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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Reflections, Most Recent at Top [Help]
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1. Reflecting: What kind of writer am I?

Before you plan to ask your students to reflect on the kinds of writers they are (for their end-of-year self-assessments), be sure you ask yourself "What kind of writer am I?"

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2. on being a late bloomer

This is the hashtag I used on Instagram -- #teachinghongkong2015 -- to document in photos my trip to Hong Kong this month. You can find photos of the trip there, and even more on Facebook, here, along with a few thoughts about teaching writing to students who are learning to be fluent in both English and Mandarin Chinese.

 We mainly focused on personal narrative and moments we could add color and flavor and texture to, characters we could create from those moments -- and how to make them come alive on the page -- and then we moved into fiction with them.

We used several mentor texts, including FREEDOM SUMMER, LOVE RUBY LAVENDER, and EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS.

I learned to write by reading like a writer, modeling my writing on what I admired, then making it mine, so that's how I teach. I turn my life into stories. I understand how I do it. I have broken it down to the foundations of how it works, and it's always a stretch and a pleasure to share it with young writers and their teachers.

I am a writer who teaches, and to that end, I will always be a writer first. I have developed my teaching over the past twenty years by teaching in classrooms, from K through college, and I know that what I have to offer is substantial, meaningful, useful, and offers a lasting toolbox partner for teachers and their young writers to use for years to come.

And yet.

I am thinking about who I am today, as Jim and I return home to spring in Atlanta -- we left in a February snowstorm. This ruminating always happens after I am thrust for a sustained time into an unfamiliar environment, where I am constantly thinking on my feet, meeting new people in new cultures, learning new customs and traditions (and food!) and discovering how people make meaning in their lives.

Traveling, especially internationally, invites me to rethink everything. Invites me to make meaning. It reminds me of my young life, when, as a teenager, I became a mother, and a wife to a boy I did not know, and moved to a place I did not understand, with no support, with people and customs I could not comprehend, and with fear and isolation so complete it would take me years to assimilate and integrate and create meaning from it.

So I am thinking.

I want to chronicle some of that thinking here on the blog. I'm going to play with short posts about what I'm discovering, and just see where it leads me. I can feel myself entering a time of change. I'm working on a sort of manifesto for my sixties. God. I grew up in the sixties, and now I *am* sixty. 61. Talk about a late bloomer.

I raised a family first. I was homeless first. I was lost, first. I had to find ways to stabilize my life and my children's lives, first. I had to live some, first. Make sense of some things. Find my way into my life. Do a whole lot of different things with my life and teach myself how to do... pretty much everything. It would take me time to learn how to help myself, so I could help someone else.. I taught myself how to write so I could tell my stories and find home, belonging, safety, meaning, love.

My first book was published the year I turned 48. I went back to school that year and got my credentials to teach -- I'd been teaching informally for years without them. I became suddenly single that year. My heart was broken. I wrote EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS in response to that loss.

By the time I turned fifty, I had lost not only the long-years marriage, but my mother and my father and my siblings and my home of 25 years and my hometown. My youngest of four graduated and left home for college. I moved to Atlanta. The dog died. My editor of 12 years was fired. My publishing house was decimated.

The bitter was tempered by the sweet. I had created a support system by that time, and my friends became my family. They held the space for me, held me up until I could stand on my feet again. I met my husband, Jim. We had a three year long-distance relationship, a three year Atlanta relationship, and then we married. My books did well in the world, even though my life was so chaotic for a time, I couldn't always appreciate it or participate in the book community that celebrated all of it. Much of my life was a blur.

Little by little, though, I came back from a devastating time of loss. My children grew up and began to blossom. I began to create a home, here in Atlanta, a family home, a home for friends, a home for my own heart to rest in once again.

It took me a long, long time to do this. I was scared, and once again lost, even in the midst of the sweetness. But I kept writing. I kept teaching. I kept on trying. I have been emerging from that difficult place, once again forging an identity and discovering who I am. Making meaning. It's a process. Life long.

I am happy to be here. I love my life. I know how lucky I am.

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3. A Ramble: The Elements of Writerly Talent and Improvement

"A writer needs three things:  experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others." -- William Faulkner

A writer on my Facebook feed asked a question of his fellow writers recently:  How much of writing success is talent, how much perseverance, how much conscious education in craft? I've thought about this a lot as well, so I'm going to ramble on about it for a bit. "Success" we're going to define here as "The ability to achieve the ends you want to achieve aesthetically for both yourself and a reader"; the elements of publishing/sales success are related, but much less in the writer's control. 

