Tag Archives: writing

Lessons from the Holocaust Denial Essay Disaster

Auschwitz-BirkenauA school assignment came into the news recently regarding a controversial essay. 8th grade students in California’s Rialto Unified School District were given an essay assignment in which they had to argue whether the Holocaust was a real event or a hoax. The students were given documents on each side of the argument to use in their case’s defense.

Understandably, this assignment has created an outpouring of anger and disgust from the public. The Anti-Defamation League has voiced its objection and contacted the district. Parents and advocates are outraged. The superintendent has even received death threats. The assignment is being called everything from foolish to dangerous and anti-Semitic. The Board of Education has acknowledged the inappropriateness of the assignment, apologized, and returned it back to the teachers to rewrite.

The topic:

When tragic events occur in history, there is often debate about their actual existence. For example, some people claim the Holocaust is not an actual historical event, but instead is a propaganda tool that was used for political and monetary gain. Based upon your research on this issue, write an argumentative essay, utilizing cited textual evidence, in which you explain whether or not you believe the Holocaust was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain. Remember to address counterclaims (rebuttals) to your stated claim. You are also required to use parenthetical (internal) citations and to provide a Works Cited page.”

I’m going to go into this with the assumption that the Rialto Unified Board of Education is not a pack of raving anti-Semites with the insidious goal of turning students into raving anti-Semites. If they are, well, then reason goes out the window. But having worked in education, I can reasonably predict that what happened was a gross misjudgment, a seriously bad question written with good intent but terrible delivery.

The intent of the assignment is, I would think, to lead students to see that the Holocaust Denial movement is ill-founded and false. The essay itself, though, is inappropriate for a number of reasons. The primary reason is that Reality vs. Hoax is not a legitimate debate. The Holocaust happened. It is real; there is nothing to debate. But to conspiracy theorists, any evidence in their favor is touted and any evidence against them is declared to be fabricated. How could anyone win an argument against someone like that?

For an argumentative essay topics to be fair, the two sides must both have equal weight. In an essay about whether or not students should wear uniforms, for example, arguments both logical and emotional could be made for either side. But Holocaust Reality vs. Hoax is not a debate. There IS no debate. If you give students two documents supporting and two opposing a claim, but don’t tell them that in fact there are millions of photographs, videos, personal testimonies, physical scars, embedded tattoos, and missing loved ones as proof of the Holocaust, it sets up an artificial equality for the grounds of debate.

Compounding this is the fact that most 8th grade students lack the critical skills to engage this topic meaningfully. In many cases, 8th grade is their first exposure to the Holocaust. Give them a debate and they will accept uncritically the grounds for that debate.

In my own class of 8th graders, students are reading Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, a standard text for this age. To ensure the students would appreciate Frank’s testimony, I spent nearly two weeks sharing with them information about anti-Semitism, the causes and events of the Holocaust, individual stories of different victims, and a broader exploration of how prejudice leads to discrimination which leads to violence and genocide. For most of my students, this was their first engagement with the Holocaust, and they craved to know more.

A few of my students did “independent research” on Google and came across a number of Denial websites. They tried to argue with me about the compelling evidence they saw. They said it made a lot of sense to them. I attempted to explain to them how conspiracy theories work, and that these loonies explain away any evidence against them. They seemed unconvinced, and the exchange has left me troubled.

Back to the Rialto Unified fiasco, I won’t try and relieve the administration of responsibility. The essay assignment was terrible. But as an educator, I can make a few guesses as to what happened. First of all, the essay is surely an attempt to create a Common Core-aligned essay. For those not in education, the Common Core is a set of nationalized educational standards that nearly every state has adopted. Every state, district, supervisor, and teacher is being pressured (professionally and financially) to implement them. And the Holocaust Denial essay was designed to be in alignment with Core standards, specifically regarding critical thinking skills and use of primary source documents.

More than likely, here is the scenario that occurred: the district mandated that the Language Arts department develop a document-based essay question for all 8th grade students. A group of teachers, likely already overtaxed and harried with responsibilities, formulated the question in question. How they came up with this prompt, I can’t say. Maybe they dashed it off, just another item on a to-do list that wasn’t given appropriate consideration. Maybe they thought they were being bold and provocative. Maybe they thought that this essay would help students see the futility of Holocaust Denial. In any case, the question is bad. Which happens. No teacher bats 1.000.

