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Reading in this New Year

It's so easy to get caught up in this idea of reading as a writer that it becomes this rule, a dogma. Some writers, like Stephen King in his famous book on writing drives home this point where it's easy to internalize in this way. I have to admit it's easy to feel guilty if the reading falls by the wayside for whatever reason.

When this happens, reading becomes a labor. This takes whatever joy there is in reading a work someone else created out of their own dreams and desires that it destroys the point of reading altogether.

Reading is about listening, hearing the story a writer is telling you. Or, it is to take in the view someone is presenting you. This is what it is to be an active reader.

Sorry, that is the English teacher part of me talking, but it is true. We do live in an age where context is missing and public figures are constantly shouting that that's not what they said. Often, the context is deliberately hid, but a bigger issue is that many of us aren't fully equipped to truly see it, especially when we are caught up in what outrages us.

I got it in my head as a young man that somehow reading a book is like eating it and writing creatively is like shitting out your literary meals. I've never seen it explicitly said like that. However, when you are advised to read to shape your own language and learn the form of wiring, it's easy to come to this view. And I'm starting to realize how warped it is.

I suppose it's better than plagiarism, which is like gobbled up prose that's vomited up too soon and the sick is still very recognizable as the food. Often, it's voluntary like the inaccurate image of Romans going into the vomitorium to disgorge the contents of their stomachs so they can eat more.

This year, I do intend to make reading a more regular practice. I also resolve to get past the baggage so that reading is more the act of listening than it is looking for something to steal. In cultivating the act of listening as a reader, I myself can present my story in a way that the audience can listen themselves.

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Beginner's Mind

In the first chapter of Writing Down the Bones, “Beginner's Mind, Pen, and Paper,” Natalie Goldbergtells the writer who picks this book up, "In a sense, the beginner's mind is what we must come back to every time we sit down and write." It's easy to think about how profound this sounds. However, its a reminder of no matter how much you've written or what you have achieved, it's always a starting over when one writes. As I haven't really written in a while, this is a good place to come back to.

It's also very challenging. In my case, I've taken many creative writing workshops in my youth and thought getting into an MFA program would validate me as a writer and then I could step my way into breaking out into the literary world. Sometime later. I got a portfolio together and applied for to program and got the MFA. It didn't make me a literary star, but I did get work as an adjunct instructor teaching community college English courses. I also taught English as a foreign language. In these jobs, I've reached people in their beginner minds. It's easy to as a teacher. However, with experience and even some measure of authority, it can be difficult to get into this mindset.

With all the experience and education I can discuss, there is baggage that comes with it, whether it's the times I had a case of the Dunning-Kruger (being too confident of my abilities) or the complete opposite where I felt completely destroyed in workshops. Also, I've been frustrated with feeling that I wasn't understood by my peers from an artistic standpoint. This is all stuff that can be let go.

I can let go of my pride and my fear and my frustration. I can also let go of the experiences, good or bad. I can let go of the bad teacher who built me up until he decided to destroy me. I can let go of that student who thought she could teach my class when I was a TA. I can let go of the guy who liked nothing better than to tear his classmates down. I can let go of everything from those times.

I can check these inhibiting factors and others as I become aware of them.

Having a beginner's mind gives me the permission to fail, to make mistakes, to have what Anne Lamott calls "shitty first drafts."

I can also check whatever writer fetishes that I may have picked over the years like Moleskines and fountain pens and any other trappings and do away with them. I once had the perfect writerly apartment and it was a struggle to work in, just like those nicely bound notebooks.

I have to admit I find the Notes app on my iPhone very good for getting thoughts out similar to how Natalie Goldberg suggest cheap spiral bound notebooks. It's not an app I take too seriously as a writing tool. I can also experiment with the cheap notebooks too. Overall, whatever tools I use, it's important to have the beginner's mindset.

In conclusion, I can look at any start to writing as starting again. I may knock it out of the park, but there will be false starts and things that don't work and things I still need to learn. And if I have to learn something again or learn something I feel I should know, but don't, that is OK.

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250-500+ Words: A Daily Writing Goal

This new year, like other new years before, I made some resolutions. One of them was to write every day, or at least write with more frequency than I have before. I’ve taken writing classes and have even gone through an MFA creative writing program, yet the discipline to write can be elusive. This is something I want to change in this comings year. 

There are all kinds of reasons and excuses I find for not writing. Here are a few: 

  • I am not in the right frame of mind. 
  • I am too exhausted to think about it. 
  • Teaching exhausts me.
  • I don’t have the time as I got too much to do.
  • The blank page is daunting. 
  • I can’t translate my imagination into text. 
  • I suck at this. 

I am not in the right frame of mind can cover every bullet point above, but I’ll focus on the first three. Often, I have avoided writing because of emotional reasons and/or other mental states. My most common reason in this category is that I am overwhelmed or too hyperstimulated to focus. It is fair to say that I am actually too exhausted to think about it. This is more common for me later in the day, especially when I have been through work, taught a class, had to deal with people, or all of these things. All my creative, intellectual, and emotional energy often gets used up in these situations.

That I often don’t have time as I got much to do isn’t unique to me. Almost everyone I knew has this problem. I do need to work for a living and that takes up a lot time. Showing up takes a lot of time, but so does any obligation outside of the classroom such as preparation and meeting students and professional development. Then there is the commuting. And things that demand my time aren’t limited to work such as family, responsibilities at home, and making time to be social.

I often think that I suck at this. Whether I have internalized what someone said about my work or that language hasn’t always come easy for me, I let my lack of confidence stop me. This can manifest itself when conditions are more ideal for me to write such as it being early in the day or that I made some time in the day to sit down and write. I find the blank page daunting and I have already anticipated the criticism before I even began. And even though I know writing is a process, the idea of writing something out and having it completely suck is enough to stop me in my tracks. And this is the type of thinking that leads me into thinking I can’t translate my imagination into words.

These are the general obstacles I see in my life to writing more regularly. As I move forward, I can keep these things in mind and think about solutions and workarounds to what I have discussed. However, my goal is to make writing on a regular basis a practice. This isn’t merely writing for the sake of writing but actively creating the stories I want to create.

My goal is to write 250-500+ words a day. This fits in with Kevin Whelan’s “A Writer’s Declaration,” where he resolves to write 250 words as his daily goal and that every subject is fit for his pen. That sounds like a good plan to adopt. This blog entry clocks in at 597 words.

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Kevin Whelan’s “A Writer’s Declaration,” this copy given to me by a wonderful creative writing profesor many years ago in my MFA program.

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