First, talent. I actually don't think "talent" as a term is very useful, because what we mean when we talk about "talent" breaks down into a number of constituent elements that are more interesting and helpful to discuss. To wit, I believe "talent" is actually a combination of:

Imagination:  The writer is capable of envisioning and creating on paper something new on this earth:  a new human being, a new form of magic, a new planet, a new story. Of course this is what most writers do, but writers who are gifted in imagination take that a step beyond, to put together things no one else has thought to join before, and then render those inventions thrillingly real and meaningful:  Ursula K. LeGuin with the genderless world of The Left Hand of Darkness, or Shaun Tan's faceless exterminators in one of the nightmare worlds of The Arrival, or Neil Gaiman relocating gods from all around the world to the United States in American Gods, or J. K. Rowling's conception of wands as indicators of personality. Or these gifted writers demonstrate great depth and breadth in what they imagine.... Half of Americanah, by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie, is set in a cramped, fluorescent-lit African hair-braiding shop shown in such well-chosen detail that readers can scent the oils in the air. Or Patrick O'Brian created Stephen Maturin, a short, half-Irish, half-Catalan doctor, naturalist, spy, violin player, Catholic, opium addict, faithful lover, terrible husband, worse housekeeper, excellent friend, awful seaman, who is more real to me than half of my acquaintance, because Mr. O'Brian imagined him that deeply and wonderfully. An original imagination, as with Ms. LeGuin or Mr. Gaiman, will attract readers for the chance to expand our minds beyond the familiar; a deep imagination, as with Ms. Adichie or Mr. O'Brian, will attract readers for the chance to delve farther into what we already know is real. Either way, they offer the pleasure of discovery to readers, who then feel they can confidently come to this writer to see something new. 

Observational Skill, leading to Emotional and Philosophical Insight: The writers whom I admire most are ones who are capable of creating human beings whom I believe in as real people, and then using those characters to say something true and maybe new about the real world that is all around us. That requires these writers (1) to have observed human beings carefully, and remembered and thought about what they observed, so they could combine those thoughts with their imaginations, and create characters with the histories and personalities and all-around richness of real people. (That in turn requires writers to have an interest in human beings to start with, and the skill and patience to observe and remember and analyze. Not all people have those qualities.) And (2) the writers must have something to say about our world -- about race, or death, or politics, or war, or how love feels, or the pleasure of hating something. Some of this wisdom can come about through observation, but a lot more arrives via life experience -- especially pain, if you can use it well.

Dramatic Skill:  The ability to make observed or imagined creations join together and move on the page in some emotionally compelling action. This usually involves a sense of timing on the writer's part -- knowing just how long to let the lovers stare into each others' faces before a kiss, or how to make a fight scene move at the proper speed. And it involves a sense of what is dramatically compelling to other people:  Not just that you have two men sitting on a stage for hours, but giving them something to do or to talk about, even if it's the fact that they aren't going anywhere. 

Writing Craft:  The ability to put the results of all this imagination and insight down on the page in a manner that clearly communicates those thoughts and feelings to a reader. That simple, and that hard. 

All of these things could be inborn, or they could germinate through the years before the writer starts to write, in combination with one other element that isn't exactly talent, but is absolutely essential to a writer's development:

Unconscious Reading:  Thirty percent of writing well is getting good prose and story structures into your bloodstream -- or maybe forty or fifty percent, I don't know. The younger you start, the better; the more you read, the better. (I often read submissions with prose that I find just not very good, and I think "This writer hasn't read enough good prose" -- the Writing Craft part of their talent just isn't there yet.) Your reading forms your sense of sentence structure: I spent ages 13-21 more or less living in Jane Austen novels, and as a result of the way her work blossomed in my brain, I am close to incapable of writing a sentence with simple structure and fewer than five words. Your reading also defines your vocabulary, which in turn defines the store of words available to you to convey whatever you want to say. The content of what you read then determines what defines a good story for you -- whether it's giant wham-pow fights or witty banter or two characters having long philosophical dialogues. That often becomes the kind of story you will end up writing in fiction, because that is what makes you happy as a reader. Or it becomes what you react against, as you see a story created by someone else, and you want to tell it your way, or just better. 

Your reading combines with all of the elements of talent identified above, especially dramatic skill and writing craft, to form the base level at which you work, the moment you decide to sit down in front of a blank page. And then you have to:

Practice:  So. Much. Practice. "I know what I think when I see what I say," E. M. Forster said, and a writer's unique personality and the range of their abilities can emerge only through doing a lot of saying -- writing, and writing, and writing, and then revising, revising, revising. Practice is the only thing that can help you close the Taste Gap, as Ira Glass calls it:  "Do a huge volume of work." It helps you develop confidence, as you see what you're good at and figure out how to fix the issues that come up in the Taste Gap. That confidence then frees you up to take risks and try new things. It doesn't matter how much talent you have, if all the skill and wisdom and imagination of Jhumpa Lahiri and Katherine Paterson and Ray Bradbury flows in your veins:  You will never become a good writer without practice and then more practice.

Let's say you have talent and you're practicing regularly in order to get better. The following things can then help you improve and/or increase your odds of writerly success as well:

Conscious Reading:  Separate from the Unconscious Reading above:  This is the reading you do to study the techniques other writers use to achieve their effects. You can then imitate or steal those effects for your own ends. When I wrote "So. Much. Practice." above, I was stealing an effect I have seen in many, many places -- mostly online, but I think it's shown up in printed work as well -- where those ultra-short sentences (hey, fewer than five words!) give the point about the necessity of practice extra weight by virtue of their brevity. Studying books about writing and storycraft (like my own Second Sight) would also fall into this category.

