Deep Reading vs. Casual Review

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I’ve been addressing, here, students’ preparedness for their first-year composition course. No longer taking for granted that they have been reading regularly for school or personal interest and that they at least have some experience in questioning–analyzing–their materials, I have actively asked them to question their relationship with the course essays and assignments. Ordinarily, I would get right to work on assigning their writing projects and the planning and brainstorming for their essays, but this cannot be the starting point anymore. I need to find out what they truly understand or find of interest in the text before they can even begin to formulate their own work.

For the most part, very few are aware that they have prior personal experience or knowledge that they could apply to understanding their materials. They see each essay as a separate entity that stands alone from all other assignments in other classes. They often don’t relate the subject matter to experiences and choices from their everyday lives. It’s hard to fathom for me because I’ve always been asked to relate the now to the past and to future possibilities. I assume everyone has done the same.

That does not make for effective teaching. This is not to say that I am leaning in the direction of trigger warnings and the like. I still feel that adults must be able to face multiple and possibly uncomfortable subjects without filters. It’s up to them to decide what they can handle–not up to me to shield them. But, positive or negative, they still need to be clearly engaged.

Very few have been interested in reading with true depth rather than reviewing for class time. Some come to me having struggled with understanding the writers’ overall viewpoint and even the vocabulary level. Personal essays are simply narratives without perspective to some. Overt argument is distilled into basic summary. Class time has become about how to read in general rather than how to write at this level. But, if that is what I have in hand, that is what I work with. And, coming to this with empathy makes me more effective and creates a particular safety zone that I am ok with providing. Some call it remedial work, some call it developmental, some call it refresh and review. Regardless, I call is a necessity for students from community college to private universities these days. I can’t reform K-12 education but I can accept what that produces  and do my best with what I inherit.

Horse Gone Silent: An Author Gives Voice to an Animal’s Experience

About one year ago, I met a man named Shane Ledyard. He was judging the Hunters at the local horse show where I am an announcer. As we chatted, we were pleased to find out that we were kindred spirits beyond the horse world. He is a writer and the author of Horse Gone Silent, a book about the life and experiences of a horse named Calebo. While I am sheepish to admit it has taken me this long to be able to write about this YA story, I am very happy to share it with a larger audience.

I was immediately impressed by the attention and thought he had given not just to the content but the design and presentation. The cover is a clean, bold design with a close-up of a horse’s eye. This reminded me of a wonderful print I have by my fireplace at home that is quite similar in conception. You find yourself staring back at it, trying to see into the horse’s thoughts, and, perhaps, gain a glimpse of yourself.

This tale definitely would appeal to both the YA crowd it is meant for and adults interested in a story focused on horses. Now, horse stories are nothing new, and the drama of their lives has been addressed in both fiction and nonfiction, but what I find interesting here is that we have the horse’s voice rather than a human’s perspective. Many of us do wonder what they are thinking, right? What of their early experiences stay with them into their later years and changes in owners and training? Ledyard’s experience as a horseperson—rider, trainer, judge—lends a credibility to the projections and assumption of thought and emotion on the animal’s part.

Now we do need to remember that this is fiction and not science or research so, no, horses are not human and, therefore, not inclined to human thoughts, feelings, and actions as far as we can prove. But this is not intended to be a guide for communicating with or training animals. It is a story that imagines how one animal might experience life from his first moments of consciousness, shares his varied experiences in different living conditions with various owners, and, ultimately, unveils what I believe to be Ledyards’ notion of the ideal home for Caleb and perhaps many horses.

 

My critique would be that he tells a bit more than showing at times. I’d like the narrative  to unfold without the interruption of explanations. For instance, at one point, he explains what “weaning” is. It’s a moving passage about separation and trauma, but would hold more emotion if it offered more action and less definition. As well, later in the book, Ledyard explains to the reader what a Grand Prix is and I found myself pulled from the action. My preference is to add a glossary for those unfamiliar with horses so that the horse people reading it are not distracted by what is already known to them. And, like many of us, he seems to be trying to reach too many audiences with too many messages in one text. Is this about Calebo? Is it about horse care and ethics? Is it about faith and destiny? One focus per book would suffice. He could then do a series (if he is not already) in which he can address the evils inherent in the financial aspect horse business, good breeding and training practices, and the joy and success that a well-matched rider and mount experience.

