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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Time Me. And Tie Me to the Writing Chair.

What was it I wrote in the hopeful, dewy-eyed early days of January? That chanting, copying and pasting, and acting confident would yield me lots of writing, O Me of Nonexistent Writer's Block?

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That day, I defined writer's block as "out of ideas." Stalled. Ennui and paralysis. Of course that never happens to me, the hummingbird, with only two speeds--fast, and asleep.

Um, writer's block can also be defined as highly-distracted, unfocused, Net-surfing behavior. That'd be a stalled writer right there.

The last few weeks I'll find myself writing a sentence and stopping, then wandering somewhere else. I'll have a short story open, my new dystopian YA novel open, and a blog post started. My email pings, and there I am. Full attention on anything but my priority writing for a good minute, and then I flit away.

Here's the 4th strategy for New Year's success, and it worked yesterday: set the kitchen timer for a half-hour or 45 minutes, and stay in the writing chair till it buzzes. If I'm tempted to close the page or navigate away, I say to myself, "Really? You can't hang with this story for 30 minutes? Really?"

I slap my own hand and get back to work.

If you aren't sure what fuels your writer's block (distractedness, laziness, fear, self-hatred, paralysis, low self-esteem), cling to this: you're probably stronger than you think. There have been some tough and ugly things you've done in your life. You've hung on and later said, "How'd I ever do that?" In other words, you might just have some grit.

As Todd Leopold of CNN writes in "The Success of Failure...," "...being creative doesn't require being Mozart. Stubbornness and practicality play a role, too. Studies of grade school and college students indicated they owed their academic success to such characteristics as curiosity, self-control, and what psychology professor Angela Duckworth termed 'grit'--even if they were of average intelligence."

And I bet you have a kitchen timer.

So if the simple strategy can be symbolized by a timer--that helpful device telling us when buns in the oven are done--it can be explicated thematically as a Ulysses's pact: a decision made of our own free will that we demand others hold us to. In this case, us lonely writers must be both Ulysses and his sailors, but if that's just too hard, don't forget there's that app Freedom that turns off your Internet or social networking access.

I mean, it's great hummingbirds can fly 34 mph. It's cool they can visit over 100 flowers a day or their hearts hit 1260 beats per minute; talk about racking up the numbers. But they also fly backwards.

Set that timer, Lyn. Set that timer.

This post is dedicated to the best mother ever who just sent her short story off to magazines. I'm proud of you, Mother!

Writing Prompts:

  • List three strategies that work to keep you seated and writing and also write down what you will say to yourself when you try to violate your own contract. Have a mantra or coaching line at the ready and pull that card in the heat of temptation.
  • What is your power animal, your totem, or just your favorite animal? What creature are you most like? Write a Day in the Life of you as this animal. Which behaviors best complement your life aspirations and your spirit? Which behaviors bog you down and send you backwards?
  • Write a story or poem about a person who has requested a Ulysses' Pact. (Side note: How cool is it that my friend, Randy Yale, candidate for the 5th Congressional District, reminded me of this allusion--and now says elected officials and voters should enter into one? See his comment on my blog.)
  • You are no doubt stubborn and practical about certain things in your life. Write a scene from your life where you hang on by your claws or methodically put yourself through tedious paces. (Cleaning toilets, folding laundry, raking leaves, anyone? Raising children? Suffering meetings with particular colleagues? Serving customers?) Meditate on how these behaviors might translate to writing life. How do you make it through these less-than-scintillating tasks?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Very Punny, Anderson; Thanks for the Reminder

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 "When nature calls and says, 'Call me Ishmael,' it's a whole new way to get absorbed into a novel."

--Anderson Cooper

Anderson Cooper featured a roll of toilet paper on his segment The Ridiculist last night, but not just any roll of toilet paper: one being sold on eBay for at least $999. Apparently, some dedicated soul has taken the time to type out the entire text of Moby Dick on five rolls.

Watch the segment and see if you can catch all the puns and allusions. But here's the catch; if you're not well read, if you ignored your English teachers' assignments all those years, you won't get all the references. High school kids will appreciate the bathroom humor, for sure, but only if they know the book titles. At least five other famous novels (The Call of the Wild, Lord of the Flies, Gone with the Wind, The Sound and the Fury, Howard's End, and Something Wicked This Way Comes) are mentioned. Captain Ahab gets a moment, too.

When E.D. Hirsch talks about cultural literacy, the ability to know many bits and bytes of our history and culture at the drop of a name, it raises a question for educators in a global society of how much both we and our students should know about so many, many things.

Is there a canon anymore? I would argue yes, of course, but as America ages, I think we'll have to get more selective, and that "dumbs it down." Huck Finn isn't the only representative of America, 1885 (trying to capture a pre-Civil War America, at that), but pacing guides and unit sizes force it into "main event status."  Many teachers search out other American voices to round out the picture: quotations and excerpts from Chief Joseph, Chief Seattle, Frederick Douglass, or Susan B. Anthony. Educators try to give our kids the full picture and mention many idioms, allusions, and other rich moments of America while teaching our main events. It's important when you consider that Google's first response to your typing Susan B...yields an automatic "Susan Boyle." What the mass of people want ain't necessarily what they need to know--no offense to a reality-show star.

