Basic writing resources 2/14/17

Happy Basic Writing Day! I’m just declaring that today is also Basic Writing Day besides being Valentine’s Day. Why not? There doesn’t seem to be a declared Basic Writing Day, so I’m just saying. For this year anyhow.

There’s so much that the first Mutnick article refers to beyond Shaughnessy (and including Halsted and Otte & Mlynarczyk), that I thought I’d put a bunch of the resources here for you in one spot. When you decide what you might like to explore on your own about basic writing, these will be handy places for you to visit.

Rebecca Moore Howard’s bibliographies linked to her book, Writing Matters, are always a great place to visit to get an overall scope of articles. Howard’s bibliographies are extensive, so be prepared to get distracted:

The logo on the page of CompPile.

The logo on the page of CompPile.

I like this place too: CompPile. There are any number of areas of you could find articles about from this place. Many of my comp/rhet friends have worked on this, including the writing of the Norton Field Guide to Writing, Rich Haswell. It’s a reputable site to explore writing studies:

You know the Journal of Basic Writing, of course, but here’s the link just the same (always good to bookmark this one):

There’s also the Council on Basic Writing Share:

And here’s the basic writing e-journal:

And for looking beyond the specifics of basic writing, because there are great articles about BW in another journals in rhet/comp. It pays to know the journals in the field and have a broad perspective when doing research in a field. The WPA pages are instrumental is defining our field from an administrative perspective–with loads of important documents and policy statements (as does NCTE/CCCCs). If you ever undertake administrative roles, this is the group to get involved with–there is no better. Here’s the list of journals on their page:

With all of these resources, you’ll never need to worry that you’re out of the loop when it comes to BW or writing studies in general. Finding time to read all this is another story. That’s something every single one of us will worry about us regularly. One way to tackle such a history and plethora of scholarship, pick a small topic and then: start exploring; take your time; stick to it; it will take time; but you’ll have time because you’ll make time. That’s how scholarly endeavor works; it’s how eudaimonia works; it’s how life-long learning works.





On “good” writing 2/9/17

Shaughnessy, early on, writes: “So absolute is the importance of error in the minds of many writers that ‘good writing’ to them means ‘correct writing,’ nothing more” (8). #notwrong #eyelidtwitching And correct writing for many is choosing fancy words, getting all the punctuation correct, and spelling everything right.

At parties, social gatherings, in public, when I say I’m an English professor, people make a slight movement away from me. I wouldn’t say it’s a “flinch” or a “shudder” exactly, but it’s definitely a slight backing away. Sometimes, people have actually stepped back a half step. Frequently that is followed by, “I’ll have to watch what I say around you” or “I hated English as a kid” or “English was my least favorite subject” or “I was an English major, but don’t tell anyone here.” Sometimes after I’ve said what I am, like, totally in response to a question of what I do for a living, I become the arbiter of what’s correct. “Hey, Liz, is this a real word ________________?” “Liz, this doesn’t sound right, is it wrong?” “Jim keeps using that word __________. I don’t think it means what he thinks it means. What do you say?”

If there were a choice between me and Google, I’d pick Google every single time. In fact, this happened to me recently. I was asked if a certain word one of a group was using was a real word. I said I’d never heard it before, but I looked it up on my phone, and then I said to seven adults all with mobile phones and wifi access, “Yes, it’s real. Here’s what it means_________.” OMG. #lottapressureforanEnglishmajor

If I choose to say I’m an English teacher, I often get more of the same, but also pitying looks about how hard my job must be working with the surly teens of ‘Murica, because an English teacher must be a high school teacher. “There is no controlling teenagers, am I right?” or “Heavens. I don’t know how you do it every day” or “I’d rather work on a chain gang than be a teacher.” Le sigh.