But then the prompt was surely rubber-stamped by supervisors, principals, and Board of Education members, all of whom had more pressing duties than discussing middle school essay questions. By the time someone looked up and said, “What the hell?”, news and social media had already done that for them. And by the district’s own acknowledgement, the problem was a lack of internal checks and balances.

What can we learn from this?

What I have learned is that teaching students about Holocaust Denial might be an important component of teaching them about the Holocaust itself. If I don’t address that some of the “information” out there is actually garbage, they might stumble on it and believe it.

And what can the field of education learn? Perhaps the lesson is that without taking a little time to check each other’s work, bad ideas can be greenlit and taken too far. Perhaps the lesson is that without giving students context, their learning is at best hampered and at worst entirely misguided. Or perhaps the lesson is that when contrived and artificial questions are created for the sole purpose of assessing students by some arbitrary standards, bad things result.

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Could an Apprentice System Create More Writers? (And Better Ones?)

Apprenticeship

“Atta boy, Josiah. That’s a lovely little gerund you’ve made there.”

So I was thinking recently (I try to sneak in a think every couple of weeks) about how writers become writers. I’m not talking about the early, formative years, which I suspect are the same for everyone. Avid readers begin to tell their own tales, clumsily at first, then with improved style. Introversion kills any inconvenient social life, allowing the budding author to sit at home on Friday nights and write stories about orcs.

For example, of course.

But I have been thinking about how one goes from “aspiring writer” to “writer.” The path out there is thorny and not clearly marked. Take almost any other occupation, and the trail is clear. Doctor: go to med school. Lawyer: Law school. Hell, if you want to be a circus performer, my alma mater offers classes in that, too. But the only advice anyone gets about how to become a writer is…well, just to write.

And there’s a lot of value in that advice, as the world is overpopulated with people who would like to write someday and underpopulated with actual writers. You must write, get down in that experimental mucky muck of playing with words, and do it a lot.

But let’s face it– if a writer wants guidance, there’s not a lot of structured help out there. Plenty of tips, quips, and advice columns, but no pathway that can be found in other professions.

There’s certainly no lack of educational opportunities. From local creative writing classes at your JCC to Ph.D.’s and M.F.A.’s in Creative Writing, academia offers a plethora of chances to study creative writing with a teacher. (And chances for learning words like “plethora.”) This is the route I took.

But that didn’t make me a writer.

One of the most insightful creative writing teachers I ever had, novelist Jim Fusilli, urged the class to think of Writing as a craft, not as an art. Or rather, art can only be achieved through craft. So learn the craft.

And how are most crafts and trades learned?

With apprenticeships.

And so my idea is this: why not have writers learn as apprentices rather than as students? There are plenty of writer’s organizations and groups out there. Why not set up promising young writers in apprenticeships with experienced veterans? Bricklayers, carpenters, and plumbers do it, why not writers? This way, there would be structured guidance by someone who knows BOTH the craft of telling stories well AND the business end of finding agents, self-pubbing, negotiating contracts, and all that.

Apparently, the UK already does this. Let’s steal…er, get inspired from them!

This apprentice system could be valuable for all types of writing, not just fiction. In fact, it would probably be most useful outside of fiction. There is no clear path to learning technical writing, writing ad copy, or other types of informational and persuasive text creation. Job postings for these professions insist upon 3 or 5 or 150 years of prior experience, and all I can wonder is how one gets in on the ground level. Then I look up how one starts on the ground level,  and all the advice sites say “start small.” Which means nothing.

Right now, there are countless writers without jobs or outlets for their work, and countless employers despairing over the lack of literate workers to create text for them. What’s missing is a reliable, systematic method for creating articulate writers and funneling them into these jobs.  Apprenticeships could produce a steady stream of quality writers for our workforce.

So what do you think?

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What Does a Craiglist Scammer Have in Common with an Intestinal Parasite?

Give up?

The answer is pretty much everything.

Craigslist is a great idea. It’s like a classifieds section for the Internet, free to use. Great way to help people sell the junk in their homes or buy other people’s junk to put in their own homes. Great way to advertise for jobs or meet people with obscure interests. (The free section is the best. )

I’ve used CL many times, and as a purchaser, I’ve always had positive experiences. I got tickets to a sold-out show that way, free cardboard boxes for moving, and I bought all the parts of my home gym at severely discounted prices.

dog-pooping

Rex suffered from constipation, but now the Craigslist scammers are passing easily.

As a seller, though, it’s a sketchy world. This is thanks to the rectal worms of e-commerce, also known as scammers.

