WIP: What a Good Week Looks Like

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I’m behind in the Pot Luck department, and I apologize.  But I’m also going to be behind in the WIP department too if I play catch-up first.  So, today, more or less on time, I’m doing WIP.

And there’s plenty of WIP to talk about.  It’s been a great week!  My Tupperware container (see my WIP post on Job Jar:  “Who’d a Thunk It?”) has become my friend.  Such a friend, in fact, that I’ve taken to calling it Tup.

Thanks to Tup, I’ve made substantial progress on the novel since my last WIP post.  The day I printed out the Eighteen Crossroads ms, I had just under 55,000 words.  Today, I have just under 61,000.  For some writers, six thousand words in ten days isn’t a lot—and even for me, I suppose it isn’t.  I mean, it does only break down to a rather piffling 600 words a day.  But what I’ve done in the past ten days is manage to send my Inner Editor on (what I hope will be a very long) vacation and get my butt in the chair and write.

Every.  Single.  Day.

And that’s not piffle.

In addition to the Butt-in-Chair success, another reason the 600 words a day pleases me so much is that it doesn’t all represent actual writing, since some of what I’ve done this week is revision.  Not the kind of procrastinating, time-wasting revision I so often used to find myself doing, but some very effective revision.  I remind myself that what I have here is a net 600 words a day.

I’m aware that many writing gurus eschew revision while one is still working on a first draft; Holly Lisle is one of them, and I have great respect for her and her methods.  But those gurus’ primary concern, I think, is with writers getting bogged down in unnecessary revision, whereas the revision I’ve done this week, far from bogging me down, has helped to move the book forward, so I’m pretty dang pleased about it.

I’ve also added fairly considerably to four stories this week (Josef’s, Tessa’s, Amelia’s, and John’s) and started three entirely new ones (Stan’s and Daphne’s, both of which I’d been planning for years but had never been able to force myself to sit down and actually start writing before Tup came along, plus an entirely new one for Tanna, which I had never planned to write at all), and I’ve also made substantial headway in my planning for Emma’s and Chatón’s, which are the only two left that I haven’t actually started writing.

But wait, that’s not all!  I also received my copy of The Adventure of Creation this week, and have been reading that, too.  And I haven’t read a single story yet that doesn’t make me feel very, very honored to have had one of my own chosen to be part of this collection.

Oh, yeah.  It’s been a good, good week.

GUMP: Pulling Writing Advice Out of the Air

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My post last Friday about the heat wave has provided some useful lessons in writing.

In that post, in case you missed it, I said the dew point, not the humidity, is to blame for our discomfort during a heat wave in these parts; and I received a comment arguing that it really is the humidity.

I’m always willing to admit when I’m wrong, but first I had to find out if I was wrong.  So I went straight to the horse’s mouth, and sent an email to the chief meteorologist at our local NBC affiliate:

Hi!

I posted about the heat wave on my blog yesterday, and I’ve received a response claiming that it really is the humidity, not the dew point, causing all the discomfort.  Is there any way either you or Matt might be able to find a moment to help clarify the difference?  If I’m wrong, I’d like to update the post with more accurate information.  Here’s a link to the comments in question (scroll up for the blog post itself):  https://melindahagenson.com/2013/07/19/pot-luck-yeah-its-hot/#comments

Thanks so much!

If you don’t live here locally, Matt is the junior meteorologist at the station.  Anyway, I received the following response late the following night:

Melinda.. Both dew point and relative humidity are closely related, likely causing the confusion, but in the end, it’s the amount of moisture in the air that makes us uncomfortable. The dew point temperatures would be more representative, because as you stated in the blog, you can have high relative humidity any time of the year and not feel so miserable. It’s because dew point is measured in degrees.. simply put, the temperature at which the air becomes saturated. The key is the relationship to temperature. Warmer air can hold more moisture, so the atmosphere has a higher water content when the dew point climbs. A higher moisture content and warmer air leads to the discomfort we feel.. conversely, higher moisture content at a low temperature would still lead to high relative humidity, but because the overall amount of moisture colder air can hold is much less, we don’t feel it the same way.

Hope this makes sense, and helps!

Darren Maier
Chief Meteorologist
WEAU-TV

It appears that what he’s saying here is that yes, the dew point provides an accurate prediction of the degree of discomfort we can expect, relative to the air temperature and the relative humidity. 

In other words, my commenter and I are both right.

But here’s the thing:  I didn’t mean to imply that humidity plays no role in human discomfort levels during a heat wave.  That was not what I meant at all.  In re-reading the post and the meteorologist’s response, I realized that I could, and should, have been clearer and more specific in my original post.

