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10 Posts authored by: Annalise Mabe Expert

Many students these days are Bio Med, Finance, Marketing, or Nursing majors to name a few. These students are accustomed to 200-person classrooms where watching long PowerPoints and taking notes for the upcoming exam are common pratices. 

 

Writing classes, however, are often hugely different. With a cap of 22 students per class, we, as writing instructors, are able to learn our students’ names, and create a more engaging classroom environment by utilizing participatory techniques.

 

I’m almost positively sure that my students do not want to hear me lecture every class for an hour and fifteen minutes. By 2 P.M., if I were to do this, they’d be falling asleep while sitting up.

 

Enter: The Think-Pair-Share—a teaching technique I learned in a previous practicum course where students are asked to think individually about a set of questions, then exchange ideas with their peers, all before coming back to discuss together as a class.

 

More specifically, it works like this: My students read a brief piece of writing in class and are then given a one page set of about five questions. They are given 10-15 minutes to quietly write their own answers before they pair up with a classmate sitting next to them to exchange each other’s ideas. When this happens, the classroom breaks from quiet study hall to nervous laughter, smiling, and the exchanging of names. This is often how they meet one another for the first time. Then, after discussing their answers with their peers, we come back together as a class and I ask different groups to answer the initial questions handed out.  

 

The Think-Pair-Share works well for many reasons.

 

  1. It puts the onus on the students to articulate responses to in-class texts and allows for an interesting way of using class time (versus a one hour and fifteen minute lecture).
  2. It allows students to think both individually about their answers and also allows them to collaborate or exchange ideas after they’ve answered questions on their own.
  3. Instead of cold-calling on students, this method allows students time and preparation to thoughtfully articulate well-developed answers and gain the confidence they need to answer in front of the whole class.
  4. It allows them to have fun. They meet their neighbors, talk to their classmates, and while they are engaging with the text, questions, and answers at hand, they are also forming classroom relationships and rapport with their peers, breaking the pattern of staring into phone glows and computer screens.

 

In addition to lecturing, Think-Pair-Shares have revitalized my classrooms, have given students agency, power, and room to speak, and have strengthened the rapport between my students, and with me, their instructor. Because of the many positive outcomes associated with Think-Pair-Shares, these exercises have become, and will remain, mainstays in my writing classrooms.

Every semester and every class is uniquely its own which means its students are, too. In my most recent course I’m teaching, Expository Writing—a Gordon Rule writing course that teaches students how to fine tune their description skills—many of my students have self-identified as not a writer. In fact, many of my students are biology majors, pre-med, or engineering students, and some of them, I’ve come to find, were not looking forward to flexing their pens. So, at the beginning of this semester, my challenge lay ahead of me.

 

Early on, because of this unique mix of students, I decided it was important to actively implement participatory design: an approach to design that attempts to involve users in the designing process to ensure best usability. It’s a broad term or approach that can be applied in any field, whether it be software design, architecture, or the university classroom.

 

Now, this doesn’t mean that I sit back and let my students run the show, but it does mean that I ask a lot of questions and place value in their answers. Some things I ask include: What’s been the most helpful text we’ve read so far in class? Which writing exercise was most useful to you as a student? Would you prefer to submit your first essay to only me, or to start with a paired workshop right off the bat? If you start the semester with participatory design in mind, it’s easy to remain flexible and adaptable, shaping your teaching to your unique students’ needs. And, new research has even found that designers, or in this case, instructors, create more innovative concepts and ideas when co-designing with a group, or in this case, our students.

 

The advantage to keeping participatory design in mind is that, by staying open-minded and malleable in your teaching decisions, you can best adapt to student needs, offering them, perhaps, a more valuable classroom experience. For example, when we hit mid-semester, I noticed that my students weren’t responding as well in classroom discussions, and that some were even dozing off while I was trying to engage them in a lively discussion. Some of this is normal, but I also asked myself what I could do to liven this classroom up? I took another brief survey and found that my students were wanting more in-class writing exercises, and this was something I could easily facilitate and incorporate into our time. After a few new lessons and in-class writing exercises, I saw the classroom energy instantly turn around and pick up speed again, gaining the momentum they were needing during that mid-semester slump.

 

The best thing, though, about participatory design is that it includes students in the process which:

 

  1. Removes a hard-lined authoritative teaching style
  2. Better assess and responds to student needs, and
  3. Empowers students, giving them agency and stake in the classroom

 

Ultimately, participatory design leads to these outcomes where students are more engaged, and where they are transforming from mere students-at-the-desk to the co-creators and colleagues they will soon become in their futures.

