Teaching writing is a minefield

In simpler terms, I’m restructuring how I teach writing which starts with thinking about why and how we write, with synthesizing all the things I’ve read about writing or learned about writing.

It seems redundant and a little silly to lay this out, but until you know what you want to say and who you want to say it to, you don’t really know how to say it. The audience and purpose should shape your actual form of communication. Many of these forms have rules specific to them. For example, when you are writing something academic, you should be able to pull information from a variety of reliable sources in order to support your message—it’s also important to have something to say about or with those quotes and paraphrases so the piece isn’t just a collection of someone else’s thoughts. In fact, academic writing also requires an academic voice which is basically writing as a third-person expert on a topic avoiding contractions, use of you, and limiting I-statements to specific, relatable anecdotes.

People who want to get better at writing need to read a lot—read books, short stories, essays, articles, poems, fanfic, blogs, and everything else. As you read look for what makes a story or piece good (or enjoyable) and what makes a piece not work well.

Find a comfortable place that encourages your writing and a time you can frequently set aside to write or read or think. Every day be in that place at that time and just write. In the beginning whatever you write will be awful, because you will be “cleaning out” your mental “closet.” As you continue to write, you will improve—your ideas will flow more naturally, your words will come. Some days you will hit a serious writer’s block and the options are a) keep writing even if it’s terrible or b) go take a walk, come back, and try again.

Essentially, anything you write has a purpose and is meant for someone to read. (Ok, once in awhile what you write is meant for no one to read, so rip those out and throw them away where no one else can ever read them).

In most academic classes the writing revolves around teacher-specified topics or reading-related questions. For these pieces, the student-writer needs to be aware of the teacher’s expectations and basic American usage and grammar. Most quotes or paraphrases will be taken directly from information related to the class or topic under discussion.

When students are given the freedom to choose a research topic, they should really consider coming up with a research question. What do you really want to know about the topic? I’ve seen too many students choose their sources and resources in order to fit what the student already want to say—this can be problematic as it leads to patchwork plagiarism or an unethical use of sources (when a quote or piece of information is taken so far out of context that it is used to support the side opposing what the original text was about).

People who write for fun in blogs or fanfic or original short fiction can choose their own topics. This can be as crippling as it is freeing. Some people make their blogs very specific in nature which nicely limits the topics they will write about—The Simply Luxurious Life focuses on fashion and blending French sensibilities with a modern American life; there are whole sections on food and on local places of interest along with book suggestions, a podcast, and a video series for cooking. Another blog I follow is Bloggin’ Con La Reina which a student of mine started to explore life as a minority teen who is on the cusp of stepping out of her safety nets and into the big, bad world; her topics are varied as she tries to find her footing and I can relate to that on all levels (my blog is pretty eclectic, because I can’t quite settle on a theme).

For a brief moment (1998-2000) I participated in writing Sliders fanfic. I didn’t edit anything before I posted it and my stories were more character studies than plotted stories. Still, it was a good experience for me. I read a lot of fan fiction nowadays—some of it makes me envious and some of it makes me appreciate my student’s writing. Whatever other people think, I still feel like blogs and fan fiction are great ways for people who want to write, to practice writing. I can look back on my own blog and see how much improvement I’ve made as a writer. It’s important for writers to be able to see that they have improved, to get positive feedback when they do something well, and to remember that there is always room for improvement.

Basically, you can make any topic your own depending on what you want to say about it. Find out how it needs to be formatted, understand the expectations of teachers/professors/employers, and make your voice heard.


Winter always does this to me

I have a long list of things I’ve never done. Mostly they are things I don’t think about or I thought about and didn’t want. I genuinely care about all of my students (past, present, and future)—I want them all to find some measure of peace or happiness, but I know some of them never will. I accepted years and years ago that for some kids high school is a peak (which will always make me a little sad), for some high school is a stepping stone, and for some high school is a federally mandated sentence.

Most of my students. Most of my friends. Everyone I can think of in my family. They have all risked their hearts in love. The one or two chances I’ve had, I shut down before more than a fleeting thought could exist let alone love or companionship. It’s not because I’m aromantic (I don’t think I am); it’s more because the thought of physical intimacy scared the everliving everything out of me.

I suppose touch-starved would be an accurate assessment of me and any sort of physical affection. I long for it, sometimes dream about it, but I don’t know how to (or who to) initiate even deeply platonic physical affection. It makes me feel like I’m still a bit broken.

I know I’ve come a long, long way in the last 22 years. I’m much more emotionally stable (thanks to medication and writing). I’m a better teacher thanks to my myriad mistakes and failures and understanding that there is always room for improvement. I have friends who are so dear to me that I count them as a family of choice even if we go a few weeks or months without really getting together.