And here’s where the GUMP lesson comes in.  Two lessons, in fact.

The first is one that I did OK on.  I thought I might be wrong, and I checked my facts.  As writers, we need to keep an open mind.  We need to be willing to question our own assumptions, and above all, be willing to admit when we are wrong.  Have faith in our readers’ intelligence.  Even when you think you’re right, if you are challenged by a reader, you should check your facts before responding.

Stubbornness has no place in academia.  Remember,  A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.  –Emerson

Emerson does not mean we shouldn’t be consistent.  He means we shouldn’t be foolishly consistent—or in other words, we should not cling to an opinion in the face of information that brings its accuracy into question.

Which leads me to the second lesson, which I didn’t do so well on last week, and that is to write clearly.  Be accurate.  This should go without saying, but it bears repeating.  Do not assume that just because you know what you mean, your audience will too.  Always read your work critically before submitting it, and try to read as if you were a member of your own audience.  What questions have you left unanswered?  Where might you be misunderstood?  Most of us have had the experience of having someone say, “What did you mean here?  I don’t get this part.”  And when this happens, it’s not the reader’s fault.  It’s yours.

Or in this case, mine.

This isn’t a lesson in meteorology.  It’s a lesson in writing.

WIP: Dilemmas

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I went to Fed-Ex Kinko’s the other day and had them print out a hard copy of the Eighteen Crossroads draft, which is currently 178 pages long (just under 55,000 words).  This was not a task I wanted to do at home, since I wasn’t sure my printer could handle it, and in any event, I knew I wouldn’t have enough ink.

I handed my flash drive to the girl at the counter, and she asked if I wanted single- or double-sided pages.

I hadn’t realized printing this thing would present me with dilemmas.

Double-sided printing would make it look and feel more like a real book.  It was tempting.  But it’s not a book yet—it’s only a working draft (and an unfinished one at that), and I was printing it, after all, to work on it.

Single-sided, I said.

Then she asked if I wanted it bound.  Again, it was tempting; binding it, of course, would make it look and feel like a real book.  But again, I hesitated.  Remember your purpose here, I told myself.  But I pictured a box full of loose pages and knew that would be potentially even worse.

So I had her three-hole punch it and stick it in a loose-leaf binder.  (It’s a binder, right?  So it’s bound.)

I’ve been carrying this thing pretty much everywhere with me all week, and have been reading it just as if I were reading a real book—which means I’ve been interacting with it, interrogating it, engaging with it, and sometimes talking to it, either in writing (I always read with a pen in hand) or out loud.

It has a lot of good spots in it. . .  And a lot that aren’t so good.  Printing on one side was a good idea, it turns out, because in addition to writing in the margins as I usually do, I’ve been using the blank sides of the facing pages to write notes.

Lots and lots of notes.  In fact, that’s the only writing I’ve done this week.

There are only a few stories that aren’t drafted yet, and I wanted to get a feel for exactly where the novel as a whole was at before writing them.  Where am I now, and where do I need to go?  What do these so-far-unwritten stories need to do, in order for the novel to maintain (or even achieve) the coherence I want it to have?

A conventional novel, one that starts with a beginning and moves logically (and at least fairly linearly) toward a conclusion, generally has a pretty identifiable coherence to it.  But Eighteen Crossroads isn’t a conventional novel, and I’m finding it trickier to identify the degree to which the necessary elements are clicking together the way they’re supposed to.  The novel as a whole should certainly have an overall coherence, yes, but as this is a collection of short stories that also need to be able to stand alone, this is not a single linear story, and it’s not supposed to be.  Each stand-alone is a sort of vignette from an individual life, and collectively, they also have a larger meaning, a significance that reaches beyond this particular family.

Or that’s the plan, anyway.  And I’ve been surprised at the places where the book so far does, and does not, seem to be achieving the goals I’ve set for it.

There have been other surprises this week as well.  More than anything, I’ve been surprised to discover that reading the hard copy is different from reading the electronic copy I’ve been working with on my computer screen.  That is to say, I read differently, and I react differently to what I’m reading.  The story I thought was going to need the most revision, for instance, turns out in hard copy to be one of my favorites.  And the one that’s been my favorite all along is going to need more revision than I’d thought.

This “bound” hard copy, all in all, is a very different manuscript from the electronic one I’ve been writing.

And this made me wonder—with the popularity of e-books, of Kindles and Nooks and whatever other e-readers are out there on the rise, will people read differently?  Do they already?  And if so, in what way(s) do they read differently, and will writers need to find a way to accommodate this new way of reading?  Should the hard copy and the e-copy of a book differ somehow, and if so, how?  Does the advent of the e-book create dilemmas not just in publishing, but also for writing itself?