If I say I’m a writer, people’s pupils dilate and they move in closer. “Are you a novelist?” “Do you write romance novels? You look like you might with all that wild blonde hair.” [I swear. I heard this one just this last summer. I laughed out loud and said, “You got me.”] “What do you write? Anything I’ve heard of?” I say no; I mostly write haiku for my own amusement and always under a pen name; I write a lot of policy and instructional things; I write in blogs; I write articles for 14 people who care about long-dead Victorian gentlemen/writers; I write curriculum; I write poetry–but usually only for me to amuse myself–sometimes to publish; I have written and published short stories. When I’m obviously no one special, they usually walk away. They move off politely, to be sure, but they do mosey on.

If I say I’m a writing consultant, they treat me like I’m a doctor and they have a bad elbow that I could possibly fix. “Liz, I’m needing to write a letter to some folks, will you help?” Or “I wrote a 4,000 page novel when I was younger, will you look at it for zero compensation, edit, and then find me a literary agent, so I can retire from massive royalties and film rights. I’ll mention you in the acknowledgements.”

I’d say the only safe bet for what I need to tell people when they ask what I do… goes something like this:

I write.

What do you write?

I write everything.

What does that mean?

It means I write everything.

I do sort of write everything. Then I’ll leave it at that and go to the bar.

Another response I have gotten from people when they find out I have ANYTHING to do with writing is this:

I’m a terrible writer. I’ve never had good penmanship. I really can’t even do cursive. I’ve never been a good speller.

In my personal experience, folks not of the field of English, and not of the academy (mostly), see writing as correct and prettily done. And that’s not wrong; it’s just such a tiny part of the picture.

It’s the thinking, the creativity, the innovation, the looking at a thing sideways, and revision that matters the most. And a good place/text/site to learn punctuation and style is important. Sure. It’s good to know what the conventions for a rhetorical situation. Word choice comes over time, too, with experience and guidance–fancy words or otherwise.

I suspect I’ll always be employable with the writing knowledge I’ve gained–of process (how writing really works), product (genre, audience, purpose), and editing (revising work by others), or proofreading (correcting surface errors). That’s a cool bonus for having decided to study writing/composition/rhetoric.

Once I was only an editor for a summer. So when I was asked what I did, as happens, I said I was an editor. And my interlocutor asked, “What is that?” I don’t expect everyone to know all the details of writing or editing or even to know the difference between being an Language Arts teacher, English teacher, and English professor. That would be silly. Like I’d know the difference between engineers–it is to laugh.

I bring this all up because it hurts to see people feel alienated from English in deep and fearful ways. Shaughnessy writes, “This book is intended to be a guide for that kind of teacher [the trailblazers of BW], and it is certain to have the shortcomings of other frontier maps, with doubtless a few rivers in the wrong place and a few trails that end nowhere” (4). We must try to strike out for the territories, like Huck, and use the maps we can get. Here’s the start of one. And it’s a great place to begin.

Pages and pages later, in Chapter 8, Shaughnessy writes, “The expectations of learners and teachers powerfully influence what happens in school” (275). Yes. As a teacher, I expect greatness of effort, not greatness. As a student, I want that same thing–I want to give it all I can. I expect that I will do that, that I can do that. That’s part of what we teach, yes, like the habits of mind–intangibles that support the greatest of efforts. Intellectual maps, if you will, that help writers see how to reach readers, who those readers might be, what the purpose of a text might be, why a writer might choose one genre over another.

Auguste Rodin's The Thinker (1904). [I wish I had that awesome patina when I was sitting around thinking.]

Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker (1904). [I wish I had that awesome patina when I was sitting around thinking.]

What I take away from the below quote, this whole book, is ONE important idea, which I “own” like these are my words, because they speak right to my very heart where I was afraid to ever write a word and believed I couldn’t. Writers are never through, are never finished learning and trying. I have habits of mind now that keep me going, no matter what obstacles I face, because there will always be a chance to revise and make my words better. I get how I can live in a process and have it help me create a product. It’s not magic. It’s not spelling. It’s not perfect penmanship. It’s not punctuation. It’s all of that, but it’s fearlessness first, then it’s thinking, then it’s writing, then it’s revision, then it’s stopping because writing is never finished, it’s just due.