Scammers reply to sellers, offering to buy whatever is being sold. But under a variety of guises, it’s really just an attempt to sucker you into sending them money. They hook you in through a series of correspondences that make you trust them.

Thankfully, I’ve never forked any money over to them, though I have been lured along fairly far into the process. The first time I was trying to sell our sofa. The buyer explained that she was out of the country but was going to send her brother to pick it up. I said that was fine, I could understand. Then she said she would pay via PayPal. I said that was fine, because, you know, PayPal is safe and secure. Then she explained that she was going to send me a large amount of money (far more than the asking price of the couch) to cover the transportation and accomodations for her brother and that I was to send her the balance.

At that point I was a little suspicious. So I looked up common Craigslist scams. The three telltale signs of a scam:

1) Buyer is out of the country or won’t meet face to face.

2) Buyer won’t pay cash.

3) Buyer wants YOU to send money.

This last one is a giveaway. Under no business circumstances does it make sense for the seller to pay the buyer. So I cut off communications with the scammer.

Saying Craiglist is the source of the scamming problem is like saying playgrounds are the source of the pedophile problem.

Well, recently I’ve been looking for a little extra work to feed the endless pit that is my baby. Tutoring, editing, etc. I posted my services on CL and actually got three legitimate gigs as an editor (YAY!). I also had a reply from a woman working for the U.N. and wants her son tutored to keep him busy. I said sure. She asked for my rates. I told her. She said she wanted her son to have two hours of tutoring twice a week for a month. Hot damn! That would be a pretty sweet pile of cash for just a one-month committment.

Then she explained that she would send a large amount of money with the babysitter to cover her son’s accomodations, etc. I was to send her the balance via cashier’s check.

Shit.

Part of what I feel is embarrassment that I went along with it that long before realizing what was happening. Sure, I didn’t lose any money, but that exchange did take a lot of my time and emotional investment. I thought I was savvy to scammers after the sofa ordeal, but I guess not.

The scammers are everywhere. This blogger is pretty thorough in documenting that.

What to do if you think you’ve been CL-scammed.

But mostly what I feel is anger. Who the hell are these people? I work so hard each week, teaching students, grading papers, writing lesson plans, then writing and revising my own work, on top of spending family time as a husband and dad. I imagine these scammers are cheezy puff- eating, greasy- haired, whiny- voiced, mommy’s basement- dwelling losers who figure they can have a go at swiping the money of suckers. I know that’s probably not the truth. The truth is probably a lot more interesting than the stereotype. But seriously, how low do you have to be to do that?

And you know? If they reply to five hundred postings and only one sucker falls for it, they still made a good day’s money. I don’t even care about people who get paid a lot of money for easy jobs. These scammers are vermin.

To be clear: Craiglist is not the problem. I like CL and I think it’s a brilliant concept and a very well run site, especially for free. The problem is the losers who take advantage of people there. Saying Craiglist is the source of the scamming problem is like saying playgrounds are the source of the pedophile problem.

roundandtapes

Craigslist scammers should be in this photo, too, but they’re too yucky.

So I wish I could throw up my hands and say “I’m done with Craigslist” But with my writing career in its infant stage, I can’t be too choosy right now. I don’t yet have a website or network or big reputation to pull in clients. CL is like a barely-regulated bazaar where vendors are always shouting and jostling elbows and checking to see if their pockets have been picked. Scumbags– they’re the hidden cost for free services.

So, blog world- any experiences with scammers you feel like sharing?

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The F.E.W. (Friends and Enemies of Writing) #5: Shut Doors and Someday

Friends of Writing #5: Shut Doors

A shut door might be a writer’s best friend. The gerbils aren’t just in our head. They are outside, too trying to get in the office or calling us out to wander the house in search of rooms to clean and coffee to make.

These doors can be literal or figurative. My office has no door. It’s at an intersection of rooms with a cozy corner. I’m in that corner now, writing. When I go back to write, I announce to my wife, “I’m going to write,” and that signals the figurative door being closed– don’t interrupt me unless the house is on fire, the baby is choking, or the baby is on fire.

When I write during my commute, I have even less privacy. The door is something in my mind. I don’t stare out the window (it’s usually before dawn anyway). I don’t people-watch (and public transit is THE place to people-watch). I focus 95% on writing and 5% on not missing my stop. That hour is my writing time.

Why do shut doors matter? For the mind’s eye to open to imagination, all that outside stuff needs to stay at bay. The world will not stop for you to write. One must carve out creative space, both in the home and in the mind.