Cultivating a Process:  Write longhand first, then dictate that writing into a computer. Type 50,000 words in thirty days. Create a detailed outline of each scene and plot point, then flesh it out in prose. Be Anthony freaking Trollope and write precisely 250 words every fifteen minutes from 5:30 to 8:30 in the morning. Post all your writing on the Internet and get feedback from anonymous commenters. Never let any civilians see a word until your editor has reviewed the entire novel and approved of it. It doesn't matter what you do, and there is no wrong way to do it. Just find a writing and revising process that helps you do your best work.

Choosing the Right Material:  In the fall of 1815, Jane Austen entered into a correspondence with James Stanier Clarke, a cleric who served as domestic chaplain and librarian to the Prince Regent of England. Mr. Clarke suggested several ideas for possible future novels Miss Austen might write, and she turned them down in a wise letter dated April 1, 1816:
You are very, very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Coburg, might be much more to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in -- but I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life, and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way, and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.
I love this letter partly for the personalities that shine through for both parties -- Mr. Clarke clearly thinking no writer could want anything more in life than to recommend themselves to the Prince Regent; Miss Austen clearly thinking how much he resembles her own Mr. Collins. But I love it more because it is such a wonderful example of writerly common sense and self-knowledge:  She knows what her personal fictional strengths and limitations are, and what she enjoys writing in general, and she chooses to work within those boundaries. Or put another way, she knows what her fictional values are -- laughter and real people in country villages, not the highfalutin' pretentiousness of the serious romances of the time -- and she writes within and to satisfy those values. The result is six of the most enjoyable and wise novels in the English language, and I think I speak for most Austen fans in saying we are immensely grateful to have her Persuasion (the novel she wrote after this exchange) in place of any historical romance about the House of Saxe-Coburg. 

So what is the right material for your personal fictional values and range of practice, your strengths and limitations? What will you enjoy writing, and what are you good at writing? Finding a subject matter and style that brings all of that in line will vastly increase your odds of being successful as a writer -- especially if it's also material that uses the element of talent at which you're strongest to its utmost. (Jane Austen had a deep imagination, but perhaps not a hugely original one; enough dramatic skill to tell the domestic-village stories she wanted to tell, and then observational skill and insight out the wazoo. And then all of her teens and twenties were spent in reading and practice, most of it thoroughly delightful.) 

Cultivating a Purpose:  Why do you write? This is very useful to know, because it is what will keep you going, especially in finishing something: the need to see a story completed, or get paid, or receive other people's praise, or teach others a lesson, or make some noise, or think out loud. (The latter is mostly why I write, and why I write at such length; once I start getting my thoughts out through my fingers, I feel vaguely unsatisfied until those thoughts are out in full.) 


Finding Congenial Sources of Feedback: People who understand what you're trying to do, and can tell you where you succeed and where you're falling short. Essential for course corrections when you lose sight of what you're trying to achieve, feedback for knowing whether you're getting there, and emotional support all around.

If you have talent of some kind and then all of the above working together, then the last thing you need is:

Perseverance:  Sheer cussedness, frankly, to stick with the practice and the submissions, the slowness and the unfairness, the damned taste gap and the jealousy, the reviews that don't get it and the reviews that do and then correctly identify the places you failed (which are even worse). The lovely moments in writing are truly lovely, when you nail that thought down in words, when you change a reader's way of thinking and they write to tell you so. You need perseverance to pull you over the many moments in between. 

Writers, readers, reviewers:  Is there anything I'm missing here? What else do you think is necessary for becoming a great writer? 

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4. The Antidote to December Stress: Teach Students to Write about Gratitude

This time of year can be overwhelming, for teachers and students alike. Writing about gratitude is one way to stay present and positive.

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5. Shame Based Learning

Yesterday Anne Ursu posted this and it’s good and you should read it but I’m not going to post directly about it. It just reminds me of something that’s been on my mind lately, rarely when I’m in a position or have a context to blog about it.

It’s about shame. I used to joke, at my last job as an educational multimedia consultant, about “shame based learning,” as my favorite pedagogy. (Googling I find 13,000 uses of the expression, none by me, so I am not the only one to coin this expression). I don’t know what inspired it originally, but the truth of the joke is how often we hope shame will fix people. The book is obviously such an example, as tender as it tries to be.

I doubt many of us can recall a time when shame improved us. We remember shame with hurt and resentment. No child recalls the time they were shamed for being fat and how they then got thin and started loving themselves. More like, they find that book in their Christmas stocking and feel a throbbing mental pain and try to anesthetize themselves against it by eating all the candy in the toe.  Or they develop an eating disorder and are even less healthy and ashamed than before. As an undersized, undermuscled kid I remember the shaming of gym teachers through about eighth grade and how little motivated I was by their disgust to put down my book and lift weights.

