No Effort is Ever a Waste of Time: Even Slow Starts Become Fully Formed Realities if We Let Them.

 

images-14For quite some time I have been working on keeping the Community Story project going. The idea was to offer a single paragraph as a basis for a story and ask others to contribute util the initial prompt had formed into a story that I edited for consistency, etc. I did this in a similar form with my students but had them complete the story in small groups working together in person. I had tried offering it through Facebook and there were some wonderful submissions from friends; but, unfortunately, because the ideas were so diverse in focus, I could not quite combine their work into one story as I had hoped.

I tried resurrecting it in person with my friend and YA author Stacey Wilk, but while we had a blast with our group, we tended to have more beginning writers join us who were not quite yet ready for formal submissions. I do have to emphasize though that offering a single sentence or paragraph for a prompt for a group to work from–in person–is a wonderful practice tool that not only offers a cohesive focus to center on but it also allows each writer to understand how varied the same subject can become in the hands and imagination of each individual.

I refused to give up on it entirely but stopped making it a primary focus for a while, leaving it up in the air to see what might transpire to reinvigorate my interest. The solution presented itself as I visited my husband’s studio during a busy Saturday class session. As our dog, Smokey, proceeded, yet again, to steal a towel from someone to play keep away, our friend Deb suggested that he would make a great subject for a story. Next thing I knew, many voices joined in and ideas for themes and plots were being volleyed around the space, with someone being assigned the job of illustrating the first book. Here I was in a matter of moments, the chief editor, so to speak, of a series of books—not just one story. One manuscript has already been compiled, reviewed by contributors, and returned for changes and additions. The illustrator, Kimberly, has already brought some sketches in. The momentum is building. Now, this is a community story and it formed in a way I had not envisioned: spontaneity.

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Shall I bother pointing out the obvious: You can’t make things work; you can only keep moving forward and sharing ideas until something forms from the chaos or vagueness of an idea.

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Keep Reading, Keep Learning, Keep Growing

Some ideas and observations are worth a revisit. This entry was originally posted about 3 years ago and I find that it has relevance still today. I’ve  changed the title and did a bit of editing but the essence remains:

Perfection is an inaccurate term to use for a human being, I believe. There is a positive force to embody in our lives regardless of the term we apply to it. As I continue to savor random moments alone with How Yoga Works by Geshe Michael Roach, I find myself kind of floating emotionally in a soft cocoon. My head hums a bit, my chest alternates between tightness and the most clear and weightless expanse of breath I can ever remember having. Realizations and fear, regrets and hope all ebb and flow. It’s like having a misty aura pulsing around me. Very spiritual. Very new. Very different from the reactions to the texts I usually read and write about.

A current passage that has insinuated itself into my thoughts contains references to the dilemma of pride. Pride is especially troublesome when it has installed itself within a student and the master or teacher must find a way to refocus it. One of the pending titles for my blogging is Teaching People How to Learn. I still may use it later on, but for the moment it serves as a better example of the trajectory of this post rather than a guide for a separate entry. As the narrator tells us, pride must be hit or beaten with a figurative stick until it becomes “a healthy kind of confidence” ( 135). One holds onto pride jealously but confidence is flexible. It can be shaken, it can be restored, and it does not begrudge change.

Confidence is what many of us lack when we endeavor to write. Pride is what stops us from learning. Those of us that have allowed rejection letters or the disinterest of influential people or difficulty with insecure bosses  to define our worth have allowed a perception to dominate our overall sense of ability and worth. That is not to say that there is a ceiling to learning and that writing is a static medium. The negative must be analyzed closely to find the realities within that collapse of hope or momentum.

This leads me back to teaching people how to learn. I have students who go into throws of anxiety and confrontation when they get a C rather than the expected A (Read: grade earned for simply producing the work). I see them as people with potential to evolve if I can assist them in realizing that earlier grades came at earlier periods in their education. Perhaps the standards were lower as well–let’s be frank about that. Many do not know how to evolve from the platform they have rested upon and refuse to find that there is more work ahead. Their pride is blocking the growth of their knowledge base. I am the wall they hit or the stick that beats the barriers down if I can.

