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2017
Michael Kardos

You Write, Too?

Posted by Michael Kardos Expert Sep 28, 2017

This post originally appeared on the blog on 12/22/11

 

I’m always surprised when, weeks into a semester, I’ll say something in class that prompts a student to tilt his head at me and say, “Wait—you write, too?”

 

Meaning—you don’t only teach this stuff, but you actually do it?

 

I’m not talking about my upper-level or graduate students, who enter class with a sense of their professors’ professional interests and activities. But my introductory students are often surprised to learn that when I’m not in the classroom or at office hours, I’m at home doing exactly what I’m asking them to do: writing.

 

We sometimes take it for granted that our undergraduates know what it is to teach at the college level—that creative writing instructors are also creative writers. That we, too, struggle for the right form for a poem or the best way to end a story or the most honest and vivid way to present an essay. We, too, drink coffee; we, too, stop ourselves from wasting time on the internet. We doubt ourselves, and then we think we’re brilliant, and then we realize that, no, we aren’t. We fret over deadlines. We fret over fretting. We worry that no one will “get” what we’re writing; we worry that everyone will. The biggest difference between us and our students is that we’ve read more books and written more words. We’re further along in an apprenticeship that only ends when we’re in the ground.

 

But why should our students know any of this? It might seem obvious to us, but why should they suspect that the person who reads their work and directs the discussion and ultimately grades them is a writer as well as a teacher—especially if I haven’t talked to them about that part of my life?

 

In the past, I’ve tended to shy away from such talk, believing that the focus of the class, after all, is on them, not me. In my own experience as a student, I never much liked when a teacher went on and on about his or her own work. It felt like showing off. However, I’ve come to believe that in a workshop, students appreciate a modest amount of disclosure and candor, and I’ve become more comfortable talking—in moderation—about what I’m working on or struggling with, without feeling as if what I say needs to have a foreordained pedagogical objective.

 

My question to you: How, and to what degree, do you bring your own writing life into the classroom?

 

Allyson Hoffman

The Point of View Menu

Posted by Allyson Hoffman Expert Sep 21, 2017

My introductory fiction students excelled at identifying the point of view in the stories we read—first person has “I” or “we,” second person has “you,” and so on. Identifying simple verb tenses—past, present, and future—also came easily to the students. However, when it came time to write their own stories, many of the first drafts my students submitted had irregular or inconsistent points of view and tenses. I saw the shifts stemming from something deeper than typos or inattention to details; I saw the shifts as indications that my students hadn’t quite decided how they wanted to tell their stories.

 

As a result, I developed a tool to help students consider the subtle effects of point of view and tense. “It’s like a menu!” a student once exclaimed, and ever since I’ve called the tool the “Point of View Menu.”

 

To introduce the menu, I first review the common indicators of each point of view with my students, then turn to identifying why as writers we might choose a particular point of view. To guide our discussions, I suggest we look at the relationship between the characters and the readers each point of view offers. While we recognize there are no absolutes, we develop some generalizations to gain a comprehensive perspective.

 

First person gets the reader up close and personal to a character—that is, the reader can see into a character’s mind.

 

Second person offers some space between the reader and the characters, but because of its inviting nature, readers can still get close the story and sometimes see into a character’s mind.

 

Third person offers some distance between the reader and the characters, because readers hear thoughts secondhand through narration.

 

Then we look at verb tenses, keeping it simple by focusing only on past, present, and future. We review common indicators of each, and again we turn the conversation to ask the question of why writers would choose to work with each tense.

 

In past tense, the events have already occurred. The time between the events and the telling of the story, then, allows for reflection on the events.

 

Present tense lends itself to reactions in the moment. My students offer suggestions of action films with fight sequences sliced into a punch, then a kick, then a slam—they feel as if they are experiencing the events in real time.

 

Future tense leans into the unknown and predicts what will come. It can also allow the writer to leap through time.

 

Once they have gained a sense of what point of view and tense offer separately, my next challenge to my students is to examine how they work together.

 

I grid point of view and tense and their purposes alongside each other, creating the backbone of our “menu.” In groups, my students fill in the resulting boxes where each point of view and tense meets. As the boxes fill, my students visualize the outcomes of possible narrative choices. A first person story written in past tense offers reflections up close and personal with the speaker. A third person story written in future tense offers predictions with some distance from the minds of the main characters.

 

Past: reflection

Present: reaction

Future: prediction

First: up close and personal

Reflection up close and personal

Reaction up close and personal

Prediction up close and personal

Second: some space

Reflection with some space

Reaction with some space

Prediction with some space

Third: distance

Reflection with distance

Reaction with distance

Prediction with distance

 

The menu then becomes a touchstone tool in our discussions of class readings and in workshops. We discuss where the stories we’ve read belong in the menu. Students quickly realize stories, especially second and third person stories, might fit in multiple spaces. We also spend time exploring how and why writers employ several combinations, looking to stories such as Junot Diaz’s “How to Date a Whitegirl, Browngirl, Blackgirl, or Halfie” and Jennifer Egan’s  “Safari” for guidance.

 

The point of view menu makes clear to students the subtle differences among storytelling options. As a result, students grow confident in identifying how writers employ these choices in stories, and students are empowered to make thoughtful narrative choices in the stories they write.

This post first appeared on LitBits on Nov 2, 2016

 

Essayist Dinty Moore says “the hand is connected to the arm which is connected to the heart” in an attempt to explain why writing by hand is instrumental in sewing the seedlings of great ideas that form and grow under the act of further writing and revision. When I first bring up hand-writing to my students, they often look skeptical, or wary to say the least. Some of them groan. Some of them say they will definitely handwrite at home. Most of them, though, do ask: “Why should we write by hand if we can type on a laptop?” And I have a few answers for them.