Adulthood has it’s shame moments to — acerbic comments and judgmental looks, sometimes deserved and sometimes not — and I have gotten no better at turning them into inspiration for self improvement. Shame makes you into a wounded animal, snapping and snarling. And yet, with the faith of Saints we still hope that shame will fix other people. In any commentary about schools you’ll find the comments full of grumpsters and gremlins who want to fix the schools with shame: shame for the students, shame for the teachers, shame for the parents, shame for the administrators. Shame is seen as this all-purpose fix all. If only people felt more disgusted with themselves!

Yeah, and Twitter and whatnot kind of has the same spirit. It’s one of the few things that unites people across the vast political and cultural divide: the confidence that we can fix the other side with shame.

The transformative moments for me were when people believed the best in me. When a teachers said — contrary to the usual feedback I got from teachers — that I was “a delight” in the classroom, I vowed to remain a delight and earn the compliment. Professionally, nothing has been more motivating than a friendly email with sincere thanks. I know that the way to effect change is to tell people: I see you as strong, already. I see you as smart. I see you as beautiful. I know you are a loving and compassionate person. I see you as capable. This is especially true when rearing children, but it’s even true with adults.

I guess we regress to shame, despite our own experience, because generosity is hard. And because we’re angry. And because, in that blind and frozen moment, we  don’t want to fix someone. We want to make them feel as small and hurt as we have felt.

 


Filed under: Miscellaneous, Reflections

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6. Upon driving southwards along the Mississippi River at sunrise while listening to “Rhiannon” the day before my 46th birthday

Grain Belt Sign

My drive to work takes me south along the Mississippi River, on a bucolic road where cyclists zip along next to you in all seasons, and sometimes people walk little dogs from the expensive townhomes to the park. Lately the sunlight has been gleaming off the dark, frozen water, like the symbol of something, both blinding and beautiful. I could do worse for a drive, because there are stately ruins that have been left that way as a kind of public art statement by the city, and the memorial bridge replacing the one that collapsed a few years ago, and an ugly sign for a lousy beer that has come to be loved simply because it is old and outlasted generations (that can be said of both the sign and the beer).

I think the ruins are there because this is, really, a young city — there are no layers to it, like in New York or Paris or London, where you can dig up another era beneath your own. And yet we have an aching to be old, and let the ruins remind us that at least we weren’t born yesterday. There has been time for industries to fall into disrepair, enough history for there to be an historic district. (You can read vivid descriptions of this area the way it used to be in Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, and in the Sinclair Lewis novel Babbit, though he calls his bustling metropolis Zenith.)

Yesterday the song “Rhiannon” was playing on the radio as I took this drive, and it suited my mood perfectly. Stevie Nicks, in her prime, had as good a voice as any singer, smokey and nuanced, and while I don’t know what the hell the song is about (Welsh goddess? A breakup?) she could probably sing anything at that time, to the polished and confident music of Lindsey Buckingham, and make it a hit. Remarkably, somehow, I can recall a forty-year-old song from its original radio heyday, and it feels like its been in regular rotation since. “Rhiannon,” like sunshine and prairie grass, is now a part of my landscape. Perhaps not deserving of timelessness, that pop song or that beer sign, but nevertheless permanent.

It’s been a rough year for me, in a lot of ways, though not without everyday joys, and the hardships smaller than those of other people, so it’s comforting to go down this timeless corridor — good to know that the same sun has gleamed off the same river since before humans saw it, and will continue to do so when the city has turned into dust and our descendants (lets be positive) have scattered across the galaxy, and bison have resumed their natural title as the rulers of the prairie, and (I expect) worship the beer sign, which is still there, as some kind of message placed there by Bison God, to mark a sacred watering hole, and somehow, in the background, there will be a radio blaring “Rhiannon.”

 


Filed under: Miscellaneous, Reflections

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7. picture stories

              An afternoon drive out of Atlanta, a patriotic rest stop, a Confederate flag flying over the Columbia, South Carolina Statehouse, an arrival at Mama's house on John's Island. O Charleston, O Youth, O History of Long Ago. The marsh, the swamp, the salt, the

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8. Some Wise Words from Kirk Lynn

One of the most thought-provoking plays I've seen this year was Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra, at Playwrights Horizons, by the playwright Kirk Lynn. The theatre distributed a printed Q&A with Mr. Lynn after the show, and I've kept it for several months because there's a lot in the following that really resonates with me about art and life:

Q: You recently started running the UT Austin Playwriting and Directing program. What’s your pedagogy? What’s required reading in your playwriting courses?
A: ... The most controversial thing about me as a teacher, which surprises me, is that I—trained by my wife, who’s a poet—have really come to believe in a catholic taste: you should like everything; you should read everything. And this ties back to the no-experts thing. If you see something and think it’s totally full of shit, then you probably haven’t studied it enough. And you should spend time in its presence. I say this sentence, which I borrow from this classical music scholar Charles Rosen, who’s now dead. He said, “Admirers are never wrong.” For example, I find Shaw to be really stuffy. But people who authentically like Shaw aren’t lying. They’re not idiots. They’re not wrong. And if I place myself in their proximity, I can learn to appreciate—you can learn to appreciate any kind of art. I say this to my students and, more than any other crazy shit I say, that’s the one where people just get outraged. They think the avant-garde is full of shit, or they think the Well-Made-Play is full of shit. They don’t want to task themselves with the possibility that they’re full of shit and they can learn something from all of these. 