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.

Annalise Mabe

Against Grammar

Posted by Annalise Mabe Expert Jun 7, 2017

 

 “College is a foreign country,” a participant said at a recent writing center colloquium during a round table conversation on social justice in the writing center and in the classroom. What she meant was that college, or the university setting, is foreign to everyone and requires the learning and understanding of a new set of rules. College, and academia more broadly, are a context in which email etiquette is key, syntax is scrutinized, and the oxford comma reigns king.

 

            Grammar, as the Merriam Webster dictionary defines it, is “b: a study of what is to be preferred and what avoided in inflection and syntax.” But who is deciding what is preferred, what is to be avoided, and how are we dictating what is “right” or “wrong,” “correct” or incorrect”?  As professors, instructors, or writing consultants, it is important to impart to students and writers that the way they may talk, write, or speak is not wrong, but may not be aligned with what is expected of them in the academic setting. The line is fine here, but what I describe is a shift in framework, a mindset or an awareness, a communication with students that says: I see you, I am not trying to change you or tell you that how you write or speak is “wrong.” But in this setting, we are expected to write in a different style. Let me show you that style. The difference here is the difference between “you are wrong,” and “this current context is expecting another style of writing from you.”

 

            Some professors argue that English grammar is inherently colonialist, meaning that it promotes the gaining of “political control over other countries” via language, through erasure, by replacing an individual’s cultural set of practices with another. And while some professors and students may not agree, language, diction, syntax, and grammar all have power, subtle as it may seem, and changing how a person writes or speaks may have lasting effects on how they see themselves, and how they present themselves to the world around them.

 

While learning proper grammar is certainly important and has its clear benefits (i.e. providing ethos for the writer by communicating clearly and consistently in the style of writers who came before them) it is equally important to communicate with students that the way they talk or write—especially if it deviates from what is preferred, “correct” grammar—is not wrong, but simply may not be what is expected of them in the sphere of academic writing.

 

            Instead of contributing to or continuing on a path of erasure (sometimes literally erasing, striking out, or annotating papers) what if we re-framed the writing process, de-emphasized grammar (at least in the early stages of the writing process), and let writers continue penning their thoughts, staking space on the stage, before correcting or stunting them in the writing process with the rules of proper grammar? How many more great ideas might we see if we hold off on shutting students down purely on the basis of their grammatical skill? Patrick Bizzaro says, “We must spend less time telling our students what they should do when they write and more time showing them who they can be.” This change can come from a professor’s support, a restraint in correcting every comma, an encouragement of where this student is in their writing process and where they want to go. A new approach to writing, one that de-emphasizes grammar, may result in more missed Oxford commas, and in stronger, more confident writers.

 

Many times, students come to office hours wanting to know the answer to one question: is my paper good enough?

 

There are many ways to answer that question, but this is sometimes harder for students to see than we think. Students tend to see their grades and their writing as black or white, as good or bad. They tend to judge their work in this binary and often fail to ask questions that could lead them to new thoughts and ideas, opening their writing up further.

 

That’s where the professor, and the Socratic Method, come in. Introduced in Plato’s Theaetetus, the Socratic Method works to engage participants in a dialogue, drawing out thoughts, and prompting students to consider why they’ve made the choices they have or what possible changes they could make. Using it de-emphasizes this “good” or “bad” binary, reframing student work and grounding the revision process in questions.  

 

When frazzled students arrive at my office with a stack of papers near the end of the semester, I start by just talking to them, slowing down and giving them a few minutes of intake: How are you doing? How has the semester been going for you so far? What brings you in? Giving students the space and time to de-compress is the first part of the process, and it allows them to relax and to reflect on their journey through the course thus far, where they are currently, or what they are struggling with at the moment.

 

When it comes to the stack of papers, we don’t start reading right away. Instead, I ask the student specific questions about their work: Where do you think the tension is slacking? As a reader, where are you bored? What do you think the paper is struggling to achieve right now? Is there a reason why you’ve organized it the way you have? Asking these questions allows students to critically but honestly reflect on their own work by stepping back and explaining it to someone else. Suddenly, they may realize that they hadn’t organized their work in any particular way at all, or that they know they’ve been bothered by the thesis the whole time, that it’s just not quite clear enough.