Enemy of Writing #5: Someday

Let’s make a painful, ugly, and necessary assumption about life:

You will never have more free time than you do now. Things only get busier from here on out.

When I was in college, I told myself I’d have more time to write when I didn’t have to contend with classes. Then in grad school, doubly so. When I landed my teaching position, I felt like all my time to write was gone. Then I bought a house, and even more free time was gone. And now I have a baby who steals everything. I should know better by now. Until I’m looking at retirement, my future will be more, not less, busy. It is up to me to make that time exist—during weekends, on trains, early in the morning, Summers, or whenever I can steal a few moments.

“The road to hell is paved with works in progress.” –Philip Roth

Similarly, holding back from writing the great book you’ve always wanted to write is a bad idea. Granted, I haven’t even written one published book, great or otherwise, so maybe it’s presumptuous of me to advise anyone to reach for the stars. But if you want to “be on the map,” don’t start with a lukewarm effort that you don’t feel is the best thing you could do. Write each book as if your entire legacy will depend up its quality and reputation. Then, after it is released, write another one that’s even better.

There are many other friends and enemies of writing. In your comments, feel free to offer up some other suggestions. What should writers embrace and reject to be the best artists they can be?

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F.E.W. (The Friends and Enemies of Writing) #4:

Friend of Writing #4: Stillness

Right now there are gerbils running inside of your head. Don’t freak out because they’re in mine, too. These gerbils run messages for us, which is cool. Most of these messages are a waste of time, which is not. And we have become slaves to the brain-gerbils, which is death to productivity.

For instance, right now a gerbil is running a message to me, informing me of how urgent it is to check my WordPress stats and see if my last post viewership has reached the double digits. I already obeyed the last gerbil, who told me I’d be a more effective writer if I got up and made myself a ninth cup of coffee. Before that was the “look out the window again and scan for the neighborhood stray cat and her kitten” gerbil. He visits a lot.

Gerbils

Come on dudes. Let’s f*** some s*** up!

With all this scurrying, it’s hard to concentrate. You may want to KILL ALL THE GERBILS! Except you can’t do that, because these gerbils are Hydra Gerbils, and if you take one out, two or three more take its place. You cannot exterminate the gerbils.

You can, however, quiet them. I use meditation.

Meditation is simple. Not easy, but simple. Sit for five, ten, twenty minutes before you begin to write. Breathe. Focus all your attention on breathe in, breathe out. When your mind wanders, simply redirect it to the breath.

What does this do? It stills the mind. The gerbils get bored, take a nap. And then your brain is clear and ready to produce quality thoughts.

Meditation isn’t weird or mystical. It hasn’t carried me to some astral plane, at least not yet. But it brings clarity and focus, which are critical.

Enemy of Writing #4: WiFi

Shutting out distraction might be the great challenge for creative people in the modern day. So much technology and information is available today. It’s unprecedented. But that ease of access can be just as much a threat as an asset. There are so many things blinking and squeaking at us for attention, keeping one-pointed, dedicated focus on something is a lot harder than it was two hundred years ago. Tolstoy didn’t have to contend with Facebook or Twitter pulling at his attention. Today, we must make the choice to turn away.

I was going to make this Enemy be T.V. The “electronic teat” can take away valuable writing time and fill the mind with junk-food writing. But plenty of writers have piled on the “kill T.V.” message before. For decades. So I won’t bother.

Abbey TV

Writer and Naturalist Edward Abbey was no fan of T.V.

Plus, I don’t think T.V. is as bad as everyone makes it out. In many ways, we’re in a creative peak of T.V. writing, with the number of high-quality shows greater than ever.

But anyway, WiFi. It’s like we leave the house, and are instantly dehydrated, in constant search for the next artesian spring. Must…get…bars… And once you do, you gaze into your phone, awash in a sea of electronica.

I suffer terribly from this. It’s soooo tempting, soooo easy, to re-check email, WordPress, Facebook, Yahoo, anything online. It seems harmless. It’s easy to justify. But if you allow those gerbils to take control, you’ll never have control of your own mind.

The Internet is a tremendous tool for writers. But when it’s not being used for active research, it’s a terrible distraction. There are all sorts of tricks—cut you network connection as soon as you sign on, stick to pen and paper, write in the forest where there is no WiFi… But I came up with an easier solution. I keep a notepad or piece of scrap paper by my desk as I write. Every time I get the “itch” to look something up online, I write it on the pad:

“Facebook.”