When I was first dating my wife, I would wake up and she’d be sitting up in a chair, with a little light on, reading poetry constantly, every morning. I would always ask her, “What are you reading?” She would tell me, and I’d be like, “Do you like it? Is it good?” And she’d be like, “No.” And, just, the discipline of reading everything in the world because you’re an artist, and to be in conversation with it, seemed so radical to me. It has since become a practice of mine, to try and place myself—as much as I want to be in the company of plays that speak to me about my life—to put myself in the company of Shaw because I do not understand what he’s doing or why, and I need to stretch those muscles. 

If nothing else, it’s just a more interesting world to live in. 

I believe in this Wittgensteinian philosophy that words don’t correspond to meaning. There’s not a thing called “love” that actually corresponds to the word, there’s a kind of cloud of understanding that is different for each of us. So if I say I love you, you understand it as you understand love, but you don’t understand it as I understand it, and there’s a Venn diagram of how we sort of overlap in understanding. And if every word works like that, then making meaning together as humans is very complicated and we have to agree that there’s some leeway, that there’s not a right understanding of those things. That there’s not a right way to live, even. 

So you got a text from your wife last night after the preview, about how your daughter Olive has a crush—

—I don’t know if we should say his name! It’s Daniel.

We’ll just call him “D---.” And you were so excited about it. Can you talk about why?

Yeah, this’ll probably make me cry more than anything else. Some of it’s just longing, because I miss my daughter and it’s fun to know about her life. It’s also such a great mystery.  It’s interesting to have kids and realize that I’m not the central character in Olive’s life; Olive is the central character in her life. And [my son] Judah is the central character in his life. …I think there’s a little bit of fear in me that it will turn out that something like Christianity’s true, and I’ll become a crazy person who, like, wanders up and down the highway with a cross on my shoulder, shouting like, “Pleeeease repent.” Because if any of that is true, if what Christians believe is true, then everything you do is all wrong. There’s no sense in doing any of this. Making plays, being married. There’s just heaven and hell, and everyone’s fucking up really bad. I’m fucking up really bad. I don’t believe that’s true, thank goodness, but I do think placing yourself in service to people, there is a kind of—

You sort of make up for your narcissism by loving people. Does that make any sense? So knowing that my daughter is having this life, outside me, where she has her own friends at school, and she won’t tell me about any of them, and she has a crush at age three and a half, it just seems like a miracle. It seems like magic. And my job is to serve Olive so that she can have better and better crushes with crazier and crazier three-year-olds, and then four-year-olds, and then five-year-olds. That seems to me to be in the presence of the great mystery. It is insane that there’s a living being that I’m responsible for in some sense, and then that living being will jump ship and go off into the world and have the same experiences, both terribly traumatic and hard. And just the crushing sorrow and depression and, god forbid, addiction, anxiety, abuse, all those things. But then she’ll also have the experiences of friendship, and love—it’s insane. It’s a terrible system that we’re involved with! It seems poorly structured. My daughter’s life is this great thing that’s gonna unfold before me, and I get to watch it, and even participate a little bit. By recommending Daniel over, say, Ethan.


I think what I really appreciate and admire in this are Mr. Lynn's ideas that there is something to be learned from everything, even the things that don't resonate with you at all, about how art is made or how lives are lived. And how he decenters himself repeatedly, first from a universal absoluteness of meaning in language (meaning that all meanings would be dictated by him), and then from his daughter's life -- recognizing that she's her own person, doing her own thing, at age three, and finding that beautiful and sacred. To read the entire Q&A, click here.

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9. Beginning a Year of Teaching Writing with Reflection

What goals will you set for your practice this year? Here are a few suggestions.

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10. Ending a Year of Teaching Writing with a Group Reflection

One thing I love so much about being an educator is the cyclical nature of the school year. The beginning of the year brings promise, renewed energy, and a certain mania. The middle… Continue reading

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11. Ending a Year of Teaching Writing with a Group Reflection

One thing I love so much about being an educator is the cyclical nature of the school year. The beginning of the year brings promise, renewed energy, and a certain mania. The middle… Continue reading

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12. Reflection and Growth: Writing in Preschool

Have you ever found yourself in this place? A place where you begin to see something missing and immediately want to change? Be better? I hope so!

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13. IT’S THAT TIME OF YEAR: PUBLISHING PARTIES

Beth Moore offers a collection of ten publishing party ideas you can use to celebrate your students' writing.

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14. Teaching Reflective Writers

Dana Murphy shares some thoughts about the expectations we place on students when we ask them to reflect on their writing.

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15. The Truth About Puzzles.


Last week I did something reeeaaally reckless. I pulled out the Witches' Wardrobe 1,0000 piece puzzle that I did for Andrews & Blaine for Barnes & Noble. I put the box on my dining room table, and dumped out the contents. In doing so, I declared war. I had never done the puzzle before, and I've had it for over a year. I've thought about doing  it, several times. But...