 

Students know more than they give themselves credit for, and employing the Socratic Method offers them a chance to reach these realizations, and to make decisions about their writing on their own. This method empowers students by giving them the questions they may already know the answers to, and giving them an audience as they make their way toward new discoveries in their writing.

Annalise Mabe

What to Teach Now

Posted by Annalise Mabe Expert Mar 10, 2017

Recently at a reading, writer Ira Sukrungruang asked the audience: Wouldn’t it be nice to start every day with a poem?

 

Yes, I thought, and realized I should be reading more in general—a poem, a story, or an essay every morning; that there are so many classic titles and contemporary writers alike I need to re-read, and to teach my students.

 

Here are some recommendations—of new works as well as classics—that should be read, revisited, and taught now.

 

  1. Girl ” by Alexander Chee

 

In this essay first published in Guernica and reprinted in the Best American Essays 2016, Alexander Chee explores the power of makeup, his early fascination with it, and how wearing a mask can sometimes help you find yourself. Diving into his background, readers see that his investigation of self intersects with what it means to be a man, a woman, Asian American, and white, or “passing.”

 

“This beauty when I put on drag then,” Chee writes, “it is made up of these talisman of power, a balancing act of the self-hatreds of at least two cultures, an act I’ve engaged in my whole life, here on the fulcrum I make of my face. That night I find I want this beauty to last because it seems more powerful than any beauty I’ve had before. Being pretty like this is stronger than any drug I’ve tried.”

 

He continues.

 

“This power I feel tonight, I understand now—this is what it means when we say ‘queen.’”

 

Alexander Chee is a contemporary fiction writer and poet who spent his growing up in South Korea, Kauai, Truk, Guam, and Maine before attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

 

 

  1. Fahrenheit 451: The Authorized Adaptation by Ray Bradbury and Tim Hamilton

 

Many high school students are tasked with reading Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451 as part of their curriculum—a book about a 1953 dystopian future where books are banned and burned, where literature, where knowledge, is considered dangerous—but fewer people have read this stunning adaptation.

 

In this classic book turned graphic novel, thanks to the collaboration of Bradbury and Tim Hamilton, readers not only get to see Guy Montag’s destruction of beloved books in huge splash pages of orange and red fiery blooms (“Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ‘em to ashes then burn the ashes.”), but they are given a new introduction from Bradbury in which he writes:

 

“Finally, may I suggest that anyone reading this introduction should take the time to name the one book that he or she would most want to memorize and protect from any censors or ‘firemen.’ And not only name the book, but give the reasons why they would wish to memorize it and why it would be a valuable asset to be recited and remembered in the future.”

 

  1. Letter from a Region in My Mind” by James Baldwin

 

James Baldwin was a classic essayist in the nonfiction canon who wrote about the complexities of race, sexuality, and class in America.

 

In “Letter from a Region in My Mind” from The New Yorker’s November 17, 1962 issue, he writes:

 

“When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and, for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots. Just before and then during the Second World War, many of my friends fled into the service, all to be changed there, and rarely for the better, many to be ruined, and many to die. Others fled to other states and cities—that is, to other ghettos. Some went on wine or whiskey or the needle, and are still on it. And others, like me, fled into the church.”

 

Baldwin writes vividly, conveying what it was like grow up in Harlem as a young black boy watching his peers change before him, watching how he, himself, changed too.

 

Important to note is that before his death in 1987, Baldwin was at work on a book titled Remember This House, which sought to memorialize the deaths of three of his close friends, Medgar Evers, Malcom X, and Martin Luther King Jr. The manuscript was only thirty pages long at the time of his death, and has now become the inspiration for filmmaker Raoul Peck’s documentary I am Not Your Negro, currently out in theaters. The documentary features interviews with Baldwin and Samuel L. Jackson’s narration of Baldwin’s notes: “In America, I was free only in battle.”

 

  1. Despite My Efforts Even My Prayers Have Turned into Threats and “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient)” by Kaveh Akbar

 

In “Despite My Efforts Even My Prayers Have Turned into Threats,” the epistolary poem published in POETRY in November 2016, Kaveh Akbar writes to God:

 

Will his goodness roll

over to my tab and if yes, how

soon?…”

 

In “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient)” published in issue 17 of The Adroit Journal, Akbar writes:

 

 

Akbar is quickly becoming a favorite contemporary with his wild images and sharp colloquialisms, and he’s being noted, also, for his stewardship of introducing new poets from the seven countries recently affected by Trump’s travel ban, some of whom include Khaled Mattawa (Libya), Ladan Osman (Somalia), Safia Elhillo (Sudan), and Majid Naficy (Iran).

