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: wikiart.org]

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 TED.com. 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.

If you write, you’re a writer 1/18/17

What’s in a Name? (original post from 5 Sept. 2011–with a few changes here and there)

“Basic Writing” has staying power. At least for about 40 years now. Have we made much progress as a field, as a sub-field anyway? It seems not so much when I read about the history of basic writing. Still a plain of contention with armies raging. I am more than troubled that this is so.

I have always been struck by the naming game of basic writing. I went through the naming game when I first arrived at AUM. Our pre-composition course was called “developmental writing.” I changed it to “basic writing” after the first year. Now we are toying with pre-composition (like pre-calculus)–the course one might need to take before composition, to be more prepared for college writing (whatever that means–and you’ll see why I say that later). Not everyone I’ve chatted with about the re-naming is thrilled. Some are outright dismayed, but most of the newest teachers to the profession I work with are digging it. Why? No idea.

[We never made that name change. It just didn’t feel right. AND so it turns out that a BETTER name is “Introduction to College Writing” with Composition 1 and 2 becoming College Writing 1 and College Writing 2. Now that feels right.]

Personally, it appeals to me because I took a basic writing class when it was named “remedial writing”–actually, it might have been called, “English grammar” or something along those lines, but it was a non-credit course in the remedial part of the composition program. I learned a lot from that class, such as: there are about four ways I need to use a comma that I should remember–the rest I can look up or figure out depending on the style required by a particular teacher or field. I also learned that a topic sentence should be the first of a paragraph followed by 5-8 sentences that deal specifically with the topic and one transitional sentence at the end to ease the reader to the next paragraph. Additionally, I learned that look alike/sound alike words are the bane of many a writer’s existence (including mine). I was one of 75 students in this remedial English grammar class. We did exercises in a programmed workbook and turned in three paragraphs all term–I received grades but no feedback on drafts, so why read the final comments? The paper was over. Of what use were the teachers comments two weeks after I had turned in the paper? There were no conferences, no peer reviews, no discussion, no thinking, no anything but the content we were supposed to digest, and in three efforts we would turn our newly vast content knowledge into prose that was elegant, eloquent, and effective. Right.

And when I got my credit for that class, I went onto English 101, Freshman Comp 1, which I immediately hated and which I barely passed (I was given a C… I probably earned a D). I remember going to this class–sometimes. I don’t think I was regularly in attendance, but I wonder if it mattered. I believe we used the Little, Brown handbook and reviewed grammar rules and wrote more paragraphs–about what? No idea. Admittedly, it’s been a very long time ago that this happened, but I have had reason to consider my composition experiences as that is what I teach and have taught for a lot long time (and created curriculum most decidedly NOT like that I was in the midst of as a freshman).

My Freshman Comp 2 came a few years later. Because I was so turned off by Comp 1, I kept avoiding the second part until it was just getting silly. It was a literature and comp class. I felt like a total idiot because there was so much assumed that the students knew that I didn’t: plot, setting, motif, character, and so on. I never got any of that in any English class ever. I avoided that learning whenever I could in high school (yuck). I loved to read and that saved me, but the analysis of literature and writing about it–not working for me. But I had a patient teacher. When I visited him in office hours (the first smart thing I did in college), I confessed that I was entirely lost and felt distant from the text and the class discussion. I read the stories and poems and could get the literal meaning, occasionally, but the deeper stuff was too deep for me. He said, read everything twice.

Honest. I wanted to drop. Read everything TWICE? I was already mystified; how was that going to work? Me + mystified x 2 = me still mystified.

I tried it. What else could I do? I was going to have to take it sometime. Much better. I read once for the literal meaning, then I read again for the figurative meanings (and so much for my social life). I still felt like I wasn’t reading it for the meaning the teacher wanted me to get, but I was seeing metaphor, image, and symbol in what I was reading and the literature text about analysis wasn’t nearly as awful by the end of the term. I consistently got Cs and one B on my papers (no conferences, no feedback on drafts, no peer reviews, and little discussion), but I got an A on my final exam. I kept that final exam for a long time as it was a triumph for me. I compared archetypes of male antagonists in literature and film. It was loads of fun.

I went on to take five more literature classes and finally became an English major (it was a long and winding road to be sure, but I got there). I ended up with seven Elizabethan lit classes (six were Shakespeare), about seven in British lit of the 18th and 19th centuries, with others mixed in to get my BA in English with an emphasis in British literature (at my final university, an English major could pick an emphasis in world lit, Brit lit, or American lit, or creative writing). It was as a junior, though, that I learned how to write beyond the academic–thanks to the Boise State University Writing Center, some remarkable teachers, and peers. My real writing life began there (and that’s a whole ‘nother story). When I learned to tutor, that really changed the game. The rest of my life was set at that time, though I didn’t know it until recently.

Perhaps it sounds as if I am disparaging my early training in comp; I’m not. I’m just owning it, and I’m owning the fact that I try to teach and lead in directions that don’t go in those same ways, or at the very least, I try to offer more options than I had. And more importantly, I see comp from the perspective of a non-English major (the majority, ahem, of students in freshman writing classes).

So what’s in a name? A lot. I was a remedial writer, and I knew it. I couldn’t write, not because I didn’t have anything to say, but because I didn’t know how to write what others expected of me at the academy. Academic discourse? WTH? College was alien to most of my family, so I couldn’t get help there. I assumed I was just born as a non-writer (NOT a non-storyteller–big difference) and that college might not be for me. When I got over that–with a lot of help from others–I realized that I had named myself early on (as others had named me–“not really gifted at writing,” “basic writer,” “developmental writer,” “remedial” and more. And those names dictated my path initially. How could I have known any different?

What I think we need to consider in 2017 [you’ll see I wrote this a LONG time ago intially, but all this is still true] is how we name others, students, writers, and/or peers when we undertake any endeavor. When we hear something enough times, it’s easy to believe. You’d think a bunch of folks who were so involved in how we say things, the power of language, the danger of language mis-used, highly educated rhetoricians all, would be seriously aware of and uptight over how we still name emerging writers, colleagues, programs, classes. People who strive at writing are not basic, nor remedial, or developmental; they are writers.