Archive for the ‘teaching’ Category

Student > Teacher

February 9, 2010 2 comments

The tables were turned a bit on me today, and my writing benefitted as a result.

Not many people read this blog (yet), but I do have a small handful of subscribers. Among them are a few students of mine. I’m sure that their reasons for following along with my ramblings have much more to do with their late-night laughs about dorky Mr. Van Hof than with any genuine interest in what I write, but it is nice to know that they are out there.

It was especially nice today when one of those student subscribers stopped me in class to mention last night’s post. To tell the story, I need to explain that I just finished an 18 week semester of AP Language and Composition with this student. I gave the class buckets of work, including summer readings. One of those readings was “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott. It is a fantastic book that gives thoughtful and funny insight into the world of being a writer. In her book, Lamott gives prospective writers some basic instructions on writing. Her central rule is to simply get something written, then to revise heavily.

All of which leads to class today, when my student told me she had read my post.

“What did ya think?” I asked, turning down my U2 Pandora station.

“I was going to leave a comment, actually, but I was reading it on my iPhone and it would have been a pain to type in the comment box,” she said.

“Oh, right,” I said, wishing I was the one with the iPhone.

“So anyway, I thought I could just tell you in class. Remember when we read in ‘Bird by Bird’ about the ‘shitty first draft?’ Well that’s what you need to do…”

“Right !” I was glad she remembered the book at all, let alone the tips Lamott gave.

“Just get out a shitty first draft,” she said.

She was right. That’s the point I was trying to get to in my previous post. Getting something – anything – finished needs to be my first goal. The revisions will come, but the story and characters will be at a point of no return.

It’s a strange feeling, ten years into a career as an English teacher, to take writing advice from a student. But at the same time, it’s validating. Writing is a challenging craft, and I am by no means an expert. I’ll turn to any source for a nudge in the right direction – even to a teenager.


The Name’s the Thing

January 30, 2010 Comments off

I have a problem. I’m loathe to even write about it, because it feels very much like a rookie mistake. A mistake that any half-decent literary agent who happens to stumble upon this blog will see and will instantly use as an excuse to label me as a no talent hack.

I can’t name my characters.

I sit down to write and get moving along and freeze up as soon as a new person walks on stage. No one has a name that fits. A big part of the problem, I think, is that I’m a teacher. Any name I think of I immediately associate with some past student. I project their traits out onto my character, I fear that they’ll actually somehow read what I’m writing some day and will see that I’ve written them into the story.

The same thing happened when my wife and I had to name our children. The problem then was doubled; she was a teacher too. Names we had long thought of as not being all that bad – maybe names we would have settled on for our son – were forever spoiled because of that one kid with ADHD that I had third hour two years ago, or that girl whose mom never blinked – not once! – during parent/teacher conferences.

In the end, we were able to name our kids. People like our kids’ names. They fit. The problem for me is that finding a name for them was a months-long process. I’m nowhere near as attached to the characters I’m writing about as I am to my own children of course, but naming them is proving to be just as hard. I ask my wife about it, I try to project different names onto my characters as I go through the day. I can’t take months on this process.

I keep going back to the idea that writing breeds writing. I have settled on opening a website and using the first name I see. If I go back and change the name later, no problem. But maybe the characters will grow into their names.

Maybe it’s not worth all this fuss.


January 27, 2010 1 comment

Reading what I wrote yesterday was a painful experience. What was I thinking? I am embarrassed that some of those phrases came out of my head. Re-reading it made me see what a huge task getting to a finished piece will be. It’s the reason there aren’t more writers.

I’ve made a resolution to do this, though, and I’m sticking to it. So, I embraced the delete key, left in the stuff that wasn’t total crap, and pushed forward. I’ve read that writing breeds writing, and I started to feel that about 40 minutes into the hour today. I had gotten beyond the horror of seeing how awful I can be as a writer, and I found the flow again. If what I generated in that flow was any good still remains to be seen. There’s a definite sense of two steps forward, one step back.

The good news is that I was just as excited to get writing today as I was yesterday. It’s a good feeling, to have produced something tangible each day. Even if the product only lasts until I open the document tomorrow.

That feeling of productivity is not something I get as a teacher. Completed school work is a stack of graded essays that I give away or a lesson plan that is never anythinig more than an idea. There is nothing concrete, nothing in my hands, nothing that makes me want to laugh or puke the next day.

Writing as a craft is, to me, fast becoming a valuable pursuit. It’s slow, but not agonizing. It keeps me intellectually engaged. It makes me more aware of the life around me. It’s fun. I know this because I talk about it and think about it and dream about it and it’s only day two.

It’s also probably going to drive my wife nuts.