Few people, even among the most accomplished of writers, can comfortably say that they have finished learning to write, nor even that they always write as well as they can. Writing is something writers are always learning to do. (275-6)

How could I not love this? It drips with “process.” Nick Saban said it’s all about the process. He’s right. (And we’re not even close to doing football.)

These days I have a better answer to the question about what I do for a living: “I teach people how to be better writers.” And thinkers. And life-long learners. Because that’s who I am–an evolving writer, thinker, and committed learner. I hope that’s obvious to my students. #evolvingwriter #emergingthinker #lifelonglearner

[image source:]

Open education resources needed more now than ever 2/7/17

I just can’t believe that something I wrote an age ago, once again, or continues, to have relevance. Sigh. Sorry that’s the case but not sorry to share. #sorrynotsorry

We may not have the leadership we like in education, but we can each be leaders and take our students to places online where their learning can commence or continue as they wish. I love a book called DIY University by Anya Kamenetz. Every student should have a copy, issued freshman year and consulted regularly as they move along through their college careers.

Open education resources may not be the future because: money. BUT they can be and have been a joy to me. I am a lifelong learner. Nothing is more important to me than learning always about all kinds of things. Everything connects eventually–like six degrees of separation and Kevin Bacon–and I enjoy seeing how the threads all link up and weave to make a beautiful picture. I only get that from learning.

I don’t have time to get more formal education right now, but I can dally with OER. And frankly, college education or continuing education can be expensive. My favorite question: what’s a pirate to do?

From six years ago, see the below. I haven’t check the links, but honestly, if you want to know more about OER, google OER and you’ll find amazement: OER Commons, for instance. These are the kinds of things that make or break a life in college. Think about the resources of learning that could help students. If you’re in an art history class and can’t quite get it, take some online classes or search resources to help you study. You’ll find stuff and be joyful–and tell your students. Kahn Academy (listed below) helped me tutor my son in math things that I didn’t get and/or couldn’t remember.

“Seek and ye shall find” is apropos for OER. Now the big question: writing and OER. We’ll be talking about this towards the end of the term. Just FYI.

So long ago and yet it still feels so right.

I’ve been reading grim statistics about college education. I am disheartened by the Thomas Hobbesian news. Are you?

But I’m an optimist, so my view of the future is Star Trekkian in nature. I believe it will all be okay, and that we all really want to be gentle with one another. However, I also know that’s not necessarily the case right this minute. I’m on the realism train right now, waiting for my transfer to the science fiction train. In the meantime…

You’ve probably heard of all the hikes in college costs even if you haven’t felt them personally. I’ve seen it at my institution and at those where many of my friends work: tuition increases up to 30% (or more) and reduction in faculty pay or no raises, or the cashiering of whole departments, both academic and administrative support. Goodbye, Mail Room, it’s been nice knowing you. We’ll miss you, Physical Plant, you were great (thanks for handling my heater crisis last winter; I hope I never have any problems with my 40-year old heater again). Ciao, Italian Department, I loved you so much; in bocca al lupo.

Casually looking online for information about college education and income and what the landscape is like these days, it has been easy to get blue. Good news is coming, though–I mean later in this post–so hang in there like you’re in a Great Depression soup kitchen line: there’s shelter and warm food ahead. But first some somber moments brought to you by the government and the New York Times. (It could be the case that everything has turned around in the last month or so because I’m hopelessly out of touch with the world in some ways… wouldn’t that be great? But it’s not likely.)

The short, brutish, nasty news that I dug up without really trying:

  • Only 57 percent of 1st time students seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year institution at the beginning of this millennium finished in 6 years or less. [U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2010). The Condition of Education 2010 (NCES 2010-028), Indicator 21.]  (Took me nine years for a four-year degree in the last millennium. Just saying.)

Oh man.

  • Between 1998-99 and 2008-09, the cost of undergraduate college attendance (tuition, room, board) at public institutions rose 32 percent, and prices at private institutions rose 24 percent, after adjustment for inflation. [U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2010). Digest of Education Statistics, 2009 (NCES 2010-013), Chapter 3.]