 

Born in Tehran, Akbar has said “there is a part of Iran that is hardwired in me,” and this is evident in his rich poems that sprawl open on the page.

 

 

  1. How to Be a Real Indian” and “Fibonacci” by Kenzie Allen

 

“The first time someone asks you how Indian you are, lie.” Kenzie Allen writes in her poem, “How to Be a Real Indian” published in Narrative.

 

She continues:

 

Say you dream

in Oneida at night, show-and-tell them rose rock

and kachina, give them exactly what they ask for…”

 

In “Fibonacci,” she delivers cold and blunt lines:

 

“Remember when I loved you so much I would break things?

I don’t love you like that anymore so you don’t need to call the cops…”

 

Kenzie Allen is a poet, editor, and literary activist completing her PhD in English and Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as an Advanced Opportunity Fellow and Chancellor’s Award recipient, and a Teaching Assistant in American Indian Studies.

 

 

  1. MAUS I, My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman

 

Art Spiegelman delivers one of the most powerful graphic novels with MAUS I: My Father Bleeds History.

 

Spiegelman’s MAUS is a metanarrative that follows two storylines: one that investigates the relationship between Spiegelman and his father, Vladek, as he visits frequently for interviews and one that follows Vladek’s incredible story of surviving the Holocaust where, in this story, Jews are portrayed as mice and Germans as cats.

 

Readers can relate to the familial bonds and habits between parent and child and are shown a chilling inside story of what it was like to be a survivor of one of the most traumatic genocides the world has ever seen.

 

This account is an incredibly important and necessary story that depicts the unbelievable events of the Holocaust from a survivor’s perspective.

 

 

  1. Ordinary Girls” by Jaquira Díaz

 

In this Best American 2016 essay first published by the Kenyon Review, Jaquira Díaz writes of what it was like to grow up as a teenage girl in Miami Beach, Florida:

 

“We started talking about dying long before the first woman jumped. What our parents would do once we were gone. What Mr. Nuñez, the assistant principal at Nautilus Middle School, would say about us on the morning announcements, how many of our friends would cry right there on the spot. The songs they would dedicate to us on Power 96 so that all of Miami Beach could mourn us—Boyz II Men’s It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,” D.R.S.’s Gangsta Lean.” Who would go to our funerals—boys who’d broken our hearts, boys whose hearts we’d broken.”

 

It’s her early meditation on death, on being young in dangerous situations, that makes her essay so compelling.

 

“Some girls took sleeping pills and then called 911, or slit their wrists the wrong way and waited to be found in the bathtub. But we didn’t want to be like those ordinary girls. We wanted to be throttled, mangled, thrown. We wanted the violence. We wanted something we could never come back from.”

 

Jaquira Díaz was born in Puerto Rico, raised in Miami Beach, and is the Kenyon Review fellow in Prose for the 2016-2018 year. She is undoubtedly one of the most influential voices molding the nonfiction landscape today.

 

 

While the list could go on and on, this is a useful starter pack for what to read and teach now—a brief list, at least, with which to start our mornings, and, possibly, on which to base our classes.

Annalise Mabe

On Diverse Reading Lists

Posted by Annalise Mabe Expert Jan 24, 2017

As instructors, professors, or graduate assistants, we are often in charge of selecting course texts, mapping semester outlines, and designing syllabi. These tasks, however, come with choice. Who do we highlight? Whose voices do share? And how could our choices affect our students who are close-reading these works for the first time in their lives?

 

In Margaret Atwood’s poem “Spelling,” she writes:

 

A word after a word

after a word is power

 

From a rhetorical perspective, every choice, especially word choice, inherently creates meaning—an argument, a stance, a connotation—even if we don’t mean it to. Thus, by selecting specific texts and authors, we have (whether we like it or not) an undeniable power to change the direction or trajectory of how students may perceive themselves, their work, their capabilities, and their understanding of the world around them.

 

It is paramount, then, to be aware of what and who we choose to read with our classes. Kenzie Allen, a current PhD student in English/Creative Writing, writes:

 

“I think a diverse reading list is an essential tool for decolonizing the classroom, and a way to address the narratives, preconceptions, and shorthand notions we learn and initialize.”