What overcomes the obstacles? Reading of course. The text is life. Each text is a portal into a new perspective on life as it was or is if you see it for its potential rather than only its concrete form. How Yoga Works teaches us that things are not “themselves” or, rather, don’t have an unyielding unchangeable identity. Our engagement with the world creates or molds the nature of what we behold and that nature “itself” is not static. Roach offers us an example when the narrator engages her jailor in a discussion about a bamboo pen on his desk. Is it a pen? To him, yes, but is it only a pen? He comes to realize that it is also  a tiny piece of nourishment: “I mean that impression, that sense of division is so strong . . . I simply never realized that I make the pen itself ; my mind takes the pen a pen, just as the cow’s mind draws the same green stick as something good to eat” (118).

Now, I don’t  believe that our perceptions are an illusion or that people do not create texts, art, or even meals in an unconscious state that only others can give concrete form to as they engage with them. We are not passive vessels nor are our accomplishments eradicated by lack of witnesses or missing accolades. What this text brings to me and what I take from my interaction with it is that we can change our perception so that pain and discomfort do not concretely define an experience. If someone is cruel, the unhappiness is real, but the root cause of our pain may be suppressed or veiled by the surface actions. What is truly cruel in the moment?  The actions or the causes of these?

For a non-spiritual on non-philosophical example, think of the “kick the dog” syndrome. Someone is raked across the coals by his unhappy boss who is looking for someone to abuse because his wife made nasty comments that morning. The employee, feeling victimized and powerless, then spits profanity at someone who accidentally bumps his arm causing hot coffee to burn his hand. The person soundly abused for an honest mistake cuts someone off at a turn feeling the need to assert her authority and presence. The person who narrowly misses hitting that car comes home shaking and, as the dog trips him in his glee at finally having someone to play with, kicks the animal for also being in the way.

These examples and questions are not meant to confuse your sense of order or make you doubt your eyes or heart. Doubt is not the goal. Doubt is real at the moment you feel it, but it should not be a  manipulative tool for preventing the emergence of self-assertion and confidence. The key here is that self assertion must be based in awareness and tempered by acceptance of the changeable nature of what Roach calls “universal powers” and of perception.

The text I am reading is life. What you are reading is life. As it should be? As you agree? Does it matter? We are experiencing the opportunity to learn and grow from the nourishment that is found in the narrative.

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Do You Hold on to Your Drafts Like Other People Collect Books?

imagesI was just reading a post from a wonderful blog I follow and they were asking for feedback about how people “manage” their libraries (Here is the link to the post: Live to Write-Write to Live).What do people keep or part with? How do they keep track of or arrange their books? Many of the posts I read came from people like me who have a large-to-enormous collection and are often trying to purge or rearrange to their satisfaction. It was refreshing to know that I’m not the only one who can’t seem to let go of books that I may never reread or get to reading. Even as I reduce my library slowly, I am often restocking from behind so to speak. New stuff always makes it in! It is, after all, part of our interests or passion. Collecting and disseminating is part of the process.

imagesBut what about drafts or ideas? Regardless of how you write and store your info, do you hang on to ideas or started projects thinking you’ll turn them into something someday–when you have more time? Are you so tired of trying to get past a point with the story or poem or essay that you can’t bear to find new energy for it but can’t give it up since it’s taken so much of your time? Some projects are like books in your collection–they just don’t quite take precedence. In other words, yes, there may be a time in the future that this idea or project finally germinates. But there might not be. Drafts may not be as bulky as books, physically, but they do also take up mental space you might want to free for future ideas.

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Don’t jump to hit the delete button or use these languishing pages for kindling to free yourself from them right away. You should really ask yourself if you have simply given up and actually do need to get back to work or if you honestly don’t have a real interest in them anymore. Be as brutally honest with yourself as you can be. And, don’t forget, you can always share these projects and drafts like you would a good book: Give the idea to someone who might be able to do it justice. Creating and disseminating is part of this process. How you spread the word is entirely up to you!

It’s All Good Experience

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Calvin’s  idea is one way to address the harder aspect of writing. I think there are other possibilities. Just recently I took on some nonfiction work for an educational publishing company that I have a long-standing relationship with. These tend to be short pieces for dual-language learners or ESL students. Let’s see, the last educational text on I worked on was Skyrocket Your Grammar (under Heron Moon Press on my site’s menu). It was an incredible challenge because I had to write songs, stories, and mock interviews using only the grammar excercises each chapter focused on and the topic at hand (e.g., insects, sea creatures). I’m still rather proud of the results. I’ll be gathering some examples of the different kinds of projects to post here soon.