Oh man.

  • Median household income in the U.S. actually fell from $51,295 in 1998 to $50,303 in 2008. [See this brief post at or the U.S. Census Bureau Report issued in September 2009 on Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage.] [That was almost a decade ago–holy moly.]

Oh man. [It’s not a lot better by a recent and quick online search.]

I beg your pardon, if my naivete is showing, but it looks like there’s a problem here. [Still.]

Could there be any good news? I think there is. Folks are talking about college readiness, what that means, and how we can be sure students in high school have it, if they want it (or maybe despite them not wanting it), before they get to college. And some folks are talking about helping those under-prepared for college to get college-ready as soon as possible while they attend the first year or so of college, through summer bridge programs or developmental courses. All that’s good.

Standards are being talked about and written up (but that’s not so hard to do really: “learn this much… ah, there you go, you got it–check, done that–now move on”), and outcomes have been created for nearly everything imaginable. I really like outcomes and standards and rubrics and assessment; it’s good to get on the same page with other educators, with students, across a discipline, to have something to talk about using the same kinds of words and ideas to communicate (avoids the problem Cool Hand Luke had with the Captain: a failure to communicate). (But the “end” is only a start, right? Teaching to meet and exceed all expectations is important still, yes?) The Council of Writing Program Administrators did a wonderful job of developing outcomes for first-year writing, a statement that informs a whole lot of what I think about as a WPA, as someone involved with writing across the curriculum, as a teacher of upper division and graduate courses in my discipline (writing and literature, English studies is a fine name, maybe). The WPA outcomes are great stuff because they are forward thinking addressing what faculty can do beyond first year writing because becoming a writer is never over. We just open the door in freshman comp, students walk down the writing hallway forever after that. But the WPA folks are always doing this sort of thing: thinking about how to clarify what learning can be, how we can work together, bridge gaps, meet needs. So this is all fine, too.

But is that it? Even if it is (it’s not), I wouldn’t dream of giving up on the doing of college degree work of any kind. Some of it is better than nothing, and most of it is pretty great. Even a little can go a long way in changing a person’s life. But there’s a disconnect if so many students can’t get through it all.

For those who need extra support to get through college, there is hope. At least there is learning to be had that isn’t that expensive. For the price of a computer or time spent in a computer lab (if you’re already in college and have access to a university computer), one can get a LOT of really great learning experiences online. If only students knew where to look, so that those 43% who die on the vine at college might could maybe hopefully stick around and get something for their energy and investment. How could we help them? Hmmm. Oh, wait. There’s open educational resources (OER). Here’s the gist from a relatively old document (February 2007), a report to The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (5):

The definition of OER varies a bit according to where you look (and 2007 as the date for this makes it long in the tooth by online standards), but this is fine with me (it’s the H of the Hewlett Packard…how off can these people be?). Creative Commons (see footnote) is a licensing entity that allows folks to understand a thing’s origins and intended uses: “Share, Remix, Reuse — Legally.” They actually define themselves this way (very sharp): “Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that develops, supports, and stewards legal and technical infrastructure that maximizes digital creativity, sharing, and innovation.” They are all about intellectual property management. Just wow.

OER can be whole courses like those at MIT and other schools (over 200 universities around the world) like those who participate in the Open Courseware Consortium which are made available to anyone who can get access (accessibility is an issue for some, but OER visioneers are working on changing who and when and how access happens). Other groups impress me with how they are working to get educational materials into the hands of everyone (in no special order):