Suddenly my dilemma about going with one-sided pages or double-sided pages pales in the face of the questions that arise as I read and annotate the draft.

I don’t have a Nook or a Kindle, but I’d be very interested in getting feedback from people who do.  Have you found your reading habits changing in any way with the e-reader?  Do you enjoy books more, or less, now that you’ve made the switch?  Do you still read hard-copy (that is, printed) books, or have you made a complete transition to electronic reading?  And most particularly, can you think of any books that you’ve read in both print and e-book form, and what differences, if any, did you find in your reading experiences?

I hope you’ll take a minute to share your thoughts.  I really want to know!

Pot Luck: Yeah. It’s hot.

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Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley (CA), I’d always been accustomed to hot summers.  It wasn’t at all unusual to hit the ninety-degree mark in May and be pretty much stuck hovering right around that mark until July, when the triple digits arrived.  And August could be blast furnace hot.  The kind of heat where you don’t even realize you’re sweating because it evaporates so fast.  The kind of heat that, if there’s any wind at all, feels like a hair dryer in your face.

Our house didn’t have any air conditioning.  Instead, we had a big exhaust fan in the bathroom window at one end of the house, and every night, we’d crank that puppy on full blast and open all the bedroom windows at the other end of the house.  It was the only way to get any sleep.  If it wasn’t cool, at least the air was moving.

We could hit 110, even 115 degrees by mid-August and it never seemed to make the news.  But when a heat wave hit New York or Chicago—a “heat wave” in those parts being in the neighborhood of 85 degrees—it made headlines.  I never could understand that.  To us, 85 degrees constituted a fine spring day.

Now I know  better.

Summer in Wisconsin is short, but it can be brutal.  People complain all winter long about the cold, but come July, it’s the heat that makes us fall to pieces.  And it has been hot this week.  Seriously hot.

The official definition of a heat wave in these parts is when it hits 90 degrees for three days straight.  We’ve been in the nineties all week, with heat-index temps hovering around a hundred.

Back in California, hitting ninety meant things were cooling down.  Even a hundred, out there, is pretty normal.  Not so, here.

Everyone says it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.  But more accurately, it’s the dew point.  Before I moved to Wisconsin, I had never heard of dew point; apparently in California it’s a non-issue.

But it has great significance here.  There are ninety-degree days, and then there are ninety-degree days.  They are not all created equal.  A ninety-degree day in Southern California is a completely different species from a ninety-degree day in Northwestern Wisconsin.  And dew point is what makes the difference.

Dew point, if you’ll excuse a ridiculously oversimplified definition (feel free to google a more complex one), is the temperature at which dew will form.  That is to say, the point at which the air turns to water.  The higher the dew point is in relation to the air temperature, the heavier and thicker the air is, and the heavier and thicker the air is, the harder it is to breathe.  When dew points are high, perspiration can’t evaporate because it has nowhere to go.  The air is already so saturated that if there’s no breeze, you have little choice but to stew, more or less literally, in your own sweat.

It is a purely miserable feeling, and it simply makes you hotter than the same temperature would in the desert.

California, Nevada, Arizona . . those are deserts.  Not a great deal of water around those parts.  But if everyone knows Minnesota is the land of ten thousand lakes, they’re often unaware that Wisconsin can brag of more than a million acres of its own.  That’s a lot of evaporation going on.

As I understand it, places with more water in the ground have more water in the air as well, and thus they also have higher dew points.

A dew point under 60 degrees is pretty livable.  But once it hits 60, it gets pretty sticky.  The dew points here all week have been in the low to mid SEVENTIES.  For people with respiratory issues, dew points in the 70’s (and heaven forbid, the 80’s) can be deadly.  If your dew points are up there, you need to find someplace with central air conditioning and stay there until the heat wave breaks.  That’s no joke.

And if you’re currently suffering triple-digit temperatures in an arid climate, and you can’t understand why all these 90-degree temperatures elsewhere are grabbing all the headlines, you can blame the dew point.  In this kind of saturated air, the human body simply can’t cool itself.

I understand that you’re sick and tired of hearing people tell you how lucky you are that you’ve got dry heat, but believe me—you are.

GUMP: Grammatical Mysteries Solved

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Most well-meaning people strive to use correct grammar in day-to-day speech and writing, but sometimes the “correct” usage is a mystery, and we just sort of guess.  And unfortunately, a lot of us guess wrong.  So for today’s GUMP post, I thought I’d address three of the most common grammatical mysteries.

1.  Should I use WHO or WHOM?

You do not automatically sound smarter when you insert a WHOM into your speech.  Whom has very specific grammatical rules, and it’s probably because so many people don’t understand those rules that the word is not in common use anymore.  When in doubt, use WHO, and you will rarely be challenged.