The puzzle lives in a glass-doored cabinet in the living room. I see it every day. Just by virtue of it being in my field of vision, I think it was actually raising my blood pressure. 


So... We'd been having staring contests over the past few weeks. It had to stop. Finally, I decided to do it. Suck it up. Face the challenge. It was time.

The honest truth is, it's almost never a "good time" to start a puzzle around here, because I am usually pretty busy. But the larger, bigger reason for this, is because I am simply not a "casual" puzzle person. This is a naked truth I only just confirmed this about myself by doing this puzzle.

In the past, I chalked up my puzzling compulsiveness and conviction with reasonable excuses, such as "I did the art for the puzzle, of course I am going to be a little obsessive about it" or "Who wouldn't get obsessive when putting together a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that's this detailed?" (Both convincing arguments). Of course there's also my general, um, 'aggressive enthusiasm' for some things, of which puzzles would understandably be included. And then, there is also the "puzzle-obsessed brain" that I think everyone must experience when they are knee-deep in the jungle of a big puzzle. Right? (...right? )


 But I can't just leave it on the table and co-exist with it... do a few pieces here, a few pieces there.  I now know this to be true. If I break out a puzzle, it's "Game On". It's basically "The Old Man and The Sea" redux— with me, dining room table and puzzle, instead of old man, his gear, and the fish.

During the time I am in the puzzle haze, I sacrifice, I make the time where possible in my everyday life, to just complete the thing as swiftly as possible. Without losing sleep or missing meals. It's like being completely consumed by a novel you cannot put down. I have to finish it just so I can "get my life back". Okay, I am not a generally uptight individual! But puzzles... they kinda turn me into Tracy Flick. Watershed moment.

So, last week, I was sucked into the vortex yet again. And yes it was torture.. But yes, I admit that I loved it! (Plus, I could actually feel parts of my brain doing squats and lunges. I kid you not.)

And yes, it was fun...

But after my puzzle session on day one (of five total), my earlier "Yay! This is fun!" had melted into a "Hmphh... this one is a bit.. um... tougher than I thought..." which by (past my) bed-time had morphed into "Hmmmm... THAT'S ALL I got done in ONE night??"

By day two, I was REALLY ready to slay this dragon. And I still was running off first-blush-puzzle-endorphins. I was also under the false delusion that I could finish and still have the rest of the day to catch up on my errands. (Pfft. Yeah, right.) I worked diligently and I saw progress, but it wasn't so visible to others yet. (I didn't quite feel the sting yet, but I was getting whupped.)


By day three, I was practically salivating to finish (when I wasn't stretching the kinks out of my neck and back, or circling the table mumbling to myself). I was also starting to really question what on earth was possessing me to so fervently, diligently work on this puzzle to completion. WHERE was the drive coming from to finish this ridiculously tough and altogether unnecessary task? It was like I was being faced with this stranger in my own brain... So, by this time, I was past the point of no return. I mean, I was having philosophical puzzle conversations with myself, like

"WHY am I doing this, again?

But WHY can't I finish this NOW?

WHY is this puzzle so HARD?

And WHY do I HAVE to FINISH it?!?!"


All the while my brain multi-tasking this whiny conversation with myself with my darting eyeballs searching, searching the puzzle junkyard for a tiny bit of red on a mold-green piece, for a little toe of pink boot, surrounded by grey... Put that one in the pile that makes up the closet door... Oh, wait, there's a separate pile for the closet handle, and one for the front door, and one for the bottom frame... Oh wait the designs are different on each side of the closet... and the four tiny skull's eyeballs all go in different directions... Aaaargh!!  Sound like fun? (Oh, quick, before I lose it-- grab the piece with the rat tail's end!)


Day four... Day four, day four... It was a haze. Finish or Bust. Every part of the puzzle I attacked and conquered like tiny villages within this puzzle town. I couldn't get myself to focus on anything else until this puzzle was finally put to bed. But soon, I was putting myself to bed... with a still-unfinished puzzle on the table.


Day Five!! The Day I Would Finish The Puzzle! Why do people think the edges are the easiest to put together?? They're NOT. I saved them for last and believe me this was not a case of "saving the best for last". Come to think of it, virtually no part of this puzzle was "easy". It's all just varying degrees of "hard". (It WAS FUN!!! But, no bones about it (...well, yes, bones about it.. But, no bones about it), this sucker was HARRRD!!!)

I found myself questioning my own puzzle abilities with this one. It was so tricky (read: cruel) in parts. Time and again, I thought "Gee, am I rusty?? Or do I just stink at this??" The art is so deceiving. It looks so carefree, silly and whimsical. And it is... But, let me tell you this... it bites!! Hard!!


When I finally finished it, I was euphoric, overjoyed!! (Aaaahhh!! Sigh..) I also took stock of the fact that I once again had climbed my own personal version of Mount Everest and I could be really proud of my accomplishment. On a more general but no less personal note, I also once again experienced the really unique, unusual, authentic mental challenge that only a crazy-insane puzzle can deliver!!

Oh, and I also needed a long nap. (My brain did a LOT of squats and lunges.)

