I am sitting in my living room looking at my Christmas tree. It’s the last day of January. I finally got all the ornaments put away, but the tree remains with its lonely string of lights.

If it were a real tree, it would be long gone. Only its sad pretense of reality has kept it standing here, in my front window, where everyone can see it. I stopped plugging in the lights a couple weeks ago. No sense in looking like an idiot in front of the neighbors.

It is a metaphor, my right brain says. You see only trees, no forest. It is a symbol of your inability to see anything but false pieces of reality. (My right brain is definitely a forest person, a metaphoric, holistic, big-picture seeing observer. It doesn’t really care whether I put the tree away or not; it just likes metaphors.)

I’m just lazy, my left brain says. Hey, at least I put away the ornaments. It’s not like it’s going to start a fire or anything.

Actually, I’m more of a root person, as I’ve observed before. This tree has no roots, which is why it provokes no deep emotions in me. I never had a fake tree before. All the real trees I used to put up at Christmas gave their lives to produce a few days of anticipation, joy, memories. They gave up their roots to stand in a bowl of water and pretend to be alive so I could feel less depressed.

This ‘tree’ served the purpose – it held all my ornament-memories, filled the right spot in the living room, and reminded me of a tree.

Today I’ll unwind the lights, fold up the branches, and put it back in the box until next December. I won’t have to drag it to the curb, spraying dry needles everywhere that will get caught in the vacuum hose. It will make a clean, graceful exit and leave no metaphors behind.

Create Your Own Universe

There’s a scene in the movie Catch Me If You Can that always strikes me. It’s the one where the family of his fiance gathers in front of the television to Sing Along with Mitch. I remember that show; it was one of my grandmother’s favorites, along with Lawrence Welk. As a child I thought it was pretty boring (I wanted to watch cartoons), but I realize now that I knew many of the songs on those shows because I had learned them in school. Generations could sing together, and that is something that could hardly happen any more.

I don’t know what they teach in elementary school music classes anymore, or if music is even taught at all. Economics or the urgency of testing has possibly driven it out of a few schools, and certainly made it irrelevant. When my sons were in grade school I went to a few concerts; the classes sang songs that I had never heard, songs written for elementary school children to sing. No more This Land is Your Land, She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain, or Sidewalks of New York.

We used to sing Christmas carols in December when I was a child; now they sing ‘winter carols’ about snowmen and ice skating. Recognizing that we are diverse, we do not share our diversity, but make up a fake culture to show fake unity.

Nobody sings along with ‘winter carols.’ They belong to no culture.

Music has become a private experience. More

Creative Boredom

Computing has given us the useful word multitasking – “to schedule and execute multiple tasks (program) simultaneously; control being passed from one to the other using interrupts.”

The part of that definition that is usually ignored is the ‘interrupts’ — i.e. the processor is not really executing all tasks simultaneously; it is switching between tasks, giving the illusion of parallelism.

The same is true of multi-tasking in humans. It is an illusion.

Everyone seems to be trying to do more things simultaneously. Driving and texting, listening to music and reading, talking on the phone and typing, memorizing Latin verbs and writing on people’s Facebook walls — I could think of many other examples, but you get the idea.

It’s a bit like juggling. If you don’t drop a ball, it’s considered a success.

But work, school, socializing aren’t as simple as balls tossed into the air; they are activities that can be done with varying degrees of completeness and finesse.

Some people claim that they work better when they are trying to do three things at once — the more, the better.

The truth (and I am not talking about computers here) is this: doing two linguistic tasks simultaneously is not possible. Our brains can’t do that. You may think you are writing your essay and talking to your friend, but you are actually switching between tasks. And you are taking twice as long to do it.Thirty minutes of working on essay + thirty minutes of talking to your friend = two hours of real time. And the essay is probably crap. More

Make a Wish

magic wandI’ve been re-writing my Nano novel, and am facing a choice: do I want to use a first person narrator?