  • College Open Textbooks (an amazing place with loads of books… open–already yours; it was started by a huge group of folks including community colleges, nonprofit groups, funding organizations, government agencies and more–please go and see this. Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, Vol. 1 is listed among English & Composition texts. Well done us.)
  • MERLOT: Multimedia Educational Resources for Learning and Online Teaching (get past the first page–it’s hard to read)
  • Connexions (at Rice University)
  • Next Generation Learning (I like this because: 1) it smacks of Star Trek; 2) they are looking at both secondary and post-secondary OER; 3) it’s so right–well, I want it to be so right–it’s really just beginning.)
  • Kahn Academy (I am taken by this OER–one guy started this–just began teaching math.) [I LOVE THIS OER.]
  • AND check this out: P2PU. Peer 2 Peer University. Courses are FREE; all materials are openly available on the web; groups of peers come together to learn. Inconceivable. Well not really, but still, it had to be said. Scenario: I heard about Python the other day while listening to a talk–I wished I knew more about it. Apparently, it’s a computer program of some kind. P2PU offers a course called, “Learn Python the Hard Way.” The leader is a biologist who has taught programming to 7th graders and believes it’s a skill and art as important to education as learning English and math. Well. Maybe I should take the class. I could if I wanted to: free.

You can learn a lot more from The Free to Learn Guide (there are ever so many more OER sites and creators and innovators in that document than I could intelligently list here–go, read, learn–for free). I’m overwhelmed by the choices available to me as an educator, as a student, as a life-long learner, but I am determined to embrace this OER thing in all aspects of my life (especially as a person responsible for nurturing one young life). I have never believed education should be limited to those who have easy access, so this is all the way down to the very end of my continuum of the right things to do. Do I want students in Singapore to use OER I might create and prosper because of it? I wish. My dreams come true. And in Zimbabwe. In Germany. In Romania. Anywhere. Anytime. And do I want teachers to improve upon what I do or do something fascinating with what I create that I couldn’t imagine alone? Yes. 1,000 times yes.

Community matters, collaboration matters, cooperation matters, communication matters, composition matters, creating citizens matters–all the Cs matter. (Alliteration matters. Of course. I’m was an English major for heaven’s sake.) Developing OER in sustainable ways so that communities of educated citizens of the world grow and prosper together, understand one another better, work well together to problem solve… well, who could be against that? Are you against world peace? I hope not.

Money matters, too. Students can be poor and still want to learn. I get that when I look at books that cost over $100 or into the $200 range. It’s so bad crazy to think a book I’d read once and over the course of  a few months is a third of what some people in the world make in a year. The disparity of it riles me. When I was an undergrad, I bought used books a lot, sold back my used books (at a fraction of what I paid, and then only read parts of them, or none of them–sigh). I remember scraping together money to buy more books I needed to learn whatever I needed to learn. Yuck. I dreaded the book buying each semester. Okay, I loved it. I love getting new books, but it was always expensive. OER texts for students is just one tiny reason this stuff is so great. Remember how 43% crash and burn in some way, and remember how the economy sucks? I’m taking a geography class this term and am lucky to have gotten a book from a friend for free, because it costs $150 at the bookstore. And while I’m employed at a university and can attend classes for free, $150 is still a lot of meals to give up to buy a book that I’m reading half of for the term. LOVE my class and my teacher, but $150 is also a pair of shoes, or a fabulous dinner out for my father and me, or half my airfare to visit my best friend 1,000 miles to the west. (By the way, I think every teacher needs to go back to school and take one class with a great teacher. It’s wild stuff to be in someone’s class at this point in my career as a student. I’m learning as much about teaching as I am about geographic information systems–I also have a writing assignment due soon that will be a blog post at some point, of course. I can’t wait. I have criteria; it rocks.)

But OER isn’t just about money, or about not having much money as a student, it’s also about creating a community of learners that isn’t restricted to those other 19, or 249, or 5 students in a class. It’s about all the students studying geography, history, Italian, or immunology. It’s about all teachers of whatever subjects are possibly taught anywhere anytime in any way finding a connection to each other, to learn together through curriculum, texts, and ideas that can be remixed, reused, and revised, and rewoven to teach, teach, teach.

And learn, learn, learn. Students who are struggling with math–go to Kahn Academy. Students who are struggling with writing–go to Writing Spaces. Students who are struggling with understanding cash flow statements–go to MERLOT. Students who are struggling with Immanuel Kant’s view of the mind and the consciousness of self–go to the Stanford University Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Students who need to know programming and don’t: P2PU. It’s all like having a teacher in your pocket.