 

For one, writing by hand slows the writer down. While this may sound like a counter-intuitive hindrance to the writing process, it’s actually an element that makes for better writing, and a higher quality first draft. By sitting at the laptop or desktop computer, typing 40 words per minute allows you to write too quickly, moving forward and backward linearly, erasing any sign or record of your process, any change that you would be able to look over when writing with a pen on the page. By being forced to slow down, your brain has slightly more time to think about what it decides to pen. This allows for more real decision making compared to the writer at the computer whose hands type too quickly, perhaps glossing over a better idea that may have needed a few seconds more to percolate.

 

Another reason why hand-writing is paramount is that this approach creates room for risk and play, for less constraint. This is to say that there is something about a sprawling page and a pre-writing mindset that alleviates pressure for the writer, allowing them the space to try things on, to “just get the ideas down,” and worry about the meticulous details later. In Phillip Lopate’s To Show and To Tell, he emphasizes the importance of a writer’s journal, another arena where hand-writing takes place, arguing that it allows for the “freedom to try out things, to write clumsy sentences when no one is looking, to be prejudiced, even stupid. No one can expect to write well who will not first take the risk of writing badly. The writer’s notebook is a safe place for such experiments.” Cartoonist Lynda Barry also supports hand-writing, explaining that students should write from their centers instead of their heads. Author and writing instructor Heather Sellers agrees that writing is a physical act, just like football, and so should be practiced physically with the same dedication and reverence that players hold for their sport.

 

As a writer who hand-writes herself, I can attest to a feeling that comes from the practice. It’s a feeling that comes after I’ve warmed up, after I’ve gotten a few paragraph down, and it comes when I’m hitting a stride, when I can feel my heart rate quickening, my writing becoming somewhat faster, when I know I’m on to something important. Though what I pen by hand is always a start and far from a finished, final draft, the ideas that come forward in the hand-writing stage I’ve come to realize are my better ones—the seedlings of greater things to come, planted by the pen in my hand.

by Heather Sellers

 

This post first appeared on the blog on Jan 29, 2016.

 

How do we meet our writing goals and help our students meet writing goals in the midst of other demands?

 

My favorite recent book on this topic is Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. It’s a portable encyclopedia of the daily schedules of artists, psychologists, theologians, and authors.

 

Toni Morrison (single mother of two with a full time job as an editor at Random House) explains that “it does seem hectic,” but she doesn’t do “anything else.” She avoids cocktail parties and evening events because that is when she works. And, “When I sit down to write I never brood….. I can’t afford it.”  She makes it clear that there’s really not likely going to be, for most of us, a regular time to write. She grabbed weekends, evenings, predawn time.

 

Haruki Murakami wakes at 4 am and writes until 9 am or 10 am. He also turns down invitations.

 

What I notice, reading Currey’s charming, delicious compendium, is that creating a writing life is actually less about a cushy life filled with luxurious writing hours and more about saying no to almost everything else.

 

And, reading the lives of artists while thinking about students as our semesters get underway, I see that it’s more than a bit challenging to be 20 years old and newly free in in the world, and then, if one would like to become a writer, tasked with saying no to all of your friends, parties, weekend getaways, football games, laying out in the sun.

 

I asked three of my colleagues, graduate students in the MFA program at the University of South Florida, to address the question: how do you get your writing done while teaching? Annalise Mabe said she writes best when she has a deadline for class. Carmella Guiol recently got rid of the internet at home, and for her, hours and hours of writing time opened up.  Chelsea Dingman, prolific writer and mother of two boys, gets up monstrously early, and writes in any spare hour during the day.

 

These three writers get their creative work done by saying no to a lot and they can do that because they love the work and they have been rewarded by long hours of practice with visible, measurable proof of improvement. 

 

Can we help our students experience more deeply how rewarding practice is? (The recent film Seymour provides a terrific discussion of the delicious rewards of pure practice.) I’m not sure. I know when they are required to spend more time on a piece (writing a sonnet, for example), they learn more as writers, produce better work, and they are often surprised at the correlation between time spent on writing and the success of the piece.

 

This semester, I’m working on creating assignment sequences that are meaningful and challenging. I’m trying to do a better job of explaining to my students why we’re doing this work, and what they’ll be able to do at the end of the semester, and showing them, along the way, exactly what is happening in terms of skill development and knowledge acquisition. 

 

I’m modeling a working writing life for them by sharing my triumphs and failures I’ve met my new year’s writing goals four days out of 24 so far this year, but at least I’m aware of what I want and where I am.

 

 

Heather Sellers (PhD, Florida State University) is professor of English at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida, where she teaches graduate and undergraduate creative writing in children's literature, poetry, and non-fiction. She won the student-chosen professor of the year award at Hope College, where she gave the commencement address. Her textbook for the multi-genre course is The Practice of Creative Writing, which will appear next year in its third edition. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Fiction, she's published two books on creating an inspiring and happy writing life, Page after Page and Chapter after Chapter, as well as a children's book, two books of poetry and three chapbooks, along with Georgia Under Water, a collection of short stories. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The London Daily Telegraph, Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeeping, O,the Oprah Magazine, and The Sun, as well as Prairie Schooner and Alaska Quarterly Review. She's currently at work on a new manuscript of poems and a novel for younger readers, set in Florida, her home state. She’s an avid cyclist and kayaker.