The last time I wrote a book in first person, I also used present tense, which got tiresome very quickly. After about three chapters, the narrator’s voice began to grate on my nerves.
That is the problem with a first person narrator. To justify using it, the voice has to be unique and interesting. But a quirky voice that pulls the reader into the first chapter may become irritating after a few chapters.

Third person is a safe choice, but I might get bored. For some reason, I want to tell this in the first person. More

Sweet Spot

spiral notebook and pencilIt’s the first week of my second semester creative writing class, and I’m getting to know my new students.

Half of them have no idea why they’re in this class. They needed an elective and my class needed students. There are twenty-four of them, slightly suspicious, worried about how much work it will be, hoping it will be fun and not too hard. A few did not know what ‘creative writing’ meant, thought it just meant longer essays.

The other half see themselves as poets or the author of the next vampire novel that will monopolize the NYT Bestseller List for weeks. They love to write, and show up on the first day with notebooks full of their writing to show me.

There is a place on the continuum between boredom (under-challenge) and frustration (overchallenge) where they will work their hearts out and actually learn something. I am aiming at that spot. More

The First Paragraph

Last weekend a hundred stories lay piled on my desk, awaiting my assessment. Though I like writing critiques, grading stories is one of my least favorite things to do.

When I could ignore them no longer, I sat down at my desk and thought about how to approach the task. If I read each story carefully and rated it on the criteria I had established, I would have to spend about an hour on each one.

There are not so many hours in a weekend, even when Monday is a holiday.

I worked out a method that would allow me to eat and sleep. The first paragraph and the last paragraph would tell me what I needed to know:

Does the beginning grab me?

Has the writer introduced a character in a setting with a problem to solve?

Does the story have a resolution? (Just to make sure it was a complete story.)

Does the story have dialog, or it is primarily summary?

Did this student care enough about their work to clean up the spelling and punctuation?

And then I understood what an editor facing a huge slush pile must do. Reading the first five pages is a perfectly fair way to evaluate a novel. You really can find out all you need to know by reading the beginning. It doesn’t matter how good chapter 23 is if you aren’t grabbed by the first pages. And if you find a misspelling in the first paragraph, that is a sure sign that there will be many more.

Each story tells me a number of things that didn’t figure into the grade as well. Which students read books? It is obvious that many don’t read. It is just as obvious that the ones who do read understand that life is more than boyfriends and girlfriends, football and shopping. Everyone watches movies and television, but these don’t have the same effect as reading. Readers are more mature, more thoughtful, more realistic.

There are many ways to tell a story, but not all are equal. These days, books seem to be falling out of fashion. But reading is superior to television and movies. People who always have their ‘nose in a book,’ as the criticism goes, are actually learning more than those who see stories on the screen. They are using their more and developing thinking skills. Reading is active; the screen is passive. A book is a good friend, a teacher.

Writers, take your responsibility seriously.

Algebra, Pigs and Freedom

Accountability sounds like a good idea. If it’s my job to teach children, and I fail to do that, I am responsible.

But teaching and learning are not the same thing.

I am more than willing to be held accountable for whether I prepare lessons, show up for class, and work with students to help them understand and use the information and skills I am teaching them.

But am I responsible for what students learn?

Are parents responsible for their children’s success in life? If my sixteen-year-old son hangs out with the wrong crowd and gets in trouble, or my fifteen-year-old daughter gets pregnant, what is my job as a parent? What should I have done differently? Am I a bad parent?

Because I talk with parents of children like this a lot, I would say that parents have a lot of responsibility, but at some point their control over their child ends. I have seen good, concerned, caring parents despair over their son’s or daughter’s refusal to do homework, their truancy, their inability to resist peer-pressure. I don’t know how to assign blame for a child’s failure, but I’m sure it’s not just one person’s fault. It’s not as simple as taking away the cell phone or banning rap music.

And teachers – are they responsible for their students’ success? If a student will not do any work, sleeps during class, cuts class, disrupts class, responds to no motivational strategies, what is my job as a teacher? What should I do differently?

I am a parent of a hundred kids – for fifty minutes a day. More

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