Still his insight and compassion create very plausible imaginings of what an animal may well think and feel. He does have a gift for creating atmosphere. In Chapter 9 “The Killer Pen,” a barn has “paint chipping from the walls, mixed in with years of dust and grime.” The lack of pride, respect, or care in the facility is visceral. The simplicity of the description does not hide the hopelessness of life in this facility. It is always clear that he wants the reader to be extremely conscious of how actions and environment affect an animal’s quality of life.

I would be interested to read more reactions to this story. Ledyard himself is quite a benevolent spirit and open to discussion and commentary in way that many authors I have met should be. Perhaps he can influence writers as well as riders in both his actions and words.

horse gone silent

Click here to read more about or to order Horse Gone Silent

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!

Do We Have to Stay the Same?

 

changeAn old friend of mine recently asked why it was that I had written about financial insecurity when she remembers me as someone who always had so much. I had not thought about those who knew me reading this and comparing the person in the post to my younger self. It’s kind of like an author or  musician changing styles and those in their circle saying “What’s up with that? This [fill in identity here] is who you are.”

Well, what’s up with me is that I actually always had financial concerns. The difference was that they were “concerns.” They were not real. Nowadays, there are actually some pressures but, as I wrote in the last post, they could be much worse. My goal was to express my understanding of how our desires and hopes or fears drive our consciousness. This also ties in to being able to present the people in our stories or articles as close to their true selves as possible. So, hopefully, we can be mindful on and off the page. My ultimate goal for this blog is to promote the writing and teaching life alongside the philosophies that are part of yoga practice, so truth and evolution of the self is part of this process.

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So, getting to the title of this post: Do we have to stay the same?

NO. Hopefully we don’t stay the same. Hopefully, we evolve and even in the down times, learn and grow in spirit, practice, and profession. If we strike someone as so different from before, then we are. Or they are. Or both. Still, to surprise people is actually a good thing. I’m glad I’m not the same as I was 30 years ago. I would be so bored.

 

What is the Value of the Written Word: Part II

images-8Part I was the response to the literal question. When we make a living writing and editing, we have to put an objective, concrete value on our words in order to survive and thrive. But that should be just a necessary evil. Today, we will visit the figurative or philosophical aspect of the query. So, business aside, what about the value of words gauged by other means? Do they have a measurable effect on us and our quality of life just as a paycheck related to these words might?

Words themselves are priceless and enduring. The carefully chosen ones produce life-changing insight, poetry, beauty, and enlightenment. The wrong ones may cause personal harm and wreak havoc on our souls, create unnecessary confusion, or set off  a chain of miscommunication and permanent damage. So, there is power in how we use our language, but so many people don’t consider this. Nor do they consider that learning how to structure our verbal interactions is of vital importance.

College students taking required composition classes most often treat their writing assignments as a burden and as something to be gotten past. They don’t realize the power they have when they wield their language artfully and strategically. There is grace in touching someone with words of significance. This is part of the overall struggle we in the humanities have when fighting to maintain respect and funding for Liberal Studies.

The “value” in communicating clearly is immeasurable. If you are still stuck on the financial side of “value,” then understand that poorly written missives don’t even get you onto the ladder of success, much less up any rungs. You’d better hope you are so brilliant otherwise and that you will be in so much demand that you can afford a personal assistant to mask your failings in this arena.

The real value, I think, is in what your words will do for others as well as for yourself.

What is the Value of the Written Word: Part I

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Good question, right? But I want to ask you also: Are you thinking the same about “value” as I am? There are many answers to this so I chose to write this in segments. The first one, here, is in terms of monetary value and the life of a working writer. I will be following up with more segments that address “value” in other forms. Please feel free to let me know if you have anything to add or even argue.

