some writers. The idea that someone is waiting to read what we have to say can be compelling. Granted, professionals who work under deadline all the time may find a fixed timeline a master rather than a servant. For writers working for themselves, setting a deadline can often be the impetus to get it all down on paper. This summer, I’ve committed to posting on this blog at least three times a week and revising the historical novel I completed recently. Setting deadlines for each of those has helped keep me on track.
Although the number of readers doesn’t indicate I have my core 1,000 true fans yet, I still feel that consistency is going to grow my audience, so I keep developing ideas for my blog and putting in the time my novel needs. In fact, having a couple of different projects to work on seems to help me keep my daily word count up, which leads me to a second technique for writers facing a work slow down…or full stop: keep several projects going at once.
Earlier this summer, I read a great post by Jeff Goins called “The System I Used to Write 5 Books and Over 1,000 Blog Posts”. Goins’s system has three stages: gather ideas, write drafts, and revise. Obviously, he wasn’t reinventing the wheel; the stages of the writing process are commonly delineated this way. The article inspired me because Goins elaborated on his personal system to achieve all three stages.  He calls it “The Three Bucket System”. Bucket #1 is full of ideas. Bucket #2 contains drafts. Bucket #3 is full of edits.
I’ve adopted a version of his process myself. First, I keep a notebook to dip into when I need an idea. The book is a personalized book of writing prompts. Every time I get an idea about something I want to write, a blog post, a short story, a novel, whatever, I put a brief description of it at the top of the page and then use the remaining space to jot down ideas and brainstorm.  In the back, I’ve created an index based on the Ryder Carroll’s bullet journal system and log in all the ideas so I can find them easily. 
I also created a highlighter coding system. Topics are assigned a unique color so I can flip through and identify key themes I return to again and again. If I’m writing a post for a Wednesday, I want an idea about a book I’ve read for my “Off My Shelf” series, so I look for a topic highlighted in yellow.  My goal as a writer is to write EVERY DAMN DAY and this notebook is one source for ideas when a blank page taunts me.
Of course, writing prompts in general are effective for some writers.  Plenty of internet spaces have long lists of prompts of every description, but my favorite are visual writing prompts, such as the ones on this Weebly siteThese prompts are designed for student writers, but are evocative enough for adults. One of the problems with such prompts, though, is that they aren’t often relevant to a writer’s current project. Another way of finding new fuel for something you’re working on is to role play: be a reporter!
One technique I’ve used with students that adult writers might find useful is to use the journalists’ questions “Who?”, “What?”, “Where?”, “When? ”Why?”, and “How?”  In the classroom, once students have a topic, I will ask them to write it at the top of a piece of notebook paper and pass it around. As each new student gets the paper, he or she generates questions about the topic using the six words.  So if a student’s topic is “Bullying”, other students might ask “What is bullying?” or “How can we stop bullying?” My advice to the writers is to answer the questions if nothing comes when they sit down to write. 
Leverage those questions to trigger your writing!  Imagine what questions your readers might have about your topic, or your characters, or your plot and then answer them. While it might be difficult if you are an introvert, ask people what questions they have when you share your topic or story idea.

In any case, it’s important to keep in mind the difference between writing and editing a draft. Don’t try to do both at the same time.  Use one of these techniques to get the words down on the page, and then go back and edit.  Let go and just write it down, then you can return in the editing stage to rearrange everything and develop any still shadowy ideas.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Should It Stay or Should It Go? Oklahoma History

Aside from two fully employed adults, our home houses several thousand books.  Because we don’t practice the “one in, one out” philosophy in acquiring them, the books overfill the shelves and are stacked on flat surfaces around our home. Yet, I often can’t resist picking up another book I haven’t read from the 25 cent table at my favorite book store or a pile at a library sale. Thus this series, “Off My Shelf,” where I take a book from a shelf or a pile, read (or reread it) and decide whether it stays or goes.