I'm headed to Mysore, India in May to conduct a teacher training, and I face every day my massive ignorance on the subject of that enormously rich, diverse country. I just picked up Imagining India and have a whole stack of authors to get to know in the next few months. My desire to learn more has always been there, since a child, but I always appreciated the cool trivia and fascinating nuggets my teachers shared with me over the years. It instilled further curiosity and modeled lifelong learning. My 6th grade social studies teacher who was brave enough, in a Catholic school, to mention the assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone; my high school teacher who spent ample time on Charles Baudelaire and ennui. No, I confess I've never read a big Dickens novel cover to cover (only A Chrismas Carol); nope, I bailed out of Moby Dick, too. (Sorry, Mrs. Connor. You were the best English teacher, but my senior year, I was full of ennui! But I read every other novel you ever assigned me, and boy, you had us read a lot.)

The solution isn't to up the ante of the pacing guide and cram more books in, but perhaps the buffet of differentiated approaches might help this massive cultural literacy challenge we face. There are independent reading lists, tiered assignments, more excerpts and less full reads (for example, top-ten scenes of a classic work over 100 years old), summer reading lists, and book clubs, all of which can allow us to encourage, cajole, excite, and inspire our students to read more, think more, and make connections.

Of course, we hope the parents are spreading the same message every night at home, and not just about books. About great films, works of art, and works of music. About dance and sculpture and big moments in history.

If the whole village delights in our cultural details, we're growing. We aren't America on the decline, which seems to be a prevailing fear of late. Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can learn about your country. And the world.

Then, at the very least, we won't feel ridiculous when we watch The Ridiculist.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Gotta Have Story: Connect Those Dots

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We're hardwired to tell stories. We are born to interpret, to weave and spin yarns, and fill in the gaps. Even if these gaps aren't factual, we'll build bridges that soar over the chasms. We require story in order to make memories.

Check out cognitive scientist Michael Gazzaniga's explanation of how our brains work this way.

In Daniel Pink's book A Whole New Mind, he argues that jobs of the future will require more storytellers and narrative designers.

Good thing our kids love telling stories, and so do we.

I'm always exploring ideas of how we can teach better storytelling while teaching literary analysis. How can we boost and hone our ability and our students' ability to tell a great story and spot a stellar one? Here's a two-day lesson plan.

Many teachers use E.M. Forster's wonderful quotation about plot and I'll up it one with the wise P.D. James:

E. M. Forster has written: 'The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died and the queen died of grief is a plot. The queen died and no one knew why until they discovered it was of grief is a mystery, a form capable of high development.' To that I would add: the queen died and everyone thought it was of grief until they discovered the puncture wound in her throat. That is a murder mystery and, in my view, it too is capable of high development.

  • Give your students this quotation and announce that "we're going to connect the dots--seemingly disconnected dots."
  • Show students the DIRECTV commercials, which are hilarious cause-and-effect sequences that lean toward the ridiculous but have enough plausibility that we pay attention. After you watch these with students, ask: which are the best connections? Which are the most far-fetched? Why do we follow the far-fetched? What do you prefer, realism or fantastical creativity in your plot connections? Why?
  • Don't Wake Up in a Roadside Ditch
  • Stop Taking in Stray Animals
  • Don't Have a Grandson With a Dog Collar
  • Give the students a list of disconnected actions on separate cards: the baby cried; the phone rang; the tub overflowed; the man screamed; the swimmer dove; the woman danced; the dog surfed. Students can work in pairs to connect these two actions in a paragraph of 50 words or less The story needs to make sense and entertain. Students can work in pairs or triads to practice making connections. If partners have similar cards, it will be fun to see how different partnerships connect the same dots in very different ways.
  • Explain the importance of these elements in a strong plot: a catalyst that moves a character from one situation into another; a conflict with varying obstacles; and stages of escalation. (You may wish to bring in the screenplay formula from Blake Snyder's Save the Cat and the 15 Beats of plot or the hero's journey model from Joseph Campbell.) 
  • Assignment: take two dots and connect them according to one of the above formulas. The story should be as long as a Three-Minute Fiction piece
  • Assignment: divide chapters among partners or groups and ask students to connect the dots between key events and present them to the class with the following answers to these questions: Which plot development is most logical? Which plot development is most startling, yet works? Which plot follows either Snyder's or Campbell's formula? (Limit these presentations to 3 minutes per group; time them and require that the first minute be listing the outline of plot events and the last two minutes provide answers to the questions.)
  • The reward for the best stories can be measured in Dots candy. 
There are a gazillion more creative writing assignment ideas where this idea came from, but if you're interested in more lessons of this sort connected to classics like Shakespeare or other literature, you can check out Teaching Julius Caesar (NCTE), Teaching Romeo and Juliet (NCTE, co-authored with Delia DeCourcy and Robin Follet), The Compassionate Classroom: Lessons That Nurture Wisdom and Empathy (Chicago Review Press, co-authored with Jane Dalton), or the Macbeth and Civil War units in the ASCD book Differentiation in Practice: A Resource Guide for Differentiating Curriculum, Grades 9-12