However, if you want to use WHOM correctly, try this easy test:

Consider whether HIM or HE will fit into the sentence instead, and you’ll know immediately whether you should use WHO or WHOM.  Just remember the M.  If he is the correct choice, you’ll use WHO (HE and WHO do not contain M’s).  If him is the correct choice, then you’ll use WHOM (HIM and WHOM both contain an M).

Example 1:

The lady who/whom crashed into my car was drunk.

Now choose:  HIM crashed into my car.  OR  HE crashed into my car.

The choice is obvious:  HE crashed into my car is correct.

There is no M in HE.

Therefore you need WHO in the original sentence:  The lady who crashed into my car was drunk.

Example 2:

I wasn’t sure who/whom I should thank for the gift.

Now choose:  I should thank HIM.  OR I should thank HE.

Obviously, I should thank HIM is correct.

There is an M in HIM.

So WHOM is correct in the sentence:  I wasn’t sure whom I should thank for the gift.

Another easy rule of thumb:  If there’s a preposition, you’ll use WHOM.  To whom, from whom, behind whom, under whom.  To WHOM should I address my comments?  To HIM.

(I apologize for the apparently sexist nature of this advice, but the mnemonic just doesn’t work with SHE and HER.)

2.  Should I use ME or I

One of the most common mysteries.  In fact, it was my mom’s #1 pet peeve.  Between she and I, we’ve been fighting it for years.  Her estimation of a person’s intelligence would plummet the moment the error emerged from that person’s lips.  Which is a shame, since many very intelligent people do it.  I’ve heard newscasters and even English teachers do it.

Did you catch the error?  Didja?  Huh?  It’s there.  Read that paragraph again.

If you didn’t catch it, chances are pretty good that you might even do it yourself.

The Mystery:  “Between she and I,” which appears in the above paragraph, is an error.  Similarly, “Tom is going to the movies with Mary and I” is incorrect.  So is “This is a picture of my dog and I” and so is “The university’s decision to change the graduation requirements affected the other students and I worse than most other people.”   It really bothers my mom and I when people do this!

The Solution:  You can check for correctness by taking the second person/other people out of the sentence.  Leave yourself in.

“Tom and I are going to the park” can be changed to “I am going to the park,” and you can see it works just fine.

But when you change “Tom is going to the movies with Mary and I” to “Tom is going to the movies with I,” you can see immediately that it’s obviously wrong, as is “the new requirements affected I.”  And “it really bothers I” is just plain silly.

It really, truly is correct to say “Tom is going to the movies with Mary and me.”  Or “This is my favorite picture of my dog and me.”  (Or even “me and my dog,” though technically, the other person should come first.)

3.  Should I use ITS or IT’S?

Here’s the thing with this one:  IT’S is ALWAYS a contraction of IT IS.

Always.  Period.  No exceptions.

This grammatical mystery exists because we have been taught that when you add an S in a possessive, you need to add an apostrophe as well.

Most of us know to add an apostrophe to show possession:  This is Melinda’s blog.

So when we use the possessive of IT, we often add an apostrophe before the S, perhaps without even thinking.

But stop and think about it.  HERS, OURS, and THEIRS are all possessive, too, and none of them uses an apostrophe.  Possessive pronouns don’t use them.  They just don’t.

So the check for this one is another simple substitution.   If you’re not sure which one to use in a sentence, replace it with IT IS.

IT’S hot outside” becomes “IT IS hot outside.”  Ahh.  Correct.

And “the cow chewed IT’S cud” becomes “The cow chewed IT IS cud.”

Yeah, that pretty much makes NO sense.  The correct choice here is ITS.

There!  Three mysteries solved!  Don’t you feel better?

I do.

WIP: Magic

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What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic. –Carl Sagan, from “The Persistence of Memory” http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Carl_Sagan

Among my very earliest memories is a vivid image of my best friend and next door neighbor, Monica (then known as Mickey) and me drawing pictures of cats. In order to draw a cat (the way I first drew them as a child), I started with an M. The M was its ears.

The point is, I knew what an M was.

We must have been about three at that point, maybe four. I know I was less than five, because when I was five, we moved away.

This means I could write an M before I could draw a cat, and though this fact may not be enormously surprising (as my name, after all, begins with an M), it does emphasize the point I’m trying to make, which is that writing, in my life, has such early roots that I don’t remember learning to do it.