 

And what better a time to challenge traditional or homogenous notions than when students are still in their formative years, when they are getting a first-hand “college experience,” being surrounded with some 35,000 different faces, flyers handed to them left and right, and a man with a mega-phone practicing free speech?

 

Multiperspectivity, or exploring multiple perspectives, has actually been proven to make us smarter. In a recent study, researchers Sheen S. Levine and David Stark assigned students to either a diverse group (with at least one student of another ethnicity or race) or a homogenous group, then asked them to participate in a stock trading exercise. Findings were sharply conspicuous showing that students in diverse groups performed 58% more accurately, providing more correct answers while those in homogenous groups tended to copy one another, providing wrong or misinformed information. The researchers concluded in their New York Times Opinion article that “diversity brought cognitive friction that enhanced deliberation,” that “diversity prompts better critical thinking,” and that “diversity matters for learning, the core purpose of the university.”

 

These findings could extend to the company we keep in our classrooms—the pieces we read.

 

Kenzie Allen is Oneida and writes of her experience as a Native American writer: “For me, I feel a personal responsibility to imbue into my poems not simply the ‘dead and gone’ Native that is so often depicted in the non-Native gaze or colonial metanarrative, but to show something of our modernity, our on-going issues, and our survival.”

 

College is a time for reflecting on self-identity, a chance to re-invent, to step outside what has always been known, and to challenge the stereotypes or generalizations that our students may have grown up with. We can do that by breaking the monotony of Poe, Hemingway, and Hawthorne; we can introduce Maxine Hong Kingston, Sherman Alexie, Roxane Gay, and so many more.

 

Allen continues to explain the importance of multiperspectivity: “In a time when the marginalized are so often silenced, to speak at all can be a radical act, as is making space for those voices.”

 

She writes, “It’s another kind of justice, or healing. The author is always more than simply one aspect of their identity or interests, so the more diverse or multi-faceted the reading list, the more we are able to bear witness to this complexity.”

 

As instructors, we are gatekeepers. We are the ones who decide what will be read, what will be written, and what will be shared over the course of a four-month semester. We have an ultimate responsibility, then, to empower our students with a more diverse experience, opening their minds to who they can be.

On social media, every post is an impulse towards connection. Whether you’re seeking likes, sharing new information, or looking for a discussion, everything we do on social media is in conversation with the people logging in around us. Every part of our digital footprint is a micronarrative that could be explored more. The beginning of an idea. The tip of the iceberg.

 

Author Jonathan Franzen, in his introduction to the 2016 Best American Essays, questions the essay’s current existence in relation to social media: “Is the essay becoming an endangered species? Or is it a species that has so fully invaded the larger culture that it no longer needs its original niche?”

 

The long-form essay is endangered, competing with the 140-character flash narratives of our lives, brief blips that could be investigated, but are usually left to collect digital dust, to pile beneath the other posts that will push them further down into a void we’ll likely never see again.

 

But we need to explore these impulses, blips we send out from our radars, now more than ever. Anna Quindlen, New York Times columnist, says that “first person is the connective tissue, and we live in a world where there is too little genuine connective tissue.”

 

If the essay is a writer's mind grappling on the page with a question they cannot answer, we need the essay now more than ever to understand the world around us, and the people we interact with. If the essay encapsulates live moments, then we need to essay in-depth, at length, not write one-offs that sink to the bottom of the news feed.

 

It’s no surprise that we live partially online, most of us carrying around Smartphones in our pockets or purses, checking them over a hundred times a day. We are craving a connection we’re still missing out on.

 

And it’s no surprise to find that, like theorist Peter Brooks suggests, we live in “anticipation of retrospection,” where we are always looking forward to look back. Charles Comey, in his essay "Against Honeymoons" writes of this very sensation--the looking forward to look back: "The strange thing about a honeymoon is that even while it's happening, it's already lived as a story. We sit inside it saying, ‘We will have been here.’" It’s almost as if we are posting blurbs or curated snapshots of our lives with the sole purpose or intention of remembering all of this later, rather than to examine the present life we are living in more closely, and at greater length.

 

We look forward to retrospection, reflection, or reminiscing, and sometimes this anticipation preoccupies our mind in the very moment we should be experiencing the hike up the mountain, the view of the sun melting everything around it. Instead, we grab our smartphones and start taking photos--of the sky, of our faces with the sky, of our bodies in front of said sky--so we will remember it later, and so others will know we were here. And during all of this picking and choosing of how to make ourselves look like we aren't trying super hard to be cool, easy, and free, we are missing the quiet shifting of clouds, the insects trilling, and everything else we should be looking at.

