As I continue to look through the essays in Deep Reading, it has become more apparent that the choice of using fiction or nonfiction for the classroom is a topic that many professors remain obsessed over and still debate on a regular basis. I’ve often argued this topic with colleagues and find that many composition professors are absolutely against bringing any form of fiction into their classroom. They feel that students need to be exposed to particular formats that they can follow and apply for themselves for their assignments. How could a work of fiction assist them in their own expository writing?
Yes, they should read works of nonfiction for examples of the modes of writing (e.g., argument, definition, process analysis), organization, research, citations/references, etc. But what about students’ interests? What about being engaged creatively? Not that nonfiction is boring, but sitting with an anthology of (sometimes outdated) essays by writers who may be unfamiliar to them is not a promising recipe for enthusiastic class discussion or original essay theses.
There is much to find in many novels that will engage a student and encourage complex analysis of important topics. One of the scholars whose work was most interesting to me is Sheridan Blau of Teachers College. He makes a succinct and logical argument in favor of (some) fiction as a catalyst for writing: “[M]ost serious novels . . . are interlaced throughout with passages that are themselves not narrative, but that are important to the experience of the novel as a structure of meaning and drawn from the discourses of philosophy, theology, ethics, and the various social and natural sciences.” In other words, students can get more than entertainment when they read fiction—if they are guided properly. Why not focus more on the overall topics students would like to investigate and argue rather than obsessing over the genre from which these topics are derived?
I 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.
But 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.
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!
Part 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.
Begin Again is the title of a movie that my husband turned me on to. The main character, a producer in the music business has many reversals in his life like a failed marriage and stagnating career. As the movie evolves, we see him pushing forward and drawing from his past success to bolster his future. There is reinvention regeneration of spirit. He begins again and againIt was a good flick. So, what’s this got to do with writing or even yoga? Begin and Again. In both your writing ambitions and your yoga practice, each day is a beginning.
Aristotle stated that ” . . . the beginning is thought to be more than half of the whole, and many of the questions we ask are cleared up by it.” Basically, the best most focused start is the most promising for desired outcomes. If something goes awry, look to the pattern of events that led up to the road block. How did you begin? How did you set up or clear your space? Maybe you did not have everything you needed, including the focus, so your pages are not so inspired or your poses were a struggle to maintain. We all have to begin each day when we wake up up even if the projects or poses are part of an ongoing ambition or enjoyable habit.
The “again” part is a bit more complicated. Each day can be an “again” in a positive light or an “again” as in “ugh.” Returning and beginning again can be synonymous but quite a big difference also. In writing, the starting over can be so frustrating. You may have scrapped something that was not working out and are feeling zapped of the will to try again. But, like the character in the movie, if you love what you do and want to stay in the business/genre that you chose, you’ll unload or shelve what you have to and bulldoze past any naysayers to see your vision become a reality.
My yoga practice and my riding both create a focus for me that I don’t find coming from anything else. For both of these my beginning has to include being fully present or there is no flow or forward movement literally or figuratively. My poses are stiffer. If the horse lacks clear communication and relies on himself to decide how to respond to my aids, any effort is lost energy and potential. It only makes sense that if I sit down to write, I need to have a plan. Even a plan to free write so that I can let the words come out. I can edit and adjust later but I need to begin, and begin with purpose.
Thus we begin again and again. But and it needs to be in the spirit of learning and endeavor, not frustration. So beginings are new, they are do overs ,they are retracing of steps ,they are clean slates. They are framed by your past behavior and generate results based on your focus or lack thereof. There are “agains” in everything so let the again be a revisiing of an effort you’d like to see more sucess from. Don’t let it become a state of repetition and stagnation.
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?
I listened, earlier, to news about youthful offenders. Missives of sadness. I read now from poems of welcome and belonging. Of comfort and sureness of purpose. Which is more likely to teach me about love and hope? About life and how events unfold and to what purpose? Both.
NPR’s story of the horror of one particular offender’s actions resounded within me. While not identical to my own encounter with another’s cruel and manipulative violation of trust, it answered my desperate question as to how one’s troubling behavior can be overlooked or ignored by others. I was reminded that it is common to find out, after the crime is committed, that the assailant had been exhibiting antisocial behavior already. That their friends and family knew the person was troubled. It’s not personal that no one let you know. It’s not a conspiracy of silence that set you up for trauma. There is basically a pattern of ignorance or passivity that many participate in expecting that “this behavior” is not a long-term problem or a sign of danger. But if you are dragged into engaging with the seemingly preventable damage, there is a relentless psychological, spiritual, and emotional nagging that adheres to you. It’s like grief after a loved one dies. No amount of comforting or advice can make you skip the stages you must go through and the time it takes to become accustomed to the loss.
I was not comforted that someone else was hurt. By no means. But I was finally brought to face the commonality of many victims’ experience. A sense of community, albeit tragic, came to me. I am not a freak, nor a failure. Just another dupe. No amount of beneficent intentions can prevent bad actions. All one can do is hope to earn the respect and love of others so that you can share all that is good. This trust creates a respite from anything too large to bear alone. There is hope that I can now help myself and others through this unexpected life lesson.
The poetry book, The House of Belonging, now that I think about it, called to me because of my need for gentleness. I have been afraid to let too much gentleness in since my hatred and loathing for another and myself was evoked many months ago. The book has been moved around as I have packed to move. I couldn’t quite part with it but I did not want it near me. It took something as objective as radio journalism to bring me back to face something that is not about being alone and isolated, but a painful part of a greater whole: humanity in all its horrible truths and insatiable lust for healing.
In one morning of routine actions (turning on the radio as I work with the horses) the message of hope I needed found its way to me. All of my prior asking did not result in satisfaction. But my continued listening did.
This 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.