Similarly, I don’t really remember learning to read. I can’t recall a time when I couldn’t. As an only child, I often found books to be my best company, and from the time I could read by myself, I read everything I could get my hands on. Books, to me, were windows into worlds I would never see. Worlds their authors saw and wanted to share. Some of my favorites were Carolyn Hayward’s “Little Eddie” series and all the Beverly Cleary books in the third grade; Harriet the Spy and The Long Secret along with all the Walter Farley and Marguerite Henry books in the fourth, which was also when I scandalized the PTA by doing a book report for school on Arthur Hailey’s Airport; and Sid Fleishmann’s, Joan Aiken’s, and Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s books in the fifth.

And the more I read, the more I wanted to write. Not just physical writing–printing or cursive–but writing as the transmission of ideas and the creation of worlds.

It was my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Harrow, who got me started. Her specialty, fortuitously, was creative writing, and every Friday, she would post a full-page photo from Life Magazine on the board, folding it over to hide a crucial detail, and have us write a story that would complete the picture. In another exercise, she once provided a long list of items and asked us to pick three of them and write a story about how we would survive on a desert island with just those items. I recall one that I picked was a hubcap, which I proposed to use as a plate.

I may not remember much of anything else from fifth grade (so I’m probably not smarter than a fifth grader), but I do remember the writing assignments.

Mrs. Harrow liked my stories a lot, but found them frustrating because they rarely had endings. I had such trouble with endings in those days that she called my mom in for a conference to discuss it, thinking there must be some deep-seated psychological reason for it. I don’t remember if there was, or what solution they came up with, but my first complete story—a ten-page mystery-suspense short titled “The Intruder”— was the product of it. It was the first story I’d ever finished. Mrs. Harrow was quite pleased with it, and so was I. Being a pack rat, I probably still have it here somewhere, still buckled into its navy blue folder.

I still have trouble with endings—and sometimes beginnings and middles as well—but if I’m patient and keep my mind open, the ideas come.

Where do they come from? Where does writing come from? As I write the words on the page right now, what intellectual or imaginative force is at work to create a sentence, to transmit an idea?

I don’t know. It must be magic.

Pot Luck: Time Warp

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“How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?”
Dr. Seuss

My son was lamenting to me on the phone this morning about how quickly the time is going by as he watches his son grow.

“It’s going by too fast,” he said.

I laughed.  BAD Mommy!  But seriously, his kid is four months old.

“He was just three months old,” my son said.  “Just a couple of weeks ago.  And now he’s already over four months.  I don’t know where the month went.”

I forbore to point out how I feel, with my son himself now being over thirty and all.  Where did it go?

And honestly, I didn’t laugh because it was funny.  I didn’t laugh to be mean.  I laughed because my son’s remark means he now Gets It.

Life is short.  It goes by too fast.  And you never realize how fast it’s going by until well after  you hit all those milestones you held your breath waiting for, the ones you thought would never get here.

Ten:  Two numbers!  I’m a big kid now!

Thirteen:  I’m a teenager!

Sixteen:  I can drive!

Eighteen:  I can vote!

Twenty-one:  I can drink!

Twenty-five:  Uh oh.

Thirty:  Oh crap.

And that’s about when you start assessing your life and thinking the fun is all over.

It’s not.  But it does start going by faster.

I was just a couple years past thirty myself when I started to really notice it.  I mentioned it to a friend—“Why is it that life seems to go by so much faster as you get older?”  And he gave me the first and only logical answer I’d ever received from anyone:  “Because the older you are, each year that goes by is a smaller and smaller percentage of your life.”

When you’re ten, a year is a tenth of your life.  When you’re thirty, it’s a thirtieth.  When you’re fifty, it’s a fiftieth.  A fiftieth is a whole lot smaller than a tenth.  The speed of time is exponential.

The milestones change.  Forty.  Fifty.  Sixty-five (retirement?  Can I afford it?  Ack!).  Eighty.  Ninety, if you’re really lucky.  And all through these years you’re asking, What have I accomplished?  Have I set out to do all I wanted to?  Seen what I wanted to see?  Been where I wanted to go?  Said what I wanted to say?

You start making Bucket Lists.

All the things you tell your kids as they’re growing up—all the things your own parents told you as you were growing up—are true.  Or anyway, all the things in the category I’m considering here are true.

Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up.  You’ll be an adult for a lot longer than you’ll be a kid, so enjoy being a kid while you can.

But kids don’t listen.  They don’t believe you.  They don’t have the tools.  And by the time they do, they’re wearing the shoes you were wearing when you told them that in the first place, and now they’re saying it to their own kids.

Life is short.

It goes by too fast.

But—and this is a big but—it’s not over ‘til it’s over.