 

Comey continues: "Each moment slips through his fingers; everything is already over." The essay exists for many reasons, but one is to catch what’s happening in the present, what has happened in the past, and what could happen in the future, and to share this with readers who could make meaning, could relate, and could connect over this shared matter, the idea that’s been turned over and over in the writer’s mind.

 

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.

Annalise Mabe

Going Small

Posted by Annalise Mabe Expert Oct 4, 2016

When I teach creative writing, especially creative nonfiction, most of my students want to go big, meaning that they are wanting to bring their readers on an emotional journey, pulling out the big stuff: their parents’ devastating divorce, the death of their favorite grandparent, their best friend from elementary school who they no longer speak to, or their first long distance romance that couldn’t bear the miles. These are all worthy topics to pursue, but a pitfall of trying to go big is not being able to cover the landscape of the event, to translate it the same way it happened.

            Many of my students look at their lives and think that nothing interesting has happened to them, that they haven’t done much, and so they scan their memories for the moments with the highest peaks, the most drama, and think they’ve found their story there. Author “Story Seminar” creator Robert McKee teaches that a trivial story well told is more powerful than a significant story poorly told. It doesn’t matter, I tell students, if you haven’t trained in the junior Olympics, haven’t fallen into movie-like love yet, or have only lived in Naples, Florida for all of your life—in fact, that’s better. Take your story to the park instead. Look around your hometown, in the antique store that’s always open that you never go in. What’s in there? What stories live there?

            To Go Small is to look closely at the practice of running, an old object in an antique store, a seemingly insignificant moment, like the walk you take after dinner around your apartment complex, and to ask those objects, moments, practices or memories questions. Borrowing from Lynda Barry’s book, What It Is, I ask my students to make a list of ten couches they’ve sat on in their lifetimes, then ask them to choose one. With that couch in mind, I ask them guiding questions borrowed from Barry’s book to help orient them in the moment they’ve chosen. Where are you? What are you doing? Who else is there? What time of day is it? How old are you? What does the couch look like? Whose house is it? What’s in front of you? What’s to your left? What’s to your right? What’s behind you? What’s below your feet?

            By answering these questions, students engage in pre-writing and are forced to Go Small, looking at the minute details of the memory, picking out carpet patterns, wall decorations, couch fabric, time of day, season, etc. And by picking out these significant, concrete details, their piece becomes much more alive as it’s coming from a real, specific place, and a vivid moment in time. I ask students to then begin writing the moment or the scene with the details they collected in mind.

            Haley Morton, a previous student of mine, practiced Going Small in her piece “Early October,” a fiction piece about a narrator who runs:

            “Sweat burns through my pores. Catching my blonde skin up in its path. Gathering itself   into lines of pearl and opal across my neck and forehead and heaving chest. It’s hard for me to think about nothing. Especially now. When my legs collide with the ground  without a hint of grace and my thumbs tuck into my balled-up, pumping fists. I try to linger in each step with purpose as I bob past the arching oaks and violent palms with their saw limbs, all rooted in a hostile soil that seems it would be home to nothing but tumbleweed.

            When the students share their post-exercise writing, it’s usually their best piece of writing so far in the semester. When they read out loud in class, it’s clear for the rest of us to see that they are somewhere else, back in time, and we get to see the inside of their childhood house: the fast food bag on the table their dad brought home, their mother’s pearl earrings she got from her grandmother, or the Last Supper picture their older brother found on the side of the street. Their pieces come to life, glowing with sensory details and specific images. From hearing themselves and their peers’ pieces, they start to see the importance, the poignancy, in a broken coffee cup, in a shiny trinket, as opposed to the topics that were just too big to pin down, too big to write well in a first draft.

            In Phillip Lopate’s book, To Show and To Tell, he writes that famed novelist Philip Roth would go to bed reminding himself, “Don’t invent, remember.” This is to say that oftentimes, when we imagine, we are actually more distant from accuracy than if we were to pull from what we see in our actual lives. To pull from our lives is to go over the mundane, to collect the seemingly insignificant, and to Go Small, finding a kernel, a part in the work that symbolizes or speaks to the bigger feeling, the bigger moment, we so often seek to convey.