So now, I am already itching (just a tiny, tiny bit) to start my latest. But, at this point I'm pretty sure it's just leftover endorphins... Give me six months, and maybe I'll be ready for another puzzle. :)



0 Comments on The Truth About Puzzles. as of 9/5/2013 7:08:00 PM
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16. A Brief Ramble on Character and Self Consistency

Lord, I love Zadie Smith's essays, like this wonderful piece in last week's New Yorker on Joni Mitchell, changing artistic tastes, changing selves, and artistic continuity:

Who could have understood Abraham? He is discontinuous with himself. The girl who hated Joni and the woman who loves her seem to me similarly divorced from each other, two people who happen to have shared the same body. It's the feeling we get sometimes when we find a diary we wrote, as teenagers, or sit at dinner listening to an old friend tell some story about us of which we have no memory. It's an everyday sensation for most of us, yet it proves a tricky sort of problem for those people who hope to make art. For though we know and recognize discontinuity in our own lives, when it comes to art we are deeply committed to the idea of continuity. I find myself to be radically discontinuous with myself -- but how does one re-create this principle in fiction? What is a character if not a continuous, consistent personality? If you put Abraham in a novel, a lot of people who throw that novel across the room. What's his motivation? How can he love his son and yet be prepared to kill him? Abraham is offensive to us. It is by reading and watching consistent people on the page, stage, and screen that we are reassured of our own consistency.
This made me think of the fact that often the moments I love most in fiction or film are the moments where a character does something that is seemingly inconsistent with his or her outward character, but completely consistent with his or her inward self, which we've glimpsed throughout the proceedings . . . a sacrifice, an unexpectedly marvelous dance, a moment of honesty or tenderness they weren't capable of at the beginning. It is often the revelation of that character's strength through the demonstration of their vulnerability, and it shows us layers, dimensions, complexity, reality, all the things I like best.

That said, I disagree a little with the last few sentences of the paragraph I quote above because I don't find Abraham inconsistent at all; his obedience to his god simply outranks his love for his son, which could certainly be found offensive if you disagree with those rankings, but which is not a matter of discontinuity. And I think I like watching consistent fictional people not because I am like them, but because their dependability, the cleanliness of their consistency, anchors and comforts me in my own wild ups and downs. One of the great joys of fiction is that it can be neater than life; the best fiction either organizes the reader's emotions completely, I think, or just barely manages the messiness of reality. 

Agree? Disagree? In my inconstancy, I'm open to persuasion.

Finally, this essay also reminded me of this extraordinary version of "Both Sides Now" -- made famous in the Emma Thompson weeping scene in "Love, Actually" -- which almost makes me cry every time I hear it with its texture of pain and wisdom. It is worth stopping what you're doing to breathe and to listen:

4 Comments on A Brief Ramble on Character and Self Consistency, last added: 1/6/2013
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17. I Remember When . . .

1ropechick

Oh little Peepsqueak.  This picture of you reminds me of something that happened to me when I was little.  We were visiting an aunt in Washington.  She had a rope that dangled from a tree in her backyard. She also had a big DOG that came running into the yard barking at ME!  I jumped on that rope and UP, UP, UP  I went!  I did not even know I could climb a rope!  I just did it!  ha ha!

Most of my art comes from my imagination, but it is also from my memories and from my life experiences. All that being said, I think I can still climb a rope!


Filed under: My Characters, Peepsqueak!, Reflections

2 Comments on I Remember When . . ., last added: 2/22/2013
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18. Peepsqueak in Winter

coatPS

Come February, without fail, I  begin to feel the effects of Spring Fever. My tulips are peeking out, our trees are budding, and my heart begins pining away for warm weather.  THEN it SNOWS 8 inches! haha!

There is no complaining on my part.  Colorado needs the moisture!  Like Peepsqueak, (above) I put on my coat and scarf and set off in our winter wonderland.  Spring will arrive as it alway does, but there are sidewalks to shovel and a wood stove to load and lots of indoor activities to keep me busy until snow gives way to rain and flowers.


Filed under: Peepsqueak!, Reflections

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19. Religion and Fear

During Lent, the minister of the church I attend sends out daily reflections over e-mail. This is today's, and I think it's wonderful. From The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, by James Martin:

When I was a novice, one of my spiritual directors quoted the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray, who contrasted "real religion" and "illusory religion." The maxim of "illusory religion" is as follows: "Fear not; trust in God and God will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you." "Real religion," said Macmurray, has a different maxim: "Fear not; the things you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of."

12 Comments on Religion and Fear, last added: 4/8/2013
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20. One Step at a Time!

Onestep

Have you ever started a new chapter in your life?  Have you ever dared to do something you never did before?  Did you feel launched into it and found yourself in free fall? You are not alone. It happens all the time! Anyone who wants to do something worthwhile in life has to take risks and sometimes those risks lead to even more risks!

When my art career began, I was imagining all the possibilities. I dreamed of success. I created many fun little cartoons and talked about what I wanted to do with them.  Then one day, I ran into a friend who was DOING what I wanted to do.  She shook me!  She said, “Les, you have to go to the N.Y. Stationary Show and you have to go NOW!

