Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Where the crossroads of writing and teaching meet

Why one brown chair? And there's an escape route.
Sometimes teaching is like writing and other days, not even close.

I stand before my students and do all that I can to hold their attention. I don't know how to tap dance or tell good jokes, but sometimes I feel they would be good skills to have, so I can get a tight grip on my audience (yup, it is exactly like being a comic trying to make a cold room laugh) because sometimes writing is like teaching to a sleepy class of students.  Wait, usually they are a sleepy class of students. One will occasionally, actually nod off, but they are always apologetic and make an effort to remain awake. I am that soft spoken teacher who gently lays a hand on the student's arm and says, "You need to stay awake or else you are going to miss something important, and I hate to repeat myself which means you will have to depend on your friends, and you know what that will get you." I really need to learn how to tell jokes.

When I am trying to write the novel that is what the paying customer is out there searching the book shelves for, it gets like that disinterested class of students.  So a writer might get caught up in looking for the current flash in the pan idea that is getting all the cash flow. It's been werewolves and vampires, and dystopian warriors (my students now know what a dystopia is. I used to have to teach this, several times each year, but now they ask me if I read dystopian novels. I teach 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, but neither of these novels have beautiful girls jumping off tall buildings or fighting in coliseums.) Flash in the pan.  Wizards, remember those years? How about the scary (not scary) books of R. L. Stein or Little House on the Prairie or the juvenile detective series?

Teaching is like that. What is the current philosophy? Podcasts (never went that route, but teachers I know did), and interactive sensory experience to match the subject matter: burning hair to go with Wiesel's Night. I didn't do that one either, but a teacher I knew did. Now its the YouTube video. Okay, I do use that one now and then. My new mantra is if you don't know how, search for a video on YouTube; however, as a gambit for reaching the nodding off student, it is losing its bright shiny finish as well.  Rote memorization, group work, project-based assessments (one of my favorites), crossword puzzles, word searches (hated both of those and I wasn't even using them, but my daughter's teacher was. Can't tell you how many times I had to promise my daughter that the word was in fact in the torturous maze of letters she had searched for the last hour (after I had searched to frustration to find the word and finally did). I don't know what word searches teach, patience perhaps, determination, stress management.

Recently, my teaching cadre was told that we need to be more like what is holding the students'  attention according to a YouTube video: two minutes of intense trivia, challenging group competition and ringing bells, chasing gummies across a screen. I'm still not sold because colleges are not doing this and neither are companies that make widgets nor window and door plants or Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. They expect their employees to come to work, get busy, follow directions, produce what is requested, think it through and be respectful.

So this is about writing and how teaching is sometimes the same and sometimes not. Here's my big point: Teach what works and gets the results that will be useful to students who need to go out into the world prepared. And write, write what comes out of you naturally. If it's currently a dystopia, well bless your heart, you stand a chance. Or be like me and write time travel because that is what you like to write and what you like to read whether or not anybody else is reading it or writing it and selling it. But if you believe in it, they will listen (yes, back to students for a moment). There is someone out there whose arm you will touch and startle awake, who will apologize for not paying attention and will turn the page and by gosh learn something.

PS (Okay, so that the metaphor worked in this discussion of writing and teaching, I did fudge a bit. My students never fall asleep. Hmm. Okay, about once a month a student was up late and will want to nod off but won't. Hmm. Well, I do have one student who I regularly wake up, but they are the exception, not the norm. It was the metaphor that was important, so I had students falling asleep to make it work. And I do not "protest too much.")


Friday, January 16, 2015

Observation: Classics vs Contemporary writing style

I was thinking about Dickens, the Bront√ęs, and Austin vs the current writing guidelines that state one should start with the action and keep things rolling along, active or reactive.  But these classic writers were outstanding providers of fine fiction and they did not follow this advice.  They practiced the immersion method. Wrap the reader in details they can smell, taste, feel and see in a serious case of high definition wordiness.