Have you ever felt like an evangelist for a certain book?  After reading Rilla Askew’s Fire in Beulah, I feel as though I have been called to share it whenever someone asks for a book recommendation or wants to know what the best book I’ve read recently might be.
I purchased my copy of this novel at the Oklahoma Celebration of the Book at OSU-Tulsa several years ago and it’s signed by the author. This year I undertook Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge, thinking of it as a way to read more difficult books and stretch myself intellectually. When I got to the “read a book set less than 100 miles from where you live” category of the challenge, I pulled down Askew’s book from our living room shelves.  Other books fit the category, but I had read S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders as well as the play adaptation, not to mention Tracy Letts’ Tony Award winning August: Osage County. Askew’s novel fit the challenge, as the book is set in Tulsa, well within the geographical parameters of the challenge, and I’d never read it.
The narrative centers around two women, one white, one black, one the wife of an ambitious oil wildcatter, one a maid. The terrible connections that bind them are background for the rising tensions that lead up to the explosive violence that broke out one day in 1921 when a black man was accused of attacking a white woman in an elevator and white Tulsa decimated the Greenwood district, known throughout the country as "Black Wall Street".  
I have sometimes felt that books come to us when we are ready for them, and that seems to be the case here. Shortly after I read Fire in Beulah, I read Killers of the Flower Moon:The Osage Killings and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann.  Reading the two so close together emphasized that Oklahoma history is American history, with all the violence and striving for more that implies. Both Askew’s novel and Grann’s exhaustively researched non-fiction work shed new light on two shameful events in Oklahoma history. Askew uses different voices to advance the narrative in her story, and the mixture of her insight into each of those characters and the rich details she includes from her own research make the novel compelling.
I can’t say it’s my favorite book; it’s not a book I would pick up and reread as an escape, as it is exhausting in its violence, both emotional and physical, and sobering in the long suppressed truth it exposes. Fire in Beulah is an important book, and it definitely deserves the place it holds on my shelf.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The most common type of introduction in one of my high school speech and drama classes is not a story or a statistic.  It’s an apology.
“I’m not really ready, but…”
“It’s not as good as hers, but…”
“This is just a first attempt, so…”
I warn students to avoid making themselves look small by prefacing their work with excuses or apologies.  Marianne Williamson once wrote, “Your playing small does not serve the world…We are all meant to shine…” And yet, something about showing what they’ve accomplished as actors and speakers prompts many of my students to preface their often outstanding performances with disclaimers meant to prepare the audience for the worst.
Sometimes prefatory remarks are appropriate. As a coach and director, it helps to know if the performer wants honest feedback or just needs to hear something positive. However, when a performer sounds self-denigrating, or offers excuses about lack of preparation, or tries to blame what they perceive as a poor performance on some extenuating circumstance, no one benefits. After someone warns us that the performance we’re about to see will likely be bad, it’s difficult to appreciate what is good about it. 
Disparaging comments before a performance are one way a performer might deal with nerves. Warning us that it’s going to be bad is a way of trying to lower expectations, and thus deal with the natural nervousness that performers feel. If we don’t expect much, then there’s no way for us to criticize an imperfect performance.
But as Rudyard Kipling wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” I want my students to set high expectations for themselves. When students perform in class, I am going to evaluate and critique them to help them improve. Students don’t get better if all they hear is how wonderful they are, and they can’t correct what they’re doing wrong if no one tells them. So yes, a student may have to deal with a coach or director telling them the performance could have been better. A student needs to be confident enough to perform without apology but humble enough to accept criticism that will help them grow. That’s difficult for students.
It’s difficult for adults.
This week I’ve asked my sister and one of my friends to be beta readers for my novel. I gave my sister a copy and made her promise not to read it until I’d left.  As I write this, I am rehearsing how I will hand another copy to my friend without saying something like, “It’s not that good and there are a lot of typos.” Like my students, I am nervous about how my audience will react to my writing. Don’t get me wrong; I am excited about the idea of people reading what I write. You, there, reading this post at your computer, on a tablet, or from a phone, I’m happy you’re reading what I wrote.
But I don’t know you.
When I think about it, I realize that often my students confess that it’s easier for them to perform in front of strangers at a speech tournament than to practice in front of me.  Some of them are more comfortable in a theatrical production, where they can’t see the audience, than they are competing in forensics. I know that they don’t make apologies before they compete, or break the fourth wall to warn the audience they’re going to be really bad in their role.
It takes a small sort of courage to offer our creative efforts to others. I think the fear that the people we know will respect us less when they see what we’ve worked so hard to create may keep us from doing the very thing that will help us grow: sharing our work and listening to the response.