Over the next months, I’ll be doing more nonfiction and fiction for various grade levels. I was crazy enough to try to write a graphic novel type of layout for a biography of Florence Nightingale. I made it way more complicated than it had to be for the grade level. This was for 1st graders. So many restrictions on vocabulary and sentence complexity (actually, lack of complexity). I have to do a nonfiction piece for 5th graders this week. I’ll be doing fiction for the same grade in the graphic novel style soon. My editors may need therapy before I am done, but I’ll do my best to meet their requirements.

Basically, what drives me to to do my best for my employers, besides regular income, is that I was on the editing side of the desk for a long time. I was a project editor and was sent into spins when writers sent me useless  or off target work. I had one writer tell me that she was “just a gun for hire” and that she was not really worried about perfection. She wrote for the check; she was not a writer. It showed in her submissions. She wasted my time and the company’s money. While many of us don’t worry about a corporation’s bottom line, the more money wasted the less the employees have a shot at good raises and improved working conditions. Anyway, the point is, I know how important even the shortest essay for a textbook is to the group working on it and I respect all of the people who rely on me.

What does it do for my own work? I have a clear audience in mind and challenge myself to make sure I understand their interests and needs. I have to think about how extensive my own vocabulary is or how effective I can be with less. How clear can I be without boring everyone? Let’s face it. Little kids have short attention spans. They are a tough crowd! Using an obscure synonym for happy does not impress all grown ups. So, the more I take on genres that I would not usually gravitate towards, the more I can figure out what I do best and for whom.

Who do you write best for? Why? How?

 

 

 

You Can’t Write if you Don’t Read–and Listen—and Look!

trees2This may not be news to some of you. It may be a good reminder for those of you who have fallen off the “good writing habits” wagon. There is absolutely nothing that you can read, listen to, or view that can’t become fodder for your own writing topics.

If there is anything that helps writers engage with their innate or practiced talents it is having to create a story based on a visual prompt. A friend recently asked me to collaborate on a book project with him. He had created a series of pictures. He wanted a story to go with them. I happen to have included in my syllabi over the years, assignments that included writing prompts that were solely images. The coursework idea came from an NPR interview in which an author had mentioned that something she witnessed in nature fed her curiosity, leading her to do research, which led her to create a work of autobiographical fiction. First, she looked. She saw. Then she read. Then she wrote. I’ve always loved this exercise and the surprising results in the classroom but did not expect that it would become so influential in my own process. But, here I am writing to you, writing a manuscript, teaching new groups of hopeful writers and reluctant college students. Nothing is wasted when it come to engaging with the world with all of your senses.

What do you see in the picture above? I see a narrowing of focus created by the gradual lowering of the branches. Like a telescope in reverse. My fiction choice would be in the mode of a kind of Alice in Wonderland falling down in to a smaller world of possibilities. My nonfiction choice would be to debate which is more beautiful: Nature left alone or sculpted and planned. Very rough ideas at best, but that is the planning stage, right? These choices make up the adventure and the pain of the writer’s life.

Let’s Weigh in on Fan Fiction

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As I sat with a friend of mine on a recent evening, we started talking about these last posts about the Memoir and the subject turned to other genres that I had not spent time reflecting on. Then she said, “Write about fan fiction!” Hmmm, I don’t really know much about fan fiction actually but I am definitely in favor of any medium that gets writers writing and finding their own voice.

I actually have the button  you see pictured here. I used to work in a comic book store in Baltimore and we had these as promos for an issue of a Wolverine comic. It cracked me up in general but I never really thought about who the fans were and why they were dedicated enough to earn so much ribbing. After all, aren’t fans the only thing that keeps you in business?

