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Archive for the ‘Writing and Editing’ Category


We’re nearing the end of the term here at the remote, isolated outpost of higher education where I teach basic writing courses. The thing about teaching writing courses is that they work best when there’s a certain level of trust and intimacy between writers and audience. Many of the assignments require students to explore some facet of their own experience. The upshot of this is that I have a window into the lives of the students who sit in my class that many other teachers don’t have. In any given term, I have a good idea who is struggling with personal issues, who is single, who is married, who has lost–or gained–a loved one, who is having a positive–or negative–experience at school.

I’ve been teaching writing for a long time, and I have rather come to take that window into my students’ lives for granted. But this term has been out of the ordinary. A huge percentage of my students are single parents. Many are attending school as a path out of a long family history of poverty. I have students who have recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, and are going to school on the GI bill. Some students have had unexpected deaths in their families.

We are a small, comparatively poor town, and half of my class reports in by television from even smaller, poorer towns. I teach night school, so many of my students come to class after having already worked a full day, in some cases at grinding physcial labor. And still they come to class, and they sit there, and listen, and write their papers, and revise, and rewrite. And I can see how very tired they get.

And while I wish I could just let them have the time to relax, to unwind, and to catch their breath, I don’t. In fact, I work them all the harder, because that’s my gift to them–the benefit of every bit of wisdom , encouragement, and support I can cram into those hours we share. And they learn. As far as I know, I am the only writing teacher who encourages students to rewrite their papers, over and over and over again. And I grade them over and over again, because the best way to teach writing is to give people the opportunity to write, and to see how they might express themselves more clearly.

Teaching this way is hard work. Sometimes it gets confusing. But we keep doing it because I am teaching more than making marks on paper–I am challenging the people who come to my class to look at their lives in new ways, to explore ideas, to look beyond the simple, trite, common knowledge that “everybody knows” to the deeper wisdom behind it. And I’m doing this not because of who I am, but because of who the people who sit in my classes are. They are people who, in spite of living in small, backwoods, rural communities, have dared to dream of moving beyond the world into which they were born–or in which by happenstance they find themselves.

I read their papers, and sometimes my heart breaks for them, but mostly I am awed, humbled, and grateful that my life offers me the opportunity touch so many lives, to offer hope to people for whom hope may be a rare commodity, to offer support and courage to people whose lives may hold a lot of challenges and pain, but also a seed of a dream. Every week, I get to meet with around twenty-five people who, in a world of uncertainty and diminishing resources, have dared to envision a life that holds more.

In the past, I taught writing. These days, I find I’m spending a lot of time fostering creativity, urging my students to think outside the box, to consider avenues to success that don’t depend on traditional nine-to-five jobs, to explore non-traditional housing options, to dream big, because in times like these our dreams are our treasure. As long as we can dream, we can never be beaten.

And that is the gift of teaching–the deep wisdom that lies behind the obvious pattern of teacher talking and students listening. If the teacher takes the time to listen, her students can teach her the power of dreaming, and of working to make those dreams come true.

My students don’t read this blog–most of them don’t even know it exists. But today I wish they did. I wish they knew what they mean to me, and what they teach me simply by showing up to class, with their tired eyes, and their dreams, and their willingness to write, to think, to rewrite, revise, rethink, and rewrite again. I wish they knew how I hope that something they hear, something they learn, will spark an idea that will carry them beyond where they are now, to a place beyond where they have ever dreamed of being.

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A year ago I started teaching two basic writing classes at my local community college. My first term I stuck pretty close to the sample syllabus I got–just tweaking the tiniest bit.

Before I started my second term, though, I made two minor renovations that have changed everything about the way I teach.

The first is that, rather that focusing on teaching the “modes” of the various essays and on grammar exercises, I switched to a “sequence” format. Here’s the difference:

Teaching “modes” means focusing on essay format. Subject matter becomes secondary. Grammar and punctuation is taught as a series of worksheets that bear little relation to student writing.

Teaching “sequences” places subject matter front and center. The various essay forms become different ways of exploring the subject, and grammar and punctuation is done in the context of student writing.