It’s joyful for me to contemplate how I am mixed up in all this in a small way through Writing Spaces. I already see how it, and OER in general, is changing the way I teach, how I think about collaboration, curriculum development, textbooks, learning, and digital stuff/new media/whatever you want to call it all. How I think is changing.

OER is a concept that could literally change the world; it’s like having a teacher in my pocket. Whenever I want to learn about anything, I just ask. That is so Star Trek.

Save yourself; save your work 2/6/17

I met with a student this weekend (who does that? I do.), and we discussed writing and thinking and blogging and Basic Writing.

First we talked about a possible lost post from her blog (it wasn’t lost, but some of us couldn’t see it at one point). It might have been cold comfort for her, but I told her the story of how I worked for hours, in a blissful frenzy writing what could have been the greatest blog post of all time. And then lost it all. Except for one letter: m. I tried everything to get those hours back, to recover the words. Nothing worked. I did something weird with my flying fingers, and it was just gone. I tried to recreate it, but it became a shadow of what I thought it was going to be as I was writing it the first time through. It felt like magic the first time. I can still feel how that was. I can close my eyes and see my desk at home, the music in the background, the sun streaming in a side window, the utter comfort of writing, the smell of a marshmallow candle, the tap tap tap of the keyboard, the ease of the words flowing out of me, the feeling of triumph, of winning. Then it was gone.

After I tried to reclaim the words, the moment, and failed, I cried a little. Got up. Made coffee. Looked out the window and felt all kinds of sad for myself. But then I sat down and did it again. It wasn’t as good, but it was a good lesson. In order to save myself, I needed to save my work.

Below you’ll find my sad story that I shared with my student and how I recovered some of my creativity by allowing myself to be vulnerable…again. Exactly how it felt and what I was writing about as well. Is that ironic? (Just hit “save as draft” again. FYI. BTW. FWIW. I mean it, right now.)

There’s a TED talk below I that I mentioned in a previous post for this class. It’s garnered a ton more viewings since I first wrote about it below, but it’s still relevant to basic writers: people are afraid to be vulnerable, and when they hold onto that fear, it cripples openness and creativity. The difference between a closed fist and an open hand. With a closed fist, you can protest, you can fight, you can bang on things. With an open fist, you can hold hands, wave hello, grasp anything, write, surrender to vulnerability so you can create.

This term I’m teaching a course on Being Human for the honors program with several other professors. At the core of being human is creating. We ARE a maker culture. We need to create, but when we’re afraid, when we are closed off, when we are little fists of hate, we tend to not be so open or creative. The best of humanity is the creation of lives worth living, art, stories, environments in which other humans can flourish. Eudaimonia. This is at the core of the video I talk about below. Watch it when you can because I promise it will be assigned later. It’s not about Basic Writing, but it’s about basic writers.

Below is what I wrote, and…

A Couple of Beers and a Banana Nut Muffin

…I wrote what I thought was a brilliant post on another blog–over 2,000 words of extremely deep insight on teaching, writing, and vulnerability–and then accidentally deleted it. I didn’t even try to recover what I’d done. I was left with this text:


Yep. One little letter “m.” I type really fast sometimes and have done weird things before, like deleting paragraphs or even pages, but a whole post? I did it; so I have lived with it.

Surely, it was crap and  had no right to existence. I had a horrible head cold while I was writing it and that must have fogged my vision. What I thought was so so so fantastic might have been the worst dreck I ever churned out. Perhaps it’s all for the best.

But here’s the bummer: the concept has been haunting me. I can’t shake the idea I was writing about could have saved my soul. (That kind of profound feeling might have had something to do with the head cold.) It’s been darting in and around the edges of everything I’ve done for a week. That’s the thing about my writing: it’s its own thing. An idea will consume me for a time, and until I get it out of my mind/body/spirit, it irritates me some.

I’d titled that post the same as this one. Clarity over this particular title will come later. All you need know right now is that I couldn’t let this go–to the point that I even had to re-use the same post title. Bad choice? You can say so at the end.