And the thing is, we’re so busy telling kids to enjoy being kids while they can, that not enough of us spend enough time enjoying being adults—that is, just being alive.  “Life begins at forty,” they say—but really it begins every day, the moment you open your eyes in the morning.

Every minute we get is precious, and we need to not take them for granted.  Our time here is not guaranteed.  The older I get, the more aware I am of this fact.

I don’t have a bucket list (yet) but I am hyper-aware that every minute I spend playing Candy Crush or doing something else equally brainless is a minute I won’t get back.  I’d better really want to do whatever it is.

And there’s so much I want to do.

“Enjoy life. There’s plenty of time to be dead.”
Hans Christian Andersen

GUMP: Rules of Engagement, Part 2

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As I said last week, first-year students often struggle with forming and expressing personal opinions based on assigned reading, and with reading comprehension itself.  Last week, in Rules of Engagement, Part 1, I discussed the reading comprehension issue and offered tips for improving both comprehension and engagement.

Today, Part 2 is about the other half of the problem: forming and expressing personal opinions.

The source of the problem is simple:  First-year students are not often enough trained to think critically, and thus many of them are ill-equipped to take a carefully-considered position on much of anything.  Therefore, when asked for an opinion, they too often fall back on knee-jerk reactions, and they often do so hesitantly, qualifying each statement with an “I think” or “I feel” or “In my opinion.”

This is because too many of them have been told, all too often, that their opinions don’t matter, and to “stick to the facts” when writing papers.  Students are too often led to believe that facts are solid, static, and unchanging, and that “education” consists almost exclusively of successfully memorizing them.

And in many of their K-12 classrooms, that’s fine.  Even in many college-level survey courses, the memorization of information is necessary to an understanding of that information.

But they need to do more than memorize.  Learning and memorizing are not the same thing.  And the thing is, facts are darned slippery little buggers.  Don’t believe me?  Let’s try a little challenge.

How many planets are there?  If you grew up in my generation, you’ll say nine, because we grew up knowing for a FACT that there were nine planets.  But then you’ll stop, confused, because Pluto, as you know, is no longer considered a planet.  And meanwhile, we also now know that hundreds of thousands, if not billions, of other planets are busily revolving around other Suns than our own.  There are many, many more than nine.  Nine, or even eight, is an overly simplistic, knee-jerk response.   The facts have changed.

Who discovered America?  If you automatically said Christopher Columbus, you might not know he never set foot on North American soil at all.  Most people know he took Indians back with him to Spain, but many don’t know he took them there to sell them as slaves—or that many argue this constituted the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade.  He also enslaved them right there on Hispaniola, sending them out to fill hawks’ bells with gold.  If they returned without sufficient gold, their hands were cut off.  Tell me again–why is he considered a hero?  And if we just ignore his geography and say he discovered the Americas (note the S), then I ask, Why do we consider it a discovery at all?  Just because Europeans didn’t know it was there?  Millions of people were living here already.  They certainly knew it was here.

My point, of course, is that the “fact” that Columbus discovered America and the “fact” that he’s a hero are both in wide dispute—yet a great many of today’s history textbooks persist in ignoring these debates, even though they’ve been raging for a good twenty years.

What’s healthier, butter or margarine?  Is coffee good for you?  Should pregnant women drink wine?  How many eggs should you eat per week?  The “facts” about all of these have changed multiple times just in the past few years.

Facts are slippery.

Yet K-12 students continue to focus most of their intellectual energy on memorizing them, in whatever shape they happen to present themselves in their classrooms and textbooks.

Students need to stop memorizing and start thinking.  Challenging.  Questioning.  They shouldn’t be taught to ask only WHAT, but more importantly, also WHY and HOW.  But even the answers to those questions generally constitute facts based on other people’s opinions.  When do the students get to form their own?  When will they be encouraged to form their own?

In too many cases, not until they get to college.

All of these problems have roots in what Paulo Freire calls “the ‘banking’ concept of education,” which itself is the result of the power struggle between teachers and students.

Many K-12 teachers are overworked.  Many, unfortunately, are uninspired.  Many are simply victims of a system that is the way it is, and has been that way for generations.  And as a result, many classrooms are run as hierarchies, wherein the teacher is the Information Provider and the students are the Information Absorbers.  As Freire puts it, “In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry.”

College is all about, or should be all about, the process of inquiry.  All educators should nurture this process.

But too many first-year students are accustomed to being told to keep their opinions to themselves.  Too many of them are told, “Nobody cares what you think—just give me the facts.”

In other words, soak up everything I’ve told you, memorize it, and squeeze it back out for me on Friday’s test, unchanged, unchallenged, and without question.

Students who question, who challenge, who butt heads with the prescribed realities are often labeled troublemakers.  Many teachers will tell you the brightest kids in the room are often the most disruptive.

