Limits

Part of success is learning where there are real limits, and where we perceive limits that don’t really exist. Clearly there are real limits to what we can do; there is also self-delusion. That’s where I get stuck. “I can’t do it” is too great an excuse to give up without evidence to the contrary.

“I don’t have time,” is one of my pet delusions. A teacher’s job is never done. Even in the summer, there’s professional development, planning, reading…

Time is a real limit, but not as much as I would like to think. If I tell myself that I don’t have time to do something – write a book, for instance – what I’m more likely saying is that I’m not willing to commit the time it will take. Most likely I won’t live to be 150 — but I can do a lot in the 24 hours a day I have. All I need to do is look at a list of successful people to see that plenty of people accomplish more in less time than I have. Time is controllable.

“Bad knee,” gets me out of a number of things I don’t want to do. Physically, my knees are my weakest link.

In the fall, my right knee became so painful that walking was nearly impossible. I limped around for weeks before seeing a doctor, not because I’m stoic, but because I assumed that he would tell me what he always tells me: elevate it, ice it, take diclofenac, and be patient. I already know that I have arthritis. Why pay to hear advice I already know?

The tipping point came the weekend before Christmas. More

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Writer’s Eyes

The first year I taught Creative Writing, I was frustrated with students who didn’t use dialogue and had no concept of a scene. It didn’t matter how many times I explained the difference between showing and telling, their stories were still mostly telling.

So I created exercises, presented examples, wrote feedback on their stories: more description, use dialogue. They improved a bit. They made their characters talk to each other and described what they were wearing in great detail.

But many of them seemed to lack any idea of what a story ought to be. They were non-readers and reluctant writers who had been placed in my class to fill a hole in their schedules.

Anyone can tell a story. Believing this, I set out to bring out my students’ inner storyteller. Under the pen-name Anonymous, I wrote terrible stories for them to critique. They could tell when a story was bad, even point out what was wrong, but they had no idea how to fix it. In the lab I sat with them and asked them about their stories, praised what was good and made suggestions for improvement.

And I improved my lessons.

Their stories were short, so they wrote Flash Fiction.

Their stories lacked theme, so they wrote fables with morals.

The protagonists of their stories were all the same – beautiful, popular, and incredibly lucky – so they invented unlikeable characters with major problems.

We discussed why a character must have a problem to solve, why it can’t be a foregone conclusion that Kayla wins the scholarship or Trey gets the girl.

The following year I decided the problem was that they didn’t write enough. More

Why You Need a Diary (Not a Journal)

Last night we were watching “The Man from Earth.” In one scene, the main character asks another character, “What were you doing a year ago today?” His point: just because you can’t remember what you did, doesn’t mean you weren’t there.

I don’t like spoilers, so I won’t share the importance of this remark, but it did make me think, “What was I doing a year ago today?”

The answer to that was easy: my son was married one year ago today. I remember a lot about that day, but I looked up August 14, 2010, in my diary – just to see what I might have forgotten. That day’s entry was sort of sketchy, but what I’d written triggered more memories that I hadn’t written down. I remembered exactly how I felt – stressed, happy, sad, and ready for the reception to begin.

Which is why I keep a diary.

What is the difference between a diary and a journal? Aside from the impression that ‘diary’ sounds more feminine than ‘journal,’ they have different purposes, in my opinion.

A lot of people, including me, keep journals – especially if they write. My journal is a tool: a place to brainstorm, sketch out ideas and vent feelings. I like thinking on paper; not everyone does.

I’ve kept a journal for a long time. When I look at my old entries – ten or more years ago – I always wish I’d spent less time venting and rambling about stuff and instead made more notes about what was actually happening. Angst-y moods will pass. It’s the little things we tend to forget that give shape to our existence – visits, appointments, phone calls, meals, movies, conversations. Details can trigger the memories we didn’t bother to write down.

For the last three years I’ve kept a diary as well as a journal. I write in the journal when I feel like it. I write in my diary several times a day, every day. What I record is quite mundane: I stop at various points during the day, note the time, and summarize what I’ve been doing: 08:06 / working on blog idea re: diaries.

I’m not experiencing any dementia, but at this point there are too many days in my life to remember each and every one of them. Most of the events are not important, but they are my life, and every now and then it’s nice to visit them again. Another bonus: I can settle all those petty arguments about where we ate or what movie we saw months ago; I can recall gifts I’ve given and received, figure out when I last had my hair cut or talked to my mother. No guessing.

A lot of famous people have kept diaries. I don’t believe it’s because they knew they would be famous and everyone would want to read it. It’s just a habit of mind, a way to give meaning and focus to existence.

This is the value of keeping a diary.  More

Why Kids Can’t Write, and What We Can Do About It

After years of worksheets and quizzes, many students arrive in high school with brains largely unscathed by grammar. I know this because I teach both English and Latin. It is obvious to me who understands subjects and verbs, especially in my Latin classes.