When you think about it, we’ve all been inspired (or annoyed) by the authors we read when in school or that we found in our excursions to the library, or Amazon, or the bookstore (remember those?). I just never really thought about the concerted effort so many people have put in to developing entire stories and lives around existing characters. To write a vampire story is not new. To create an entirely new planet is not new. But to write about existing vampires or colonies in other universes is very curious to me. But I do know what it is to feel lost or lonely when a story or trilogy or some such ends. I have often missed some characters and wished they would return somehow. I remember when Anne McCaffrey died. I was faced with the end of her dragon riders. Even if she were not planning to do more with Pern, the possibility was open as long as she was here. Now, even with her son carrying on, it’s still not her. BUT this is where the fans come in right? They keep the legends and the people alive and offer a continuation of the world she created or let this one branch out to the next, much like the originators of Pern did when they arrived on this new planet. Why not stay in touch?

Basically, everyone has a story and it’s important to tell it. Is it for family? I have worked for year for my dear friend Ruth Wolf as she compiled a family history for her many grand and great-grandchildren. Is it for the public? An in-group of other avid fans of particular authors who all feel connected through particular stories? Is it for the love of writing alone and you allow what boils up from inside to guide you?

You are interesting. Whatever you want to write is up to you as long as you hone your craft and never feel that you are done learning and observing. If emulating a stye is what drives you to experiment, great. If writing fan fiction and staying within the existing world that another created rings true with you, great. Are you a Memoirist who shares your experiences for those who could learn from your life or be inspired by it? Great. Maybe your memoirs work for personal as well as professional goals.

It’s all what truly resonates within you and never let anyone tell you your choices are not marketable or timely. You decide what you create and then decide how it will live on. If you reach enough people, maybe your own tales will continue on when you’ve stopped or have moved on. So, write on Fan Boys and Girls!

What Causes Laziness?

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Maybe asking “What is laziness?” might be more appropriate for this post. I’m not discussing the lackadaisical feeling that comes with a nice spring day or even a general feeling of lethargy after illness or when faced with unwanted tasks to complete. I am concentrating on the kind of laziness that prevents someone from bothering to do their best and, in its manifestation, shows a lack respect for the people affected by this inaction or indifference.

For my courses, I have a strict attendance policy that includes limitations on how late a student can arrive. After the 10-minute cut off, the late arrival is recorded and, at three instances, these become the equivalent of one absence.  At four absences, the final grade drops one letter. At five, the course is failed. Why? Because structure is important for learning–especially in a community. It’s also about respect as well as goals and outcomes. So, if a student shows up late regularly, they disrupt my lecture or a fellow student’s commentary/presentation, and it is inevitable that the chronic absentees will ask repeatedly for updates. In both cases, the students’ work calculably suffers from their lack of engagement.

Yes, I do also have a policy on unnecessary phone or computer use: After three instances the student is marked absent and each time after that they are marked absent (see above for attendance policy). If I am putting effort out for their benefit, this laziness tells me that my efforts are wasted and also disregarded.

This is an issue in some yoga classes as well. Some students do not respect the time the teacher is taking for us and will look at cell phones, answer them, or generally start talking about things unrelated to the class. Really, it’s not like they have time to be bored. This lack of consideration for the overall goals of the class and the group as a whole is of concern.

This is where the issue of laziness comes in. Courtesy and compassion take effort. Effort at paying attention. Effort at considering life outside of your own. Effort at acknowledging that the person in charge is there because they are an expert and want to teach these skills to those who took the seat or mat space that someone else might have had access to.

I think that the absence of respect and consideration come from a lack of inspiration or a lack of vision as to what the moment’s teaching and can lead to. How ready are people to reach out of a comfort zone and face being unsure in the next steps of a process? This inability to think beyond the moment or to create a sense of connection between subject matter or colleagues and classmates should not be an insurmountable condition.

I think that laziness in the face of learning comes from a disconnect from a sense of goals. A lack of instant gratification and a dearth of foresight. In other words, this type of laziness is not a benign state of procrastination, nor is it necessarily a passing state of being. Without a connection to a long-term goal (with flexibility in outcomes), there is no spirit in one’s effort and the laziness that brings about indifference could become a chronic condition.

No amount of regulation and rules will help. the only thing left to those of us affected is to create structure and adhere to our standards. Compassion and patience do come in to play, but the recipient has to be ready to make proper use of these. I try to be that guide but, sometimes, I must remove the lazy person from my class or move away from the classmate. It’s the uncomfortable effort I must put out if I am going to learn and progress.