However, there are things about me that make entering a romantic or affectionately platonic relationship difficult. Part of that is the 22 years I’ve lived independently which have allowed certain bad habits (laziness and a true enjoyment of spending money that should be put in savings) to calcify. I’m not sure how good I’d be at balancing my needs and desires against another person—I’d like to think I’d compromise, but I don’t actually know that to be true.

I’m also not a terribly pretty, attractive, in shape sort of person. I tend to look in the mirror and think, this is as good as it gets or wow, this is a new low. I just know that my extra weight (aside from making me physically unhealthy and so, so hard to lose) makes me less attractive to other people. I may not feel like I have quite so much fear or quite so many defenses, but that’s years of ingrained behavior.

Part of the reason I spent so much time shutting down opportunities before they happen is this belief that I would choose the wrong person and end up making a spouse or child’s life more difficult than it had to be. Part of it is that I actually need to know someone and trust them before I can even think about sexual attraction or romantic possibilities (does that make me demiromantic and demisexual??).

I don’t miss the opportunity of being a parent. I do miss the opportunity to share my life with someone else. I would like to fall in love or find a true companion. I just don’t think I ever will and it makes me a little sad some days.

I Hate Money

I actually make a decent amount of money. I should be able to pay all my bills (even my outrageous mortgage which is only outrageous compared to what my rent was) and manage to build a savings account. The truth is that I am bad with money. I could blame the examples of my childhood, but it wouldn’t be fair to them. My money issues are my money issues and cannot be blamed on other people. I like to buy things—presents for myself, presents for my friends, things that I think I need (and sometimes actually do), tattoos (that’s a new expense though), clothes…

You get the idea, I’m sure, that I like to spend money. I have been making reasonable and awesome budgets for fifteen years; I have also been ignoring those budgets for fifteen years. The only smart choice I’ve ever made regarding money was starting two retirement accounts that weren’t Social Security or PERS in my mid-twenties. I’m going to have to put in a full forty years teaching before I can even think about retirement and even with my extra accounts, I still worry about whether or not I’ll have enough money to enjoy retirement or to just exist in retirement.

I also spend money when I’m sad or when I’m anxious or when I’m depressed or when I want to celebrate.

This means I have debt—so much debt. I’m well on my way to catching everything up within the next five years if I can stick to my totally reasonable budget. Again, I can’t help but look at my friends and family who have made smarter financial choices. I also can’t help but think about my students (those who have graduated and those who will) and how difficult earning enough money to make ends meet while paying off student loans is going to be.

To be fair many of my former students make more money per year than I do by working at skilled labor jobs and I am a huge supporter of their choices and their successes. These were often kids who just needed to get through high school so they could go on to apprentice in a specific field or take a technical program. These are kids who spend their first ten years going to where the jobs are which means they learn a lot about what makes someone a good manager or a poor manager of others. They get ten years of good experience, so they can land a job close to where they would like to settle down.

I think the only people that think money doesn’t matter are people who genuinely don’t have to worry about money. If I’m being real, a windfall would solve many of my current problems. Instead, I get to hold to my budget and admonish myself for my mistakes and remember that I alone make the choices that mean eating peanut butter sandwiches for a week or eating like a “normal” adult.

The American Dream?

I never really thought about the American Dream until I started teaching. I’m weird. I didn’t ever envision my future wedding, my future life, my future anything. I knew I wanted to teach and I knew that teaching wasn’t lucrative. Money didn’t matter as long as I had enough to pay my bills. Once I started teaching American Literature, I had to think about the American Dream—it seems to be this idea that everyone can reach for the stars as long as they are willing to work hard. It’s a pretty bullshit thing. Most people work hard their entire lives and barely have enough to get from paycheck to paycheck.

My American Dream was having enough money to pay my bills, a place to live alone, and a job that I enjoyed more than I dreaded it. I am blessed enough to have those things. My students will not really be so lucky. All my college expenses (1991-1995) were $35,000-$40,000; my parents kicked in $12,000-$15,000 (I hope I’m low-balling my parents’ contribution) over the four years I attended college and I worked 25-hours a week during the school year and full-time in the summers and on breaks. Between those things, I had enough to make it through college without any student loans. This is totally unrealistic for any students I teach who choose to attend even a small four-year state school—all the expenses for four years at my alma mater now are around $100,000 (and I am underestimating it). No one is going to be able to get enough FAFSA grants or scholarships to pay for that without some heavy loans. So, for my students the American Dream has to be different.

I don’t know what it is for them—maybe it’s simple like my version or maybe it’s just the hope that they can enjoy their lives while paying off outrageous student debt. Maybe it’s that they’ll find a job they mostly enjoy that gives them enough money to live on and have a little fun with. Maybe it’s getting married and only needing a combined sixty hours a week to keep all the bills pain and manage a little something something in savings.

Or, maybe the current American Dream is just getting through each day with enough money, enough to eat, enough to take care of those they love.