“Fantasy team.”

“Interesting War of 1812 lit.”

“Facebook.”

I’ve trained myself so that in place of actually visiting the site, I make a note to visit it later. I promise myself that on my lunch break, I’ll look all that stuff up. It will still be there. Of course, by that time, most of those curiosities are stale, and I don’t even bother, but I was able to keep hold of my focus during that time. Try it.

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The F.E.W. (Friends and Enemies of Writing) #3: Bed and Breakfasts and Phones

Are you a writer trying to improve your writing practices? Want to produce more writing and fewer excuses? Here is the third in a series of five posts about choosing the right Friends and ditching the Enemies.

Friend of Writing #3: Bed and Breakfasts

If you were going to travel to a new place, you would probably sleep in a hotel (or a bus station, depending on your writing career). Hotels are nice because they’re all the same. Every check-in, every bed, every pool, every smell, every continental breakfast. The sameness of hotels makes them feel safe and predictable.

And boring! Kristin and I always seek out bed and breakfasts. We like the variety and unpredictability. There are opulent ones and simple ones. There are city ones (our first B&B was in Boston) and rural ones. There are lavish rooms and cramped ones. I can’t remember most of the hotels I’ve stayed in, but I remember each B&B.

And the people. Owners love to talk about their house, and always have new people in and out, sharing stories. Writers should gobble that up. I’ve met some characters over breakfast. In Boston, we met a young Irish couple, recently pregnant, who wanted to finally visit the U.S. before the baby. In upstate New York we met an uptight couple, but when I learned the old gentleman was an English professor, we both opened up. I can’t remember anyone interesting I’ve met at a hotel.

Hostels follow the same rule. When we traveled in Europe in 2011, we avoided hotels (mainly for cost reasons) and stayed in youth hostels. Sure, at 28 we were older than most of the other guests. But we met some incredible people and made some of our best memories with them. We’re still in touch today with a few.

Damn it, if he's Tweeting about this sweet B&B during our honeymoon, I'll chop him to pieces in the bathtub. Good thing Stephen King is staying here, too...

Damn it, if he’s Tweeting about this sweet B&B during our honeymoon, I’ll chop him to pieces in the bathtub. Good thing Stephen King is staying here, too…

Really, “Bed and Breakfast” is synecdoche for “rich experiences.” Read books. Take the bus. Go talk to the weird guy standing alone in the corner (but keep the pepper spray handy). Look for the things that everyone else is doing, and avoid them. It’s the life experience version of avoiding clichés.

Enemy of Writing #3: Phones

Oh, Alex G. Bell. If you could only see what your telephones can do now. Now, nearly every person has in their pocket a device that is a library, video database, camera, phonograph, arcade, and notepad all in one. Calling other people is an afterthought at this point. Cool, huh?

But if you want to be a productive writer, you need to cultivate the skill of shutting out distraction. Phones prop the door open and invite distractions in for a house party. It’s hard to be creative when the little phone is keeping your mind distracted from deep concentration. Jonathan Franzen recently wrote a lengthy but enlightening piece about this.

What’s the solution? Change your routine. Start little. If you check your phone as soon as you wake up, wait until after breakfast. You may survive.

Louis C.K., comic and philosopher, says deep shit about why cell phones make us not be people any more.

Keep the phone off when you write. If you need it in case of an emergency, fine, leave it on, but put it in another room.

Don’t be afraid to let it roll over to voicemail. That’s why you have that feature, anyway.

Or turn your enemy into your friend. Get the Kindle app and always have an e-book. As I mentioned in my first post, try to squeeze reading into every wasted moment, if you can. This way, when you have your phone on you at all times, you also have a book on you at all times.

The point is to make the phones just a little less convenient. You’ll find the craving for constant updating will soon disappear.

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The F.E.W. (Friends and Enemies of Writing) #2: Family and Cleaning

Writers aren’t alone. They have a lot of Friends (many of them not people). They also have to contend with a number of Enemies (some of them people).

In my last post, I talked about one Friend of Writing, Reading. I also discussed one Enemy, and that is Waiting.

Today, we look at two more.

Friend of Writing #2: Family

My family takes more time and energy from my writing than anything else, save school. My wife loves hosting people at our house and going on trips. My son is on an unending cycle of change-feed-spitup-play-sleep. My neurotic dog and my cat have their demands. My parents and in-laws live all over the mid-Atlantic. So how is family a writer’s friend?