Friday, June 30, 2017

5 Books That Made Me a Writer

When I want to learn how to do something, I reach for a book.  This approach did not serve me well when I decided I wanted to learn to knit.  It took one-on-one lessons from my sister for me to perfect a knitting style that many people would call ‘eccentric’.  Books have helped me become a writer, though. The act of reading widely from a very young age has given me some of the skills I need, but there are a few books that have influenced my habits as well.
Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones:Freeing the Writer Within is the first book on writing that I fell for hard and the one that had the most lasting impact on my writing process. Her perspective is that of a Zen Buddhist with a serious practice, but her approach to writing is playful as well. Goldberg is all about making writing a discipline. Her view is that if we sit down and write consistently, we will be writers.  And that is how I feel; I call myself a writer when I am writing every day.  When I am not, I don’t. Maybe at those times I am a writer on hiatus? In remission? When I first read the book about 26 years ago, I filled spiral notebooks with daily writing on everything from wild ideas for novels to how the Kansas hayfields I drove by every evening reminded me of Monet.
Goldberg’s rules for writing practice are the most helpful ones I’ve found for the act of writing a draft, useful enough that I share them with my students when I ask them to write an oratory. In Bones, she lists and explains them:

1. Keep your hand moving. [Don’t pause to reread the line you have just written. That’s stalling and trying to get control of what you’re saying]

2. Don’t cross out. [That is editing as you write. Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write, leave it.)

3.  Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. [Don’t even are about staying within the margins and lines on the page]

4. Lose control.

5. Don’t think. Don’t get logical.

6. Go for the jugular [If something comes up in your writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.]

A blank page is terrifying. Heeding Goldberg’s tutelage, I try to get a lot of stuff down on the page so the fear goes away.
     Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is full of advice for nervous writers. She advises writers to allow ourselves to write badly in order to write well. Her term for what we churn out when we first being writing a piece is "shitty first drafts". Her advice has heft for me, as a writer and as a teacher. In my own work, I can appreciate that the first words on the page are not going to be the best and I’m better able to face revisions. As a teacher, I see that students have to be willing to be bad at something before they can be good. Band students understand this because they’ve been the sweaty middle school clarinet player whose horn made odd hoots that sounded like their classmates' changing voices. Lamott, who has made a career out of writing about her worst qualities in the best way, is a writer who helps us give ourselves permission to be bad, very bad, so we can get better.
I have been reading Stephen King’s fiction for almost forty years. His reflection on craft, On Writing, gave me new appreciation for his work as well as confirmation that reading is never a waste of time for a writer. Long ago, in an introduction to Harlan Ellison’s Stalking the Nightmare, King wrote about how writers are like milk at times, and they take on the flavor of what’s beside them in the refrigerator.  For writers to find their own voice there has to be a lot of stuff in the refrigerator.  King’s book is more about craft than it is about motivation, and part of honing craft for a writer is reading other writers.
Rosemary Daniell’s The Woman Who Spilled Words All Over Herself has a special place on my shelf, too.  Again, this book had a binary influence on me, as I read it both as a teacher and a writer.  Much of the book concerns her work as a Poet in Residence in schools throughout Georgia, her experience as a writing teacher in prisons, as well as stories of her own writing experience.  This book lit up the part of my brain that is always at a slow percolation, thinking, “How can I teach…” while it also inspired me to write more myself.  One drawback to Daniell’s books is that I feel that a lot of her energy comes from the deep work she’s done on her relationships with her family and the men in her life, and my life just isn’t that dramatic.
Another writer whose genre fiction I have enjoyed is Rita Mae Brown. The mysteries she ‘co-wrote’ with her cat Sneaky Pie are my favorite kind of fiction because they are both entertaining and informative. Brown’s book on writing, Starting From Scratch: A Different Kind of Writer’s Manual, outlines her concept of a conservatory for writers and includes a list of books she thinks every writer should read. Her list is largely classical, but spans genres and would make a good liberal education for anyone, not just a writer.
I have to warn you, though, that READING about writing isn’t writing. It might be tempting to live vicariously through these other writers’ experiences instead of sitting down and writing something yourself.  If you read all of these books and still don't put butt on chair, pen to paper, or fingers to keys, then reading any of them hasn't really mattered at all.