Deep Reading vs. Casual Review

calvin and hobbes

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.

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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.

gift-books

 

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

pile_of_money

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.