Surprise, surprise.

While it’s true that most college instructors will wince and squirm at every “I think,” I feel,” “I believe,” and “In my opinion” that appears in a student paper, that doesn’t mean we’re not interested in hearing what our students think.  In fact, most of us are very interested indeed in learning what our students think, and in nurturing their thinking processes.

But this is not to say we want to hear knee-jerk, canned, propagandized regurgitations of other people’s opinions.  We don’t.

Do not tell me a writer “does an excellent job” of blah blah blah.

Do not tell me you “completely agree” with someone else’s position.

Form your own.

If you can present that position in a paper without falling back on “I think” and “I feel,” and if you can defend it logically and cogently, then you will begin to develop confidence that your opinion matters.

Because it does.

 

The Freire quotes were taken from Chapter 2 of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which I encourage you to read in its entirety here:  http://www2.webster.edu/~corbetre/philosophy/education/freire/freire-2.html

WIP: Who’d a Thunk It?

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When my kids were small, we lived in a constant state of clutter. Most moms can probably understand this. Not pigsty clutter, just three-little-kids-and-not-enough-time clutter. I was a full-time student, and to be honest, raising three little boys really is like nailing Jello to a tree. But over time, I came up with a couple of fabulous fixes for the perpetual problem of trying to keep the house clean.

One of them was Job Jar. I confess, the idea wasn’t my own—I found it in my beloved Mother’s Almanac (by Marguerite Kelly and Elia Parsons, 1975), which was, and in my opinion continues to be, the most useful parenting book in the history of publishing, though it’s unfortunately now out of print. The concept is simple: On Saturday morning (or whenever you feel like it), you make a list of all the household chores that need to be done. Write each job on a separate little slip of paper, fold them up, and put them in a jar (or fishbowl, hat, cereal bowl, whatever’s handy). Starting with the youngest family member, have each participant choose one slip at a time until the bowl is empty. Nobody can open their slips until they’ve all been handed out. After the hilarity dies down (“OMG, Tyler’s gonna mop the floor? He’s THREE!”), each person does whatever jobs are on the slips s/he has chosen.

Oh yes, that’s for real. I will never forget the time Tyler got to mop the floor.

There was something about Job Jar that made my kids almost enjoy it. It made work into a game.

It also resulted in quality family time instead of trauma and threats, and it taught the kids to do all kinds of things, and it lessened my own burden. I saw no reason why boys shouldn’t know how to do laundry, dust, vacuum, mop, wash dishes, clean grout, wash windows, scour sinks. All of it.

Of course I had to accept that not all of the jobs would be done perfectly. Most of them weren’t done perfectly, in fact. Expectations of perfection went out the window. But the time Tyler got to mop the floor, though it wasn’t perfect, he was pleased with himself, and it got done again the following week.

And the house always wound up cleaner than it started.

You are wondering, no doubt, what all of this has to do with writing. This is WIP Day, after all.

Here it is: I’ve mentioned before that I have Real Issues with Butt-in-Chair Syndrome. My WIP is a composite novel, aka a short story cycle. It’s comprised of eighteen stories, each told from a different protagonist’s point of view. Several stories are finished (or as finished as they’re going to get until I have a complete first draft); a couple are complete but in need of major revisions; several are started but stuck; and a few aren’t even started, though I do know the plot basics.

When I sit down to write, however good my intentions might be, I often don’t know where to begin or which story to work on. I often go back to my default (research is my default—one can never know too much) while I wait for inspiration to strike.

Waiting for inspiration to strike is a profoundly unprofessional way to write, I’m told. But on Saturday it stuck in a very unexpected way.

I remembered Job Jar.

And I thought, Well, why not?

First, I made a list of the characters whose stories are stuck or aren’t written yet. (I didn’t include those that are in any way complete.) I wrote each name on a separate slip of paper and folded them up, and then, lacking a jar, I put them in a Tupperware container. Then I asked my husband to pick one, so I couldn’t cheat.

Of course he asked what I was doing.

I explained my plan to him: I would set a timer for ten minutes, and focusing on that character’s story, I would write until the timer went off. No prep, no planning, no research. Just writing. Ten minutes at a time. Butt In Chair.

I thought it sounded great. But he saw a snag.

“You’re not going to like the one I pick,” he said. “You’ll just put it back and tell me to pick a different one.”

I promised I wouldn’t.

So he reached in and pulled one out.

The one he picked was one of the “stuck” stories. And he was right—I was tempted to tell him to pick again. But I’d made a promise, so I sat down and opened the file on my laptop, read it through, and started fiddling.