Occasionally, I will be strong enough to ignore an idea if it is really inconvenient–I’ll let it sit in draft form for a long time, and it will eventually get deleted in a frenzy of computer housekeeping. That’s happened to five or six posts for this blog, seven or eight for other blogs I write in/on, and for a LOT of documents I create offline to get out my very-much-not-for-publication writing ya-yas. It’s always a bit of a shock when I run across something I wrote a few years ago and try to reconstruct what I was thinking and why I wrote what I did. Sometimes I can do it, the reconstruction, and sometimes, it’s just crap.

I could not let this one idea go.

So maybe the lost writing was a shitty first draft.

That’s the thing Anne Lamott says about writing, that sometimes a writer needs to get out a shitty first draft before the writing can get good–it is through revision that writing can be more than shitty. Most writers I know say revision is utterly the core of writing. Some of us do a lot of writing in our heads first, but that’s an acquired taste, like añejo tequila. Not everybody is going to be able to stand tequila with the first tipple, but after a few times, it’s a smoother process and one that can be appreciated–like writing can be appreciated after years of practice. (Google “shitty first drafts” and you’ll find several copies of Lamott’s chapter and a link to buy her book, Bird by Bird, where the chapter is originally from.)

I love to write and not make a lot of sense–often. The shittier the draft, the better, but then I tinker. Frequently, it takes a lot of tinkering and/or substantial re-thinking to get at the kernel of what I wanted to say. Sometimes, it stays awful. Sometimes, it just flows.

The day I was writing about “a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin” it all just flowed. I was trying to put my game face on it all at the beginning of this post–the writing and deleting accidentally–ho hum. But I loved writing that day, and it was a total bummer to lose it the way I did. I was on a wondrous roll. Words flowed, ideas connected, synapses were firing, satellites were linking up in space, my GPS was pinging that I was in the right place at the right time with the right idea. I know it was good. I just know it. Damn. And then, boom goes the dynamite, and I ended up with “m.”

But here’s the thing I know deep in my writer’s heart, it had to go. I must have had to think about it more in order to understand the whole thing.

(WARNING: title clarity is coming, I promise.)

Between then and now, I have been doing some more thinking about writing and teaching and vulnerability, but it’s taken a personal turn. I was first inspired by my usual serendipitous romp through texts, then a journey through I had been reading about the history of teaching in England, specifically the 19th century and teaching with the cane (and how demotivating that must have been), and then I happened to fall upon this talk by Brene Brown viewed 2,126,404 times (as of 11/23/11 at 4:27 pm): The power of vulnerability.

Dr. Brown is a professor of social work at University of Houston who studies shame and vulnerability and, I think, risk. That’s the part that interests me, the ability to take a risk. Not BASE jumping, but risk of the heart. I admire those who can do this–risk their hearts, be vulnerable.

She found, after many years of research, that vulnerability was a necessary component of living fully. Not that it’s comfortable. It’s not, but it is necessary. The difference, she learned, between those who are content and those who are full of fear is that those who manage to live fully believe they are worthy of belonging and love. In her TED lecture, she talks about studying shame for six years (the fear of human disconnection–that if others see us as we really are, we will be disconnected from them, that we are not worthy). What it all comes to–after her years of study, a book, and a breakdown–is the need for humans to be vulnerable, that vulnerability is a thing that makes us beautiful.

Are you thinking, as I am, of the Wayne and Garth moment with Alice Cooper? “We’re not worthy, we’re not worthy…

Alice Cooper: we really may not be worthy… (Wayne’s World, 1992)

Brown calls those who function with vulnerability “wholehearted”–interesting concept, isn’t it? Because, if we’re not wholehearted, then we’re what? Part-hearted? Partially hearted? Minimally hearted? Ick.

