Thursday, October 24, 2013

(Not-so) Novel Concepts

This past Tuesday, Pulitzer-prize-winning author Michael Chabon (author of Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and more) was on campus to give a talk. Squeee! Being the total literary celebrity junkie that I am, I was super jazzed to have an author of Chabon’s caliber coming to give a talk in our little town of Nowhere, Tennessee. Not that I had ever read any of Chabon’s books…that’s not the important part! The important part was that I had always wanted to read his books, anyway, so this was really just an extra-good reason to get on that project, and maybe also suck up some of his literary glow just by being in the same room with him.

Chabon is not the first writer I have gone to see live, in person. During my PhD, I had opportunities to hear academic superstars give talks, including Gayatri Spivak and Julia Kristeva. (Though I drew the line at actually taking Kristeva’s class on Proust…all of In Search of Lost Time in one semester??? No thanks!) While I lived in New York City, I got to hear Colson Whitehead, Jonathan Lethem, and Margaret Atwood read, and in DC, I went to hear John Irving do a reading. What differentiated Chabon from some of the others (like Irving, notably!) was that, well, he seemed pretty normal. Funny, self-deprecating, approachable, genuinely nice. Which is great, since we all know what a crazy-bonkers person Jonathan Franzen has become…(I like to call him the post-couch Tom Cruise of literature.) Additionally, Chabon did not do a reading of his latest novel (Telegraph Avenue, from last year), like most fiction writers when they give talks. Instead, he gave a talk about…writing.

For the most part, I am not a fan of writing about writing. It seems…fatuous, self-indulgent, redundant, and boring. Kind of like spectating instead of participating. I mean, if I have time to read about writing, why don’t I just sit down at the computer and…write? Similarly, inspirational talks are also nauseating to me, as I can’t ever get over how fake they seem. I mean, aren’t inspirational speakers basically on the same level as, say, tele-evangelists? Chabon’s talk, however, managed to be both inspirational and about writing and about himself and his inspirations without being boring, self-indulgent or self-help-y.

Chabon talked about how being a writer is like being a superhero whose power is, well, writing, of course! Superheroes, according to Chabon, get their powers from inheritance (like Superman), discipline (like Batman), and/or luck (like Spiderman). Writers must draw on all of these elements or “superpowers” for their creativity. Chabon spent the most time discussing his story-teller’s inheritance: his father’s love of word play and his mother’s attention to detail, among others. But he also spoke eloquently about the role of discipline in the writer’s profession.

“You are not born a writer.”

This is completely true. There are no writer-geniuses. While there have been mathematical or musical child-geniuses, the same does not apply with writing. There are no War & Peaces, no Pride and Prejudices, no Romeo and Juliets penned by 4-year-olds. Chabon also underscored that almost anyone can be a writer—it just takes discipline. You must become the Bruce Wayne of writing: apprentice yourself to masters, practice, take a beating, and keep going. Those of us who have finished our PhDs can appreciate this on the non-fiction level. In order to finish a dissertation, you have to put in some serious ass-in-chair time. That is basically the only difference between finishing and not. You sit and write and you get it done. End of story. No excuses.

Unfortunately, the PhD was my excuse for a long time (over six years now!) for not working on with my creative writing. I felt like my creative energy was being sapped by classes, papers, and teaching, and that I had nothing left over for my creative writing. Yet, I managed to write almost a whole novel during one semester of my Master’s degree. Of course, there is no doubt that a PhD is at least 20x harder and more taxing on the brain than an MA, but still. In order to write, all you need is 30 minutes a day. That’s it. As with reading, the more you write, the easier it becomes.

In his talk, Chabon touched on what a lot of writers have said and written about being a writer, things I often reminded myself while finishing the PhD: You must write, even when you don’t feel like it. Put in your 1,000 words a day, or whatever it is, no matter what. Some days are easier than others, but any excuse for not writing is just that, an excuse.

November is National Novel Writing Month, during which people all over the US and the world pledge to write a novel in a month, aka 50,000 words in 30 days, which equals 1,500/day, a little more than what Chabon cites as his usual daily goal of 1,000 words/day. Lastly year I tried—and failed, giving up at just over 16,000 words (a clear lack of ass-in-chair time). This year, I’m gearing up for another attempt with a different project…and I’m determined to put in the ass-in-chair time to make it to 50,000 words. Writing and publishing novels has been a dream of mine since I was a kid—why did I give up? As with having children, there is never a “good time” to write a novel. We will always have other claims on our time. Thus, we must find the time, make the time, and commit to it.

For those more academically-inclined, Academic Writing Month or Academic Book Writing Month has started to catch on as well. The idea is to set oneself a goal that would normally seem absurd for one month’s worth of time, and to, well, do it!

So, although I don’t think Michael Chabon necessarily intended to present a kind of writerly “call to arms,” I certainly left the auditorium feeling jazzed about my novel, getting back to writing, and, in general, becoming the Bruce Wayne of Writing.

For all that, I say: Thanks, Mike!
(Is it ok if I call you that? I’m going to assume, yes.)


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Fall Breakdown

So, anyone who knows me knows I love a good pun. When teaching an article on the gendering of meat, I made sure to ask my students, “What is the beef the authors have with this topic?” My students chuckled ironically while looking away in mild embarrassment. I simply can’t help myself, which is why the title of this post is not “Fall Break” (too boring), but “Fall Breakdown.”

