How to be a Great Writer

How to be a writer. Not just a writer; a great writer. Two easy steps.

  1. Sit on your butt.
  2. Write.

Beverages and music allowed.

That means you don’t dodishescheckemailmakecallsbalancethecheckbookpaybillsdochoreswatchtv or blog.

I’m writing this waiting for the tea to boil, so I’m claiming the beverage exception.

Don’t tell me how busy you are. It implies I’m not. I am. If you want it, you make the decisions you need to make.

But yes, sometimes you need to stop to clear your head, and yes, once you’ve written, trying to sell that writing kills your writing time. That’s truly the worst.

Tea’s done, time to stop.

P.S. Vinyl is better than CDs.

Reflections on 20 Years of College Teaching

least for students, as it should be, but still the real world.

It recently occurred to me that this semester starts my twentieth year of college teaching, all told — from my first freshman composition class as a grad student to my current teaching assignments.

If you do the math, my first semester of teaching was the Fall 2001 semester. I was teaching at a small, private college in a small New Jersey town with a train station direct to Penn Station in New York City. So yes, 9-11 occurred during my first semester teaching. On top of that, I had assigned essays by Salman Rushdie and Edward Said — two Muslim authors — for our reading the first class meeting after 9-11. I had planned this weeks before. On top of that, our reading by Edward Said was from his book Orientalism, which describes how western cultures misrepresent “oriental” cultures (a term that covers the Middle East to the farthest point in Asia), and how those misrepresentations serve western economic and political ends. And on top of that, some of my students had relatives who had died or were missing after the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

From anywhere on campus we could see the smoke rising from the tower site for weeks after the attack. Literally weeks.

So, talk about walking a tightrope. My students were shocked and traumatized. We all were. I sat down at the front of the class and asked them to talk. I let them talk. Then, somehow, we moved on. I covered the reading as carefully as I could. I didn’t register any particularly negative reactions at the time.

This is teaching. It’s what we do as college teachers. College is the real world: somewhat insulated, at least for students, as it should be, but still the real world.

Since that first course during that first semester teaching I’ve moved on to teach at other institutions. I’ve served as Program Chair three times at two different institutions and designed dozens of courses from the freshman to the graduate level. I’ve designed undergraduate and master’s level curriculum. I’m the guy who designed the program that trained your kid’s high school English teacher. I found I could picture an entire curriculum in my head, seeing how the courses work together, putting all the pieces in place for students who worked through it, designing the program of study to meet their most likely professional goals for the program. I’ve also published creative and scholarly works since then. I have five books out and two under contract and a number of poems, book reviews, short stories, creative non-fiction works and, while they’re not publications, almost 30 conference presentations.

I did this with almost zero institutional support. In 20 years of teaching, I’ve had one sabbatical that lasted one semester. Two of my terms as Chair were under a 4/4 load with ongoing publications and conferences, usually three conference presentations a year. One term was under a 3/3 load, but I was working on two books simultaneously at the time, plus conferences and other publications.

I’ve been busy.

What I’m going to say next is advice for college bound students and their parents. It may also be useful for graduate students.

First, most small, private, liberal arts colleges are far overpriced. Their faculty mostly lack meaningful accomplishments (they could never get jobs at state universities). They say that they’re so dedicated to teaching that they don’t have time to publish, but the truth is they can’t write and don’t have anything to say. I’ve only met one such faculty member who actually dedicated himself to the study of teaching instead of publishing, and he did in fact have a book. Just one, but he did it. I’ve spent most of my career being evaluated by people who haven’t published, some of whom were less educated than me. What does that tell you about how much these colleges value education? What educational quality are you or your child going to get from that institution?

Furthermore, most small private colleges are functionally racist, including their English departments. By functional racism I mean that the institution is more focused on an image than on its function as an educational and research institution. Small private colleges tend to fall into three categories: sports camp, vacation Bible school, or resort for rich kids. There’s another grouping, the business and professional private college, but they’re to be considered separately. In all of the first three cases, their educational mission is completely subordinate to their other identities, and faculty are expected to accommodate these secondary identities and, additionally, to conform to the image expected of college faculty by their student demographic. These expectations produce a fundamentally anti-diversity mindset that they justify in job searches with the word “fit.” This functional racism isn’t a “white only” kind of racism, but a “certain kinds of colors in certain places” kind of racism. So the department might hire one African American faculty member, but that person will always eventually leave for a state university. They won’t be comfortable there long term, very rarely. They’ll hire Asian and Indian faculty because they’re “whitenorities,” but only one each at most, and they generally won’t hire hispanics, because they’re “the help.” Hispanics clean their homes, not teach their college students.