It was about development, deep examination of thought, motivation, environment, symbolism. Yes, they are classed as literature, and I don't claim to write literature; however, strong development, a creation of an environment that truly is a place for the characters to "be" in should still be a requirement. And it's one I struggle with every day that I write. (Notice that sneaky "that I write." Not every day can be a writing day, ho hum.)

It is this that makes me keep going back into my work-in-progress, adding more to a scene that is not dialogue. More character, more sense of place, more demand for "high definition wordiness."  But I also go back, remove the excess waste that slipped in among my efforts to immerse my reader. It is a knife edge of care to whittle away at a work, or to graft in another variety to add to the overall flavor and aroma of the reality between the covers.

I recently read Findley's Time and Again. It was my first time reading this classic time travel book. It took more than half the book for the character to take a simple half hour trip back in time and practically nothing happened while he was there.  There was no rising action until after he returned and even that was a slow build up. I had to make myself slow down and enjoy the scenery, relax and not demand action of the heart racing kind.  In the end, it was very much worth the wait.

After I finish this fourth installment of my time travel series, Students of Jump, I will be working on a contemporary fiction, in first person, no less. A truly tremendous shift in my writing.  But I see it as an opportunity to take the process a little slower, a little more immersion for the reader in my characters' lives. More build up to a satisfying emotional closing.

My husband loves to watch old movies.  We sat together twice this week watching some classic films that followed that slow buildup method. We found them not just satisfying but thought and discussion provoking. We enjoyed them because they stayed with us. In the days that followed, we continued to refer back to those films and the questions in morality that they posed to the audience. There has to be a middle ground for this process of development of character and purpose and engagement of the reader. That's my goal.

 What is your take on these styles of writing?  Is there a clear divide or is there a middle ground?

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

When a light colored dog in the dark is much like an idea and a plan

writing metaphor: moving through the living room at night
Ever walked through your house in the dark, nothing but shadows and memory to go on? I did this last night and though I know where everything lies, I also know that furniture shifts about through use, and occasional gnawed Nylabones will be just where I want to place a bare foot.

So last night, fully aware of the obstacles, I negotiated the stairs in the dark and perceived my yellow Lab Cagney at the bottom step quite pleased to see me. I was happy to see her because even in the dark she is pretty visible. I told her to go on ahead of me, and I just followed her yellow smudge through the living room, around two chairs, a freestanding table, a footstool, a vacuum and any dog bones she or our other Lab had left behind. From there I entered the back hall, then into the kitchen. She received a bowl of water and her allergy medicine, and I confirmed my daughter did in fact lock the back door.

So back to bed feeling secure and no bruised shins or jambed toes.

The point: writing is like this especially if you have done some planning or know the plot points you want to cover. 
  • down the stairs: initial planning steps to the writing process
  • Cagney, my guide: the overall idea
  • bones: interference, slow downs, painful backing up and cutting
  • moved furniture: characters with something to say or do and the unexpected changes in the process of getting from A to B that seemed so simple until the writing actually begins.
  • water bowl and allergy medicine: additional actions that get you to the writing goal, such as  beta readers, redrafting, cover design, formatting
  • returning to the living room, past its obstacles and back up the stairs: publication, advertising, blurbs, tweeting
  • crawling back into bed: done and ready to dream up another idea
So climbing out of a warm bed on a very cold night to check the back door was locked and give my dog her Claritin is a metaphor for the writing process. I could have gotten to my goal without Cagney, but I would have stumbled a lot, cursed over a biting bone or two poking into my arch with my full weight pressing it in before I could pull back, and with three doorways to get though, I would likely have banged at least one shoulder against a doorjamb. And that too is much like writing without a plan or intention to my writing.

Of course, there are many times when like my story (as is currently the case), Cagney has other plans then to get me to the back door. She'd rather hangout by the gas stove or on her bed staying warm, just as my hoped for scenes to close out a story keep generating new issues that need to be covered before the end I thought was in sight actually channels out my fingers.

If you liked this post, tweet it, and follow me. I'm bound to find another metaphor about writing and dogs. They are a large part of my life.