It’s also called “Fall Breakdown” because, it seems, every fall there is a breakdown for both instructors and students. For students, it’s a result of the first round of midterms coinciding with the first (or second) round of papers at the same time they have the realization that—especially in the case of freshman—they had better get their rear in gear if they’re going to get the grades they want this semester. For us teacher-folk, the breakdown is the mid-semester head-clutching that starts happening when the papers aren’t improving, student morale is flagging, and we start questioning our techniques, syllabi, and texts. This head-clutching in turn leads to long evenings “talking shop” with other instructors, complaining about these issues as well as the general poor state of the American education system, which, I think we can all agree, allows its students to graduate high school and enter college with what many would deem a sixth-grade reading comprehension and writing level.

It’s hard to see the big picture when you are confronted with sentences in papers that have no verb, no noun, no visible grammatical structure, and, in general, seem as though they had been penned by a monkey taught to type on a computer keyboard. Obviously, some mistakes are the result of laziness—often flagrantly so. Not only do students leave words misspelled that any even half-way decent spell-check program would underline in bright red, but they also occasionally misspell my name…and sometimes, even their own names. Yes, typos: the obvious sign that you wrote the paper an hour before it was due.

Then there is the next level of writer error: the writer herself has no clue that she has
a) completely misunderstood the assignment;
b) completely misunderstood the text she is writing about;
c) merely paraphrased class discussions and sprinkled in some quotations with no regard as to whether they make sense or not;
d) so many grammar errors that it is next to impossible to understand the English in the paper; or e) a combination of the above.

When I encounter ten or more of such errors in a single class of 25 people, my faith in the education system begins to crumble…

This is generally how I feel about halfway through grading a stack of papers.
In discussing these issue with colleagues, we toss out various and sundry reasons for these issues…Student laziness, No Child Left Behind, increased reliance on standardized testing, Gen Y feelings of entitlement, school administrators’ resistance to failing students at the K-12 level or fear of having too high a drop-out rate. In the case of writing and reading comprehension, the obvious factor that students just don’t read very much for pleasure (if at all) is probably a realistic factor, as reading directly correlates to good writing.

So, what is a comp teacher to do? My job is to prepare these students to write at a college level, whatever that means. I take it to mean writing in a sophisticated, formal style that would be appropriate in nearly any job, whether in a lab report, brief, patient summary, grant proposal, etc. It also has to mean that students will be ready to write a variety of papers they will encounter during college: reports, summaries, argument papers, various kinds of analytical papers, and also lab reports, paper proposals, annotated bibliographies and reflections. When I think about all of this preparation, and the fact that my students are struggling with basic issues of organization and sentence structure, not to mention that half the time they don’t seem to understand the nuanced arguments of the (relatively simple) essays we read in class, I start to feel like I will never make a dent in all the things they need to know to become good writers.

When the mid-semester breakdown gets bad, I remind myself that good writing is not achieved in a day. While I myself may have entered college at a higher reading comprehension level or level of writing sophistication, I was not perfect.  There is, in fact, no such thing as a “writer genius.” Writing is never a matter of throwing words on the page (except, perhaps in the most basic of cases such as grocery lists or post-it notes), never to return to them. Writing, as I tell my students, is a process that, in the real world, often takes many more drafts than we would ever have time for in a comp classroom. Just as they cannot write a perfect paper in one or two drafts, so they cannot become perfect writers in one or even two semesters. I can try to give them detailed feedback, encourage them, and set them on the path to good habits as writers; I can motivate them with grades; I can make assignments that challenge them and introduce them to the requirements of college. Beyond that, they simply have to get through it and go on.

 I think about the kind of writing I did as an undergrad and even as a MA student—and I cringe. Even writing from the beginning of my PhD studies pales in comparison with my dissertation. And I have no doubt that my dissertation will be but a shadow of the writing I do in the future. The more we write, the better we become. The hopeful, optimistic side of me believes that my students will become better writers during the 15 weeks they have to endure with me, even if their writing level is still much lower than what I would wish for college freshman to have. Similarly, I hope that they will keep writing in future classes and will keep improving. This doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t think we need more rigorous standards at all levels—we do. But, as an instructor, I have to take these students as they come to me and do what I can: make as much lemonade as possible, to strain a metaphor.

So, maybe fall breakdown doesn’t have to be a breakdown. These are the moments, after all, that motivate us as teachers, even as we (sometimes) feel paralyzed by the size of the task before us. I will probably never come to terms with just how badly some of my students write, but I do what I can to help them improve. In the end, teaching writing is yet another way that my writing improves, too. After all, how many times can you write “where is your topic sentence?” on a student paper without thinking about where are my topic sentences? Similarly, I think back on previous semesters and I know that, at some point, most of my students will turn a corner. They will start to comprehend what it means to write a college paper and how to improve their writing, and they do it. Their papers improve—for the most part. Those who don’t improve, don’t improve because they didn’t try, which is a factor that I cannot control and, consequently, do not worry about.

So don’t you worry, either…I didn’t spend all of fall break thinking about my fall breakdown! I took some time off, put things in perspective, and returned to grading with hope and optimism for the rest of the semester. And booze in the fridge.

Just kidding!
(Not really.)