Most writers face insecurity. For some, it’s crippling. For others, it’s nagging. But going at this alone, with no support, is lonely. It’s great to have family cheering and anticipating your work. Kristin is super– she respects my writing time and urges me to work beyond my comfort zone. My parents and in-laws eagerly await news of a new publication. And my son, at fivemonths old, is a great motivation. I want him to grow up seeing his dad work hard, pursuing his Calling.

Stick family

Woah! Someone needs a hobby. Writing, perhaps?

I was going to amend this to “Supportive Family.” Many writers have families that doubt, scorn, and mock them for writing. I’ve been blessed that no one has told me to “get a real job” or “give up the ghost.” Many writers are not so lucky.

That being said, you can’t change your family. You can, however, change how you respond to them. For every writer who has been discouraged into silence by a tough family, there’s another writer who uses that negativity to fuel productivity. Prove naysayers wrong. Adversity is an ally.

A lot of fellow writer/bloggers discuss the balance of family and writing a lot. I’ve seen Chuck Wendig do it. Shane Halbach writes about his family all the time, with great affection and honesty.  Catherine Green, too. I think there’s an archetypal (or stereotypical) image of the writer as Loner Hermit, shut off from Real Life and Domestic Matters. That ain’t real life, though.

Enemy of Writing #2: Cleaning

I wouldn’t describe myself as a neat freak, but I like a tidy house. Though I can live with some mess, my mind is calmer in a clean area.

But my God, whenever I sit down to write, suddenly the plate and coffee cup on the counter MUST BE WASHED, ASAP! I scoop cat litter once a day, but when I write, it demands instant attention. Every housework task, no matter how trivial, looks critical when I sit to write.

I have no idea why this is. Maybe it’s a desire to keep my environment tidy and calm. Maybe it’s some whining guilt about writing instead of doing something “useful.” But I feel it pulling at me, even now as I write this post.

A couple of years ago, Jill Barville wrote a terrific post about the daily life of a non-housecleaning writer.

There will always, always, always be housework to do. Between pets and baby, I can sweep the house from front to back, and when I’m done, the front is dusty again. Even a five-minute “tidy up” will break focus, shatter that creative state that writing requires, and pull the buttocks away from the writing chair.

What’s the solution?

cleaning

What a coincidence! Those are my cabinet-scrubbing shorts, too!

Prioritize. During writing time, writing comes first, always. Ask yourself if in an hour, you’d be prouder of a finished page or a clean load of underwear. If you answer the underwear, you’re not a writer.

Caught in a dry spell? Thinking the cure to writer’s block is Murphy’s Oil Soap? Forget it. Just write more.

Still itching to dust the bookshelves? Hire a cleaning service then. Will it cost you something? Yeah, sure. But not writing is costlier. Value your time. An hour writing is worth a lot more than an hour folding socks.

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The F.E.W. (Friends and Enemies of Writing). #1: Reading and Waiting

Sorry for the delay between posts. I’m involved in a big new writing project, which took a lot of my attention in August. And the new school year is beginning, which takes everything else I have left. Suddenly, the expansive summer hours of creative thought are gobbled up by teenagers and lesson planning, forcing me to scramble for every writing moment I can get. And this led me to think about life habits– the ones that help or hurt writing.

So for my next five blog posts, I’ll be discussing the F.E.W. That is, the Friends and Enemies of Writing. Each post will look at one of each.

Friend #1: Reading

AA003102

Comes in many flavors: Hardcover, paperback, e-book, and audiobook.

Duh. Reading is tops on each “Every Writer Should…” list. So I won’t belabor the critical importance of reading, and reading a lot.

So, read. Okay. But read what? Should a writer read extensively within his/her genre, or read a wide breadth of texts? The answer is yes. A writer needs to know the depth of his/her genre, and all the work that has been done before and is being done now. But a writer also needs to explore beyond the comfort zone. Way beyond it. And not just in terms of genre, but in terms of quality, format (traditionally and self-published), and in terms of the author’s gender, race, age, and epoch.

No time for reading? If reading isn’t your primary recreation (surpassing T.V., exercise, Web surfing, napping, cooking, playing music, anything), then you might be in the wrong field. Have other interests, sure. I do. But reading is the Primary Fun.

Enemy #1: Waiting

If you have a life that permits you numerous free hours to write and read at leisure, good for you. If you’re constantly busy and bemoaning the lack of time to read and write, read on.

Stephen King says in On Writing “I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows.” I read on the train, in the grocery store, or while washing dishes (thanks Audible!). I typically spend an hour at the dentist, 45 minutes of which are spent in a book.