And forgot all about the timer. It never even made it out of the kitchen.

Which is just as well, because far from spending only ten minutes on it, I wound up writing into the wee hours of that night. And it was writing I was happy with. By the time I went to bed, the story had taken a direction I hadn’t expected, and it now has a purpose beyond what I had originally planned for it.

It’s still not done, but it’s no longer stuck—I know where it’s going, even if I don’t know yet exactly where it will end up. And I can’t wait to get back to it.

So yeah, Job Jar. Who’d a thunk it?

What do you do when you’re suffering from Butt-in-Chair Syndrome? Any ideas to share?

Pot Luck: Oooooh. Ahhhhhh.

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When I was growing up, there was never, ever any question about what my mom and I would be doing on the Fourth of July.  Watching the fireworks together was a tradition, and it goes back as far as I can remember.  My mom loved fireworks more than almost anything else I can think of.  She would pack a picnic, our favorite picnic blanket, and a couple of folding chairs, and we’d go to Reseda Park, or sometimes Balboa Park, and stake out a spot from which to join the thousands of other revelers in uttering oohs and ahhs.

We did that every year, all through the 60’s and halfway through the 70’s, until I was fifteen or sixteen, at which point I decided, as teens do, that I was too busy socially, and too cool, to spend the 4th with my mom.  Interestingly enough, I have no recollection at all of what I did instead during those years.

Which makes it fairly easy to fast-forward though them.  Not even a fast-forward.  More like a warp.

But of the mid-80’s through the 90’s, my memories are clear.  Now a mom myself, I would pack up my three boys and head down to San Diego, where my mom now lived in a beautiful townhome.  The morning of the 4th would find the five of us parked in folding chairs on Mira Mesa Blvd to watch the Independence Day parade—small-town parading at its best, really, with homemade floats festooned with bunting and paper streamers, moms pushing strollers, middle-school marching bands, uniformed Cub Scouts on bicycles waving flags, and local fire and police vehicles with lights flashing and sirens blaring—and then we’d go back to Mom’s house to nap or swim.

And then, as evening approached, we’d head for the park to stake out a spot, loaded as in earlier years with folding chairs and our favorite picnic blanket, but now also armed with a portable barbecue, hot dogs and hamburgers, and s’mores fixings.  The boys would play Frisbee or baseball while Mom and I tended to the feast, and afterwards, we’d toast marshmallows until it got too dark to see.  And that that point, a reverent hush would fall over the whole park as everyone positioned themselves facing West for the best view of the pyrotechnics.

Oooooh.  Ahhhhhh.

Those were good years.

I moved to Wisconsin in 2000, and Mom followed in 2002.  The boys by then had reached that teenage stage I remember so well—too socially busy and too cool to spend the Fourth of July with Mom and Grandma.  But Mom and Grandma didn’t sit at home on the Fourth of July.  Oh no.

For the first couple of years after she moved here, I’d pick her up after dinner, drive through Culver’s to get a sundae, and unload our folding chairs in the Senior Center parking lot, which afforded a pretty good view of the fireworks over Carson Park.  But more and more people showed up there every year with larger and larger fireworks of their own, and when an errant bottle rocket zipped past right under our noses one year, we decided it was time to find a new spot.

In her 80’s now and not so mobile anymore, Mom and I developed a new tradition for the rest of the 2000’s: We’d still drive through Culver’s and get a sundae (she’d get a Turtle and I’d get a Caramel Cashew), but then instead of setting up folding chairs, I’d park in a spot with a good view of the fireworks and we’d just watch them from the car.

Our quest for the best viewing spot took us to a new parking place each year, but to be honest, none of those spots was ever quite what we’d been hoping for.  Throughout the year, as I drove through town, I’d say to myself—“Hmm, this looks like a good spot for the fireworks.”  And come the next July, we’d check that one out.

I don’t think my mom ever knew how much these evenings meant to me.

My mom passed away in 2010, the day after Christmas.  We had discussed potential resting places beforehand, but hadn’t settled on anything before she became too ill to care.

It was up to me.

I chose a spot at Lakeview Cemetery, across Half Moon Lake from Carson Park, which is the home base of the City of Eau Claire’s annual fireworks display.  I explained my purpose to the cemetery manager, and the two of us walked all over the cemetery in search of a spot with the very best view.

We found a great spot.

So now there’s a new twist on the old tradition.  My eldest son lives in California now, but my two younger boys, now beyond the “too cool” stage, will sit with me tonight at my mom’s grave as the fireworks rise above the trees and explode over the lake in glittering showers.

It’s a fabulous view.  The best.

Oooooh.  Ahhhhhh.

I will never stop watching fireworks with my mom.

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