That was the first change–I chose a subject, and wrote my assignments to prompt students in writing about it in the various forms required for state standards.

My second innovation is more far-reaching–I allow infinite rewrites, as long as the first assignment has gotten in on time (deadlines are important, after all).

I’m spending a lot of my time reading and commenting on papers these days. Why would I do this, when it makes my life so very much busier? I’m doing it because of my real world experience in writing, editing, and publishing. I have yet to find any writer who can produce something worth reading in two rounds of revision. Seems to me asking beginning writers to do it is unrealistic–and it also deprives us both of a powerful teaching opportunity. Students learn best in the context of their own writing–and by allowing multiple revisions I’m giving myself the opportunity to guide them through the process of really writing, from content revision to structural revision to style revision to grammatical revision.

And it’s working. I’m getting boatloads of papers in. More important, though, is that my students are not only learning how to write about a subject in various ways–they’re starting to think about things that really matter. Last term the sequence was about food. We talked about how humans have various nutritional needs, about how environment, wealth, climate, and culture shape how those needs are filled, and about how the food of the poor in a culture becomes the “comfort food” of a nation. And then we talked about how understanding what people eat, and why, can become a powerful tool in bridge-building between cultures. I gave extra credit for students who actually cooked an old family recipe and brought it in to class. Not a class went by that we didn’t have something to eat. And I watched my students begin to move past the cultural barriers in our small town.

This time we’re talking about homes, and about how values are reflected in the homes we choose, and how we shape them. Our first three essays have been where each of us live, and what it says about us. The last three essays will be broader in scope. We’ll compare homes from different cultures, look at how they reflect climate and culture–and then look at how those differences can affect the way we see each other. And we’ll look at how the sharply increasing problem of homelessness is changing us.

So far, it’s going well. But as I say, I’ve got a boatload of papers to grade. And so to work…

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The B0y came home from school day before yesterday talking about Middle English. Well, that was just like a red cape to a bull around here. I took a Middle English translation class in graduate school and have been simply pining for a place to put all that esoteric knowledge. Little did The Boy know what he was unleashing when he innocently spoke of having to write a short passage using certain Middle English words!

Imagine, for a moment, what it’s like to be my child. You go to school. You get an assignment you find mildly interesting. On the way home you mention it in passing, on the way the really vital discussion of whether or not McDonald’s is in the family’s immediate future.

And suddenly you find yourself buried under an avalanche of information about how one dates and geographically places Middle English texts, a spirited re-telling of “Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight,” (complete with “voices”), an analysis of how natural barriers like rivers and mountains factor into dialect formation, and a brief detour into natural barriers’ role in national boundary formation, complete with cautionary examples of countries who try to exist without them (Poland, something of keen personal interest, since while the family is ethnically German, we come from north central Poland).

And all this because you innocently mentioned that you were talking about Middle English in school. It must be hard.

Of course, it’s no picnic being the mother in this scenario, either. The Boy expressed mild interest in the fact that it’s possible to place Middle English texts, given a decent sample, and I wanted to show him the maps I got in graduate school, graphing out which variants were used in which parts of England. And of course I can’t find the damned book. I’ve looked all over. No joy, as they say on the detective show I’m currently watching on Netflix.

I’ve looked online, and can’t find them there, so this tells me that this particular bit of information is really, really esoteric. So I’m back to relying on my own resources. I’ve vowed that I’ll find that book if I have to clean the whole house to do it. Well…maybe not that…that’s a bit extreme. But I’ll at least look in the bedroom again. And on the shelves in The Boy’s room, where my overflow books live.

But let’s leave that for the moment. Our conversation (read “my monolog”) on the subject of how dialects grow and change based on boundaries has gotten me thinking about how our language reflects our history, and never so strongly as when we are forced to accept things we don’t like. Old English became the language of England in the wake of the Anglo-Saxon invasion. Norman French took over with William the Conquerer. Middle English fought its way back to prominence, only to find itself exposed to new ideas, expressed in new languages, from the Middle East.

The Puritans came to America, and their language immediately began taking on a freight of Native American words, and then, as they encountered settlers from other European countries, words from their languages as well. The influx of immigrants and refugees from Southeast Asia, Mexico, and South America have added words to our language.