She had some trouble with this as a researcher–a person who spent her life dedicated to controlling and predicting data. Can’t do that with those sorts of things we feel. In order to forget the discomfort, she says, we numb hard feelings–with a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. But the trouble is that we numb it all when we numb. Every bad and good thing–all the joy and creativity gets numbed along with the vulnerability. Like the alcoholic who drinks because he hates it that he drinks, so he drinks more to forget he drinks so much. Vicious cycles. Throw in a banana nut muffin and you have the scenario she claims is so ugly, that threw her for a professional and personal loop, vulnerability and what it does to us, what it allows. Our fear of it can do damage, in the numbing of that fear, greater damage can indeed be done. But.

Vulnerability utterly negates perfection. In fact, it embraces the imperfect.

This makes a lot of sense.

But rather than fear being vulnerable (and I fear it, make no mistake about that), Brown suggests we can live our lives with less of the shame and blame that cripples us and more of the courage and goodness, sweetness and light, that makes us able to live wholehearted lives. Could we do these four things?

  • Let ourselves be seen, really be seen;
  • Love with whole hearts, without guarantee of return;
  • Practice gratitude and joy, even when we’re terrified;
  • Believe that we are enough, that we are worthy of hanging backstage with Alice Cooper.

Okay, that last part is from me–the Alice Cooper part. (I love that he’s a great golfer. It’s like everything I wouldn’t expect from him but am delighted to find he’s all about. He says it replaced an addiction… like beers and banana nut muffins?)

(See how the many weird strands of this post are all sort of coming together in a really cool sort of way… Perhaps, it will be a lovely tapestry at the end.)

I like that Brown thinks we can do these four things. I’m not a researcher like she is; I’m much messier. I’m a writer, inherently a wildly untamed creature (not undisciplined, mind you, there is a difference) and not able to be controlled or predicted. So you’d think I’d be all over what she talks about. But not so much.

I’m bitter that I lost the post I wrote about writing and teaching and vulnerability. I really wanted to wrap my brain and arms around that and be vulnerable in my writing and teaching, but then… shame. I lost it and felt really wretched, like I’d done something wrong (and I had). But then, I’m annoyed by vulnerability in myself. I admire it in others but avoid it whenever I can. I don’t want to be in pain. I don’t want to be vulnerable. I want to be Superman but without the kryptonite. I want invulnerability. I want invincibility. But damnitallanyway, I just don’t get to have those things.

Most folks might say that I do the above four things because I am a ball of love most of the time and charge right ahead like I’m worthy. I would argue that I appear to do those four things. I do have sprezzatura. (I “own” that term like it’s mine.)

I lost my writing that day, but I couldn’t lose the essence of my discomfort with the idea of it, as a writer, and as a teacher–most of all, as a person. Now I’m writing in an oblique way about all that–and it’s not coming together in ways I’m happy about. I’m feeling very vulnerable. And I don’t like it. I want to say this thing or that thing, and I’m not getting it said in ways I want–but then this might be the less shitty second draft on its way to the better third draft. (Please, let it be this way, please, please, please.)

At the least, I have written something about “a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin,” and gotten that off my chest and put down more on the screen than “m.” Next time, I might get to “n” or “o.”

[Addendum 1: I just found an article by one of my favorite authors of all time, Roger Angell, who mentions “sprezzatura” as a term that’s largely unfamiliar to many. And if you’re not into Italian writing from the 1520s, that could be true. Or perhaps you don’t speak Italian. Or maybe you don’t know a Renaissance scholar. I first heard the word from a Renaissance professor who said I had sprezzatura. I thought it might be mildly insulting at the time–and it sort of is, it’s loaded with meaning–but it’s also accurate and lovely.]

[Addendum 2: As soon as you finish reading this–save your work.]

[Addendum 3: Many basic writers would give up after losing everything and use that as an excuse to not do the work. What we must always model is resilience, determination, grit, getting back up on the horse that threw us off. Heaven knows, it’s painful and puts us in a vulnerable position, but we cannot quit and still grow. We grow from failure and perseverance. I’m not sure we can teach these traits but we can emphasize them as necessary for college writing success (see the Framework) and we can model this kind of sprezzatura in the face of disaster.