People who have studied a foreign language generally understand the grammar of their own language better than those who have not. This is one way foreign language teachers justify their existence — we will teach them grammar so English teachers can focus on dramatic irony, rising action, oxymorons and other stuff that might be on the state graduation test or the S.A.T.

I have nothing against literary analysis. Through reading and analyzing literature, students gain a new perspective. They understand that jealousy and revenge are universal, not just things that happen when you put a lot of teenagers in a large building and call it high school.

But it’s tough to write about jealousy and revenge when you don’t have the tools to express yourself. The subordination of one idea to another doesn’t just happen by throwing lots of ideas at students. My students have many ideas; they come out in long rambles beginning with “So…” and are strung together with “and” and “because.” Their reasoning never takes shape; if it does, it’s a circle. They write things like, “School should not be mandatory because students should have a choice.”

Why don’t kids learn grammar? And it’s not only grammar — why don’t they know how to spell and punctuate? More

The Obligatory Kindle Post

I got a Kindle for Christmas, and now am obliged to write about how it looks like a real page, how cool it is to be able to carry my library with me and won’t it be great for travel, and how it will revolutionize reading, writing, printing, and life as we know it. And I will probably admit that while I love reading on my Kindle, I will never part with my dead-tree collection.

Consider all that said. I’ve read plenty about eBooks in general, and the Kindle in particular, and that pretty much says it all. If you want a reading list, I can refer you.

What I do have to say about it is this (and these observations are by no means unique, either):

I love to read — in theory. In reality, I have trouble seeing the page. I thought that going to bifocals would make it easier to read, but most of the time my arms aren’t long enough to hold the book where I can see it. And I don’t like holding books. If I can read with my book on the desk and plenty of light, it works, but reading in bed is tedious. Reading from my computer or iPhone hurts my eyes.

Kindle is allowing me to read more. Easy to hold, easy to turn pages, easy to adjust the size of the print. It keeps your page. You can write notes and underline without messing up your book. It’s like having an exercycle or a treadmill — now I have no excuse.

There are many people who love books as objects – the binding, the pages, the feel of a volume in their hands. I’m sure there were readers who didn’t want to give up their scrolls when the codex was becoming popular. But Amazon doesn’t sell a lot of scrolls these days. Eventually more ebooks will be sold than paper books.

I am quite ready to get rid of as many books as I can. More

Doing

I’m getting sort of stressed, realizing how much stuff I need to do in order to live a truly minimalist life. I have far too many clothes, books, DVDs, appliances, cooking utensils, gadjets. All of these are destroying my chances of happiness. They are keeping me from Getting Things Done and focusing on the One Thing that Matters, or even figuring out what that One Thing is.

Getting that Zen thing down takes a lot of effort. Maybe I’ll look for another article to read.

Recently I’ve read a lot of articles and a couple books about minimalism, organization, getting things done. All of this gives me new ways to spend my time without really producing anything. I can take in a lot of advice without really changing anything inside me.

It may be that enlightenment is approaching, because I am finally beginning to understand what I already know: life isn’t about Getting Things Done; it’s about Doing Things.

Proponents of GTD will say, “Of course. That’s what GTD is all about — getting the time and focus to accomplish what’s important to you.”

But that’s not exactly what I mean. What I have learned about myself is that a sense of accomplishment is less satisfying to me than the accomplishing. Getting there is better than being there.

Wordsworth said, “All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”

Ask yourself which is more important: the emotion or the recollection — or the resulting poem? For me, the the poem is less important than the emotion and its recollection. The act of writing is more satisfying than “having written.” Working on a story — getting ideas, inventing characters and scenes — is not a chore that must be finished so that I can mail out another box of pages. It’s just what I do.

One of my favorite quotes from the movie Harvey is Veta Lousie Simmons’ explanation of what art is: More

Imagination Should Not Be an Elective Subject

As a teacher of Creative Writing, I often feel like I’m not contributing much. Though it is part of the English department, Creative Writing is an elective course. There is no graduation exam for electives; we are “none of the above” subjects, whose only purpose at times seems to be supporting the “real” subjects – math, science, social studies, English. We are kept around to fill holes in students’ schedules and give them something fun to do when they’re not cramming their brains with math and science.

That’s about the way I saw it too, when I began. But in the three semesters that I’ve taught this class, I have come to believe that Creative Writing could be the most important class that students take. They have been so well ‘schooled’ that they are badly educated. Since the age of five, they’ve been learning not to write down an answer unless they’re sure it’s correct, to follow directions, and do things the right way. Socially, they’ve learned that the goal of school is to fit in, not be different. Certainly not to be creative. Except for a few rebels, they don’t know how to have ideas.

And yet, without new ideas there is no progress – or even survival.

Can people be taught to have ideas? Can creativity be learned? If it can, it won’t be from fill-in-the-bubble tests. The notion that there is a right answer and a wrong answer for every question is what our children are learning right now.

But there isn’t a right way or a wrong way to write a poem or a story. More

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