Someday, linguists will take out their charts and attempt to place one of our written documents geographically and chronologically. And they’ll be able to do it. Our language carries our history in its bones. No matter what some may say about who the “real Americans” are, and what the “real American language” is, our language tells the truth of us–we are a nation that has grown on the shoulders of ancestors from all over the world. We have been a global society since our very beginnings. To say that any one ethnic group or language defines us is to deny all of the forces that have shaped us for thousands of years.

I’m not quite sure where I was going with this. Maybe it’s just to say that our language reflects not who we wish we were, but who we are. It holds our reality. And keeping it vital and strong means allowing it to grow and evolve to reflect our changing selves.

So what does that mean today? Maybe it means that instead of rigidly insisting that English and only English be spoken, we adapt to the reality that there are millions of people here, now, whose language holds a different history. And maybe we become bilingual? Or trilingual? At the very least, I think it means understanding that, like it or not, our language is changing, and will continue to do so, if it is not to become as dead as Latin.

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"In the Garden" from Secret History: A Painted Journal

I’m on a list serv, and one of the things we’ve been talking about recently is why we write what we write. To be precise, why is it that some of the very nice ladies on the list (and we are very nice ladies) wind up writing about some very dark things. It’s a question somewhat similar to the one that Dame Agatha Christie has nice lady extraordinaire Miss Jane Marple address at one point–Miss Marple comments that her nephew says she “has a mind like a sink.”

The comment has stuck with me, largely because I think it says something important about us nice ladies. Being nice does not mean being naive. Like Jane Marple, we have “minds like sinks”–we might be nice, but we understand that much of the world is not. Moreover, being nice ladies does not always mean we have led nice lives. Many of us have the battle scars to prove it.

"Wonderful Words of Life," from Secret History: A Painted Journal

 

What does this mean for us as writers? I can’t speak for everyone, but here’s what it means for me. First, it means that my writers’ palette holds some very dark colors as well as some very bright ones, and that on some days I just plain feel like writing in dark hues. Second, it means that to some degree I have lost my writer’s “virginity,” if you will–I no longer blush and stammer at mentioning bodily functions. I understand that these happen to all of us, and are nothing about which to be embarrassed. Some consider this coarsening, just as some consider women who understand and accept the needs of the body less refined than women who like to pretend they neither shit nor fart. Did you wince a bit?

"The Lost Sheep," from Secret History: A Painted Journal

That brings up my third point–having gone to the dark places in life means that I am a bold, fearless writer in many regards. I say things on paper that some find offensive. I understand that. But I write as I am, and I understand that there are those who prefer to maintain their illusions.

The last thing I want to say is that women with minds like sinks sometimes have had rotten stuff shoved down their throats to the point where they must simply spew. In my case, this writing doesn’t go beyond my journals. But such writing is absolutely necessary sometimes if one is to “clear the drains,” so to speak, and allow other writing to happen. Those of us who write the dark understand that there is sometimes a vast chasm between writing a scene and approving a character’s action. It is not the writer’s job to approve or disapprove of a character. It is the author’s job to create the character so convincingly that every reader can draw his or her own conclusions. The writer says, “Once upon a time this happened. What do you think about that?”

"Streets of Gold," from Secret History: A Painted Journal

 

We nice ladies with minds like sinks sometimes write the dark not because we are secretly warped, evil caricatures, but because, for various reasons, we understand that the world holds dark as well as light, and we have chosen to write truly, and in doing so to shine some of the light into places too long kept in shadow.

__________

About the art: The paintings in this post come from one of the darkest things I’ve done–a series of paintings documenting my personal journey through a very private hell. I started them as a therapeutic exercise, and then put them aside because it simply hurt too much to work on them. Years later I happened upon my sketches and discovered that while they still spoke to me, their message was quite different. I started the paintings as a way of lancing an emotional boil. I finished them because I had come to understand that even pain can be used to create something beautiful. The paintings have been published as Secret History: A Painted Journal, and the book is available on Amazon, and the art is available as posters at CafePress.

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