Shit. I left “Gravity’s Rainbow” at home. Guess it’s National Enquirer today.

When I tell people I commute an hour-plus each way, each day, the response is often pity. “That’s terrible,” they say. “Wouldn’t you rather drive?”

I would not. See, there’s nothing to do during a commute. It becomes my built-in reading/writing time, a guaranteed two hours of productivity per day. And since I don’t have endless idle hours, but a strict, limited work time, I work hard and strategically during the ride. Rather than being a burden, the commute has become one of my favorite parts of the day.

commuters

If these jokers are playing Angry Birds instead of reading on a Kindle app, I’m gonna go all sorts of book-ninja crazy on them.

A Cool Idea in London, Four Years Ago

So how can you beat that enemy, Waiting? Fill the tedious moments of the day with writing and reading. Ask yourself always: Could I be reading or writing while I do this?

If the answer is yes, get to it.

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Synonym Toast Crunch

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.” –Mark Twain
Lightninglightning-bugs

I believe vocabulary development is one ofthe key elements of middle school language arts. There’s a lot to learn between sixth and ninth grades, but without expanding the words that kids can recognize and use is critical to high school success. Limited vocabulary can be a hurdle, but done effectively, vocabulary can be a bridge from little-kid reading and writing to real sophistication.

I’ve struggled with how to effectively teach vocabulary in my class. We have vocabulary workbooks in my school with 20-word chapters of grade-appropriate vocabulary. Bleh. I dislike teaching vocab out of context, but it’s like doing long runs or pushups– ya just gotta get the work in. Throughout my six years of teaching, I’ve striven to make the chapters both effective and palatable.

Anyway, I’ve found that strict memorization is pretty much useless. Your vocabulary isn’t a stockpile or stamp collection– the words aren’t any use if you can’t recognize and deploy them. So now when I teach vocab, I have the students make flashcards and draw pictures, I give them example sentences and make them write their own, and reward them when they use the words properly in their own writing. So far, it’s working pretty well.

I also require them to give me a synonym and antonym (if applicable) of each word. Here’s where things fall apart. It’s one thing to remember a definition, another to rephrase it, and another to plug the word into a sentence. But to give synonyms requires having a sense of the word that isn’t easily learned in a couple of weeks.

The first hurdle is understanding the part of speech and the ways in which the word can–and cannot– be used. For instance, one of the words in their current chapter is “bungle.” A verb. Yet I’ve had a number of students give me sentences like “He’s such a bungle person!” I explain that it needs to be changed to an adjective, “bungling.” Then they get another verb, “refute,” and try to change it to an adjective: “The scientist’s report was very refuting about the old information.” English is fun!

The second problem is that some definitions just don’t give a sense of the word. This chapter, the hardest word to grapple with is “smug.” The official, book definition is “overly self-satisfied, self-righteous.” I think this is a vague definition (not to mention useless for the 98% of my students who don’t know what “self-righteous” means). I’ve done my best to talk them through it, explaining “smug” as “cocky” or “thinking you’re better than everyone and everything” or “arrogant, in a quiet way.” I give them example sentences (“She was awfully smug for someone repeating 7th grade for the fourth time!”). In the end, though, I’m pretty sure that “smug” will be one word this chapter that will simply elude most of my kids.

Another challenge comes from how we look for synonyms. We recently completed a research project, and I came across one report with a high level of highly misused vocabulary. The sentence that really got me was “Edgar Allan Poe was a vast author for all his stories and poems.” I called the student over and asked her what she meant by it.
“I mean he’s a great author!”
I paused. Something struck me.
“You typed this in Microsoft Word?”
“Yeah.”
“Did you write ‘great,’ then right-click on it and look for ‘synonyms’?”
“Yeah. You’re always telling us not to use little kid words, so I wanted to replace ‘great’ with a better word.”

I explained that because “great” can be used many ways, and not all the meanings are the same. “Great” and “vast” are synonyms…sometimes. The caveat to my “used big-kid words” is “use words you know how to use.”

This isn’t the fault of technology or MS Word. The same error could have been made with a hard copy thesaurus. I only find thesauruses useful when they remind me of other words I hadn’t thought of. But lunging out at mysterious words can create some wacky results.

(Also fun– use MS Word for “synonym chains,” when you replace one word with a suggested one, then replace that one, over and over until the final word choice is light years away from the original one.)