I had heard of this show. I had many of my friends online talking about going.  This was back in the late 90′s.  There was something in her voice.  It was more like a command from heaven than a gentle nudging from a friend.  I made up my mind to go!

This was huge for me.  I had only been on an airplane once for a 45 minute flight. I practically sat on the lap of the man sitting next to me… asking him what this bump was and what THAT  bump was!    I decided I better pray about this trip.  I told the Lord that if HE wanted me to do this then he would have to make the way for me.   A few days later someone had put an envelope in my mailbox. It was  $300.00.  Enough for my flight!  It was not long until I was flying across America to New York City.  I met up with my girlfriend and stayed with her uncle and aunt. We took buses, rode trains and cabs.  Once at the show we had to pedal our portfolios. I am NOT a sales person. … but there I was asking people where their art director was and if I might have a minute with them.  Over and over.  Hmmm…. it became a little easier each time.

One last company sat down with me.  They looked through my whole portfolio and asked if I had anything more?  I pulled out one last picture of a little baby.  That was it!  That was the one the art director liked.  She asked me if I had any more and I told her I would email them to her when I got home. You better believe I was sketching babies on the airplane!

This was one of my first “be brave” moments. Over and over the good Lord has taken my by the hand and shown me what to do next.  Some would say, “you are weak if you need help for everything.”  But I say,  I am smart for asking.

I have a few more adventures I am yearning for.  There will come that day, when the dreaming is over, and the bags all packed and ready to GO!

What are you waiting for?  Be Brave!!!!!


Filed under: God STuff, Kicking Around Thoughts, Reflections

3 Comments on One Step at a Time!, last added: 3/15/2013
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21. Throwback Thursday: Reflections & Self-Assessments

Peruse our past posts about reflective practice and self-assessments students can use at the end of the school year.

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22. Dear Diary,

DRAWAll I really wanted to do today was draw. Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do. Some of those things you are not good at, so they take you ALL DAY! Sometimes things go wrong. Then you are sad. … and sometimes you mess up. … and sometimes you do all of that in ONE DAY! Ha!

Goodbye Wednesday. I’m going to bed!


Filed under: Reflections

2 Comments on Dear Diary,, last added: 4/18/2013
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23. Writing Matters

Today Deb Gaby and I finished leading the third day of a three-day Foundations of Writing Workshop training. At the end, we asked for reflections. Teacher after teacher commented on the impact of… Read More

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24. To Be Or Not To Be!

QueenHen

That is the question! The answer is in you. Will you be who you yearn to be in this life? Will you accomplish your dreams? Much of it is up to you.
My neighbor is an example. I met her three years ago. I was so excited to have an artist move in next door! She is a potter and when I visited her she would show me what she was making. She had some really fun pieces.
Last December she agreed to be in a garden show. She was one of two artists that would show their work in a specific garden. She knew she needed to fill the yard so she began in earnest to produce pieces with a garden theme. All winter long the kiln was firing wonderful creations! Colorful pots, bird houses and bird baths began oozing out of her garage. Her work began taking on a personality and a style like no other artist. I saw her grow in her skills.
Last Wednesday was set-up day. We placed her art all over the yard. By the time we finished, the yard look like it was out of a fairy tale! I could see that her pieces told a story. There was color everywhere! We were so excited!
We returned on Saturday for the sale. No sooner did we sit down at our table when the crowd of visitors began forming a line to buy my friends pottery. The line did not stop until the day ended. It was wonderful!!! All of her hard work paid off.
So what is my point? Find what you love and DO it! Find a way! Keep moving in the direction. To be or NOT to be? It’s up to you!

Pottery by Juanita Estepa

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Filed under: change, dream, Inspiring, Kicking Around Thoughts, Reflections, Work is Play....?

2 Comments on To Be Or Not To Be!, last added: 6/25/2013
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25. BLOOM

http://kellyraeroberts.com/flying-lessons

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Artists live a life of wonder. At times, it’s wondering what to do next. I will not lie, I have been wondering this for the last few months. I am looking for the sweet spot! It’s my favorite place to be in Art. It’s the place where you are working and you don’t want to stop. I think it’s a divine place where God kisses your life with ideas that flow out in a steady stream.

A lot of things can bar you from this place. Looking in the wrong direction, self doubt, self pity, self self self. Ha! Get the point? You have to get rid of the”self” part. If the sweet spot is divine, then you have to seek out the divine.

A few nights ago I had a dream. My dad was in the dream. Someone had driven him to my house. He slowly came up the steps to my house and said to me, ” Bloom“. In a small whisper he said, “bloom where you are planted”.
Then he was gone.
I woke up knowing the “divine” had spoken to me.
No grinding out ideas, just let the divine IN me out… to make the art I was born to make.

A flower does not worry about the bloom. All the coding for that bloom is IN the seed. It simply drinks up moisture from above and the roots go down and the bloom comes.

So… BLOOM today! You were meant to be like none other.


Filed under: dream, God STuff, Inspiring, Kicking Around Thoughts, Reflections

6 Comments on BLOOM, last added: 7/17/2013
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