Quite recently I was re-negotiating a contract with a publisher because I was going to rewrite a few brief sections of a book that I originally was only going to edit. Nothing fancy, just a couple of paragraphs. We haggled over a few cents per word. Now, the original editor told me politely why I would not get my preferred pay rate (they don’t know me yet). Not that they are stiffing me by any means–their pay is fair, but I now push for the higher end of the scale because, well, I’ve been doing this a long time. The other editor on the project really pushed my buttons. I got the “someone else will do it cheaper” bit. Really? Well, yes they will. And, as I told him diplomatically but clearly, he’ll get what they pay for. Seeing that they weren’t budging and I’d been treated quite well otherwise (Note: I’ve not had to deal with the petulant unprofessional guy since) I figured true, they don’t know me yet, I’d give a little here.

If they had treated me poorly from the start, even the middle-ground pay would not be enough. There is a going rate per word, per page, per hour, and per project and you should always look up what that is in your field, by region, by type of publication, by level of experience. Are you contract or freelance? Are you signing a noncompete contract that limits your marketability elsewhere? Are you on retainer, full pay at time of completion of project, half at the start and half later? All of these should come into your calculations as to whether or not a job is worth the effort. ALL should include contracts with a clause regarding compensation for cancelled projects.

So, value your work, and make sure others honor that value with fair pay and fair contracts. Taking less out of insecurity or the desire to be able to call yourself a “real” writer devalues your efforts and puts your colleagues at financial risk as well.

 

You Don’t Have to be Just One Type of Writer

It is now time to contradict myself. About two months ago I offered a post titled Can You Write Fiction and Nonfiction at the Same Time? The answer for me, at the time, was No. Really, it still kind of is but I’ve revised my viewpoint. I am not fond of splitting my focus and I feel rushed or disconnected when I have to spread my attention out. It’s a wonder I do so much freelance and adjunct teaching since I seem to have created a lifestyle and financial dependence on juggling multiple and sometimes conflicting jobs at once!

Thwhy-do-people-writeis week is a case in point. I am teaching an online college-level composition course while working on a nonfiction article for a newsletter, while finalizing the contract to write 1st and 2nd grade fiction AND nonfiction for an educational publishing company based in Mexico. This is absolutely necessary if I want to maintain my lifestyle (not fancy, but fun). It is also imperative that my contacts remain current so that I don’t fall by the wayside. After all, sadly, we are all expendable in terms of employment. Often undervalued and readily replaced. Not that my employers are that callous, but I’m not the only writer in their stable and may be one of the more recent additions. Turning down work does not keep me high on anyone’s list.

So, perhaps it’s not that I can’t multitask my writing, it’s that I prefer to immerse myself in one type of writing or teaching. That is my comfort zone. Can I write for multiple purposes for a diverse audience? Apparently so! Can I do it well? It’s my reputation, so, Yes. Mediocrity is not an option. In fact, the harder the challenges, the more skilled I can become. It’s all part of the process of learning and experimenting.
Find your strengths and challenge your assumptions about your weaknesses. If you want to stick to one genre, that is great. But if you think you have to, think again. Comfort and ability are not the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can You Write Fiction and NonFiction at the Same Time?

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For me, no. I certainly can’t even work on more than one project at a time these days even if they are both nonfiction. I have been absent from my site because I’ve been consumed with finding time to do a research paper. I need to produce a more recent writing sample than I have on hand for grad school applications. My brain cannot seem to stop the  search for more content even when I’m not officially working on the essay. Anything else has been hard to think about. It’s kind of like an actor who must stay in the character even between takes or over the period of the shoot in order to feel most connected to the essence of their role.

Many people can multitask their writing and I’m envious. Is it their time availability? Is it their dedication? Is it just how some people are wired? I once listened to someone on the radio talking about how they believed certain athletes had a kind of metaphorical “muscle” in them that they could turn on or use to block out all distractions and self doubt when competing. I certainly do not have that one or I did not know how to develop it well, that’s for sure.