I don’t see the “great/vast” mixup as an utter failure. A big part of vocabulary development is experimentation. But it’s gotten me thinking about the nature of synonyms. Are there ever any true synonyms? If two words meant exactly the same thing, why have both of them? English is a messy hoarder of a language that eagerly accumulates and reluctantly abandons words. English may not be efficient or tidy, but I think this ambiguity, the shades of meanings, the connotations and implications of words is what makes it so much fun to play with.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Simple, clear, epic.
“It was the paramount epoch, it was the most perilous of occasions.” Bloated and overreaching.
“It was the instigate of clock, it was the under the weather rotation.” MS Word Synonym Chain.

I’m not going to stop teaching vocabulary, though I’m always adapting my methods. Is there one key to developing a vocabulary that is not only large and flexible, but is readily applied? Sure. I encourage my students to do it all the time, in school for academics and at home for fun. It was the way I developed my vocabulary. Read.

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Bang Your Head! (Against the Monitor)

It’s been about six weeks since my last blog post. Between deaths in the family, an impending birth, frantic renovations (to prepare for said birth), a freelance project, and a nutty school schedule, the blog fell by the wayside. And in that time, I’ve had one of my short stories published in a new anthology, Song Stories: Volume 1. The story is “Equilibrium of Chaos,” which was published a couple of years back in another anthology (Hall Brothers Entertainment’s Villainy). The theme of the anthology is stories inspired by songs. “E of C” is exactly that. Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine may not be rock’s finest poet (or a nice guy, or even remotely sane), but he’s written some great riffs and some very cool songs. One of my favorites is “Hangar 18,” which is a fictional place that is reminiscent of Area 51. The song is a bit of sci-fi campiness, which transferred into my story. Once I developed a main character, the story really wrote itself. The antagonist, an ice-cold colonel in charge of the hangar, was a ton of fun to write. If you haven’t read my story before, pick up the anthology on Kindle here and try it out.

The authors in Song Stories: Vol. 1 are doing a blog-hop on the connections between writing and music. I have lots to say on this topic. I could address what I listen to when I write (classical, ambient, electronic, jazz, computer game music, anything without lyrics– can’t write with other people’s words in my head). I could talk about how music inspires my stories (the aforementioned Megadeth. I once wrote composed a story listening to Rage Against the Machine’s cover of NWA’s “F— the Police” to get in the narrator’s mindset. My novel I’m working on is thematically tied to Queensryche’s Operation Mindcrime). But I’d like to talk, instead, about being a performer.

One author I like (I forgot who) once said that many authors are frustrated musicians. I can relate to that. I’ve been playing music since age ten or so. I began playing violin in the 4th grade. My parents were incredibly supportive (quite a feat, if you’ve ever heard a kid learning the violin). I stuck with it all the way through high school, usually enjoying it but never becoming great. In high school, my musical tastes expanded beyond classical, and I began learning guitar. This past year, I’ve begun to teach myself bass. I’ve never had a band, though I’d like to be in one. If I couldn’t be a writer, my next choice would be to be a rocker. I just lack the musical talent. I can play the instruments, but I can’t really make them sing. My gifts (if I may humbly call them that) are in the written word, not in the performed note. But this doesn’t change that ache I have in my bones to perform and share the music.

Confession: sometimes I sit at my computer desk, writing a story, and when the words are flowing, I imagine myself writing the words in front of 20,000 screaming fans, sweat pouring from my brow in the heat of the spotlight, the stage thundering under my feet.

Maybe what I really want– since I know I’ll never make a living playing a musical instrument– is the feedback that musicians get. When a musician performs, he’s there, in the moment, playing the notes. If he plays them notes real good, the crowd goes wild. Hell, even if you don’t play well, if you play with enthusiasm and energy, that gets the crowd so worked up that the response is the same. But writers have a different fate. Their feedback comes weeks, months, years, or decades after the writing. There is no immediate joy or rejection. I’ve published stories that I wrote years ago, and it’s weird accepting praise for something that was part of me a long time ago. Maybe that’s why I like to imagine myself rocking out as I write– because for me, the thrill of being a writer isn’t in the dream of someday having a fanclub or signing autographs for two hours (though I would be honored). For me, it isn’t even about having my name on a handsome hardcover in a bookstore. No, for me, the thrill of writing is in the composition. When I’m at the computer, I am on the stage, the drummer pounding away behind me, the guitars squealing, the bass thundering, and the crowd is right there with me, and we’re sharing the making of the music.

 

 

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