So, maybe I am just a “one focus” kind of writer. I think I like to immerse myself in the project fully and then when it’s all finished (or at least the deadline is met—are we ever really finished?), I feel free to pay full attention to the next goal. It seems to be working so far. I may risk a stasis in the number of followers I have, but those of you who are here and sticking with me are just as important as the new entities out there.

What ever kind of writing “muscle” you have or choose to develop, it’s your game and you’re the only one keeping score. Just make the most of whatever it is that you have.

We Are All Movers of Obstacles

Meditation does not guarantee peace. It is very much the job of the mind to encroach upon our precious moments and deposit obligations, regrets, great plans, and worry any moment there is a chance of quiet or calm, and our consciousness often acquiesces to these distractions because they are so incredibly strong and very important to us. After all, they design and direct our goals and create a structure for our behavior.

imagesThese obstructions, like many others, are possible to move aside given that you have the right fulcrum. There is no certainty of the existence of a chant or theory that will be the catalyst for your “aha” moment, but, what is certain, is that you can create it for yourself. You are the foundation of your quieted mind.

I came to agree with this ideology—as I often do come to understandings or even questions—as I lay upon my yoga mat after an especially vigorous class. On this day, the outside world and its cares were rather easily forgotten. Like many of us, I do have a tendency to let shopping lists or big ideas flow around when I should be savoring my down time. The darkness was let in and welcomed and the familiar horizontal streaks of insistent daylight played in front of my lids. As I let go, images and lights flashed around incoherently. As they gelled, I had a vision that each of my fellow practitioners was sitting upon her mat in the form of Ganesha and each had a flame over her head. The room was not fully formed, so the background was a general haze of pale yellowish light. I was mesmerized and fascinated and happy and still disengaged from interpretation or analysis. As the voice of my teacher, Alison Levine, gently enticed us back to the moment, I held on to the feeling of wonder.

When I discussed this with Allison, neither of us really knew what to think of this. Obviously we knew it was Ganesha and I have a fondness for that deity, but that did not help me understand why he was manifested as a student and topped with the tongue of a flame as you’d see in relation to the Holy Ghost in Christian scriptures. I was raised Catholic so it’s possible some of the love and beauty from these teachings aligned with this deity, and being blessed with the Holy Spirit is much like being filled with the confidence of the Mover of Obstacles. But Ganesha is related to wisdom and intellect–a guide for those who prefer more active engagement with spirituality. I see the Holy Spirit related to surrender rather than action.

Interestingly, Ganesha is also associated with writers and a writer must remove any obstruction that impedes the creative or analytical process. Inspiration is really not an outside force, but an inner movement motivated by openness to possibilities. Upon reflection I felt a sense of surety that I was identifying each student present as their own mover of obstacles if not in life, in practice on the mat. We were all capable of embodying the idea of challenge and the flame was a reiteration of being infused with this potential.

This idea of possibilities in yoga crosses in to my teaching and writing often. The end is not always what I am concerned with , but the process and what coming to the mat, computer, or notepad may ignite. Your initial intention may very well be moved aside to make room for more or different experiences and output.

As you know, there is much out there on how to remove negative mantras from our thinking patterns, and the term “mindfulness” is becoming a mainstream catch phrase. But do we always find a personal connection to these pieces of advice or terms? And what about those who are interfered with by outside forces rather than internal and who may not have the spiritual resources, yet, to circumvent or fully remove these human or financial trees from the path? I find that when people say “get rid of excuses” or some such maxim, there is insight lacking in their statement. Excuses are formed of matter that bad experiences (perceived or real), low energy (spiritual or physical), and poor self esteem merge to create. An excuse is a symbol of much deeper concerns, not a generic barrier used to casually avoid change. BUT, once the platform for the excuse is restructured or razed, the practiced rationalization is no longer so dear or poignant to the person’s personal rhetoric. The obstacle has been removed or reworked and a new story can be written.

What is your obstacle? Is it a tangible object or a thought that impedes your forward momentum? As a practitioner, do you find any particular impediment to your practice or your quiet mind?

 

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!