There’s one more detail I need to add about teaching after 9-11. I was observed that day by the director of composition. It was that person’s job to observe me teach the class, give me feedback, and mentor me as a possible future college teacher. She told me after that class session that she wasn’t going to write up the class session and then never observed me again. Looking back, after serving as Chair a few times, I know why. It wasn’t because I didn’t do a good job or wouldn’t benefit from the feedback. She had no interest in helping to advance my future college career, and she had no interest because I didn’t fit the profile. Choosing not to write up that class session is understandable. Circumstances were unusual. But never scheduling another observation again? There are no good reasons for that.

I’ve done many class observations, been on many hiring committees, and led hiring committees. I’m very familiar with faculty observation. It’s usually clear what’s really going on. I had one member of a hiring committee advise against even interviewing a candidate because of the spelling of her last name. Yes — this faculty member just looked at the candidate’s last name and assumed she wouldn’t be able to speak English well. Racist much? She was yet another faculty member with no accomplishments but was deeply ingrained in the institution. She grew up around there. She fit the profile.

So my first advice is to send your children to state colleges and universities. Faculty are typically held to more objective standards for hiring and promotion and the institution usually has to pay more than lip service to diversity. The race issue matters. Every racist educational institution is anti-educational. It’s doing the opposite of educating students. It is hindering them. We are not living in a world where we can afford racism.

But, a caveat. Are all private colleges the same? No. Were my experiences entirely negative? No. I had some great faculty members who did support and advise me, and I’m grateful for them. But I have accurately described broadly observable patterns across the private college spectrum.

I have to further complicate matters. College teachers teach to the middle. They teach to the perceived middle of their student population in terms of academic ability. So it’s not true that college classes are the same everywhere. A highly ranked institution with a low acceptance rate has high performing students, so the middle is going to be at a higher bar than a lower ranked institution with lower performing students.

That means as future college students and their parents you should be concerned about the ranking of the college. Sorry, it’s true. Especially the college’s acceptance rate. Students need to get into the best colleges they can. They want to be somewhere that they’ll be in the middle or toward the top. If they’re too far beyond their peers, they’ll be undereducated. They should go to a better institution. The class valedictorian at a low ranked private college made a poor college choice. That person should have transferred to the flagship state college. They wouldn’t be valedictorian, but they’d get a much better education.

And here’s where we return to thinking about small private colleges. If the small private college is ranked in the top 100, seriously consider it. But be sure to consider the financial decision you’re making: look at the real cost of attendance after scholarships. Return on investment matters. You don’t want to pay $40,000 a year in tuition to get a degree in Education. Or even $20,000 a year in tuition. Do you want to graduate with $50,000 in student loan debt and then only get a job that pays $30,000 a year? Or even $40,000-$45,000? It’s much smarter to get your ed degree from a state university that only charges $8,000 a year in tuition. We need educators, badly, but high debt for a low paying job is a poor decision no matter what the field.

I have more to say. My next post will be about teaching.

My Blakean Life

I have been lax in celebrating William Blake’s birthday, which passed by recently, on Nov. 28th. A Londoner almost all of his life, he was born in 1757 and died in 1827, just short of his 70th birthday. He’s best known for The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, and within that, the poem “The Tyger,” and also for an excerpt from his long poem Milton a Poem which was set to music by Hubert Parry in a piece called “Jerusalem” (And did those feet…), a composition used as a school song for many schools around the world also famously covered by Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Selections from “Auguries of Innocence” are found in the Tomb Raider movies, his art in the Hannibal Lecter movies, and his poems are probably used for lyrics by contemporary musicians more than any other poet from any time. There are book-length lists of Blake poems set to music. 

I didn’t learn about Blake in school, however — I learned of him when I heard the song “William Blake,” which was written by Terry Scott Taylor for the band Daniel Amos on their Vox Humana album. Hearing that song was enough to get me to rush to — remember these? — a B. Dalton Bookseller, where I picked up a copy of the Viking Portable Blake. That started me on a journey that took me through graduate school, a dissertation, my first book, and then two Rock and Romanticism books. But it was all about music and literature from the beginning, not just the stuff they make you read in school, as it was for Blake himself, who originally sang many of those poems at dinner parties to his own original musical compositions. He was said to have a good singing voice, and scholars of music notated his compositions at the time, though those are lost to us now. Roy Starling was my first instructor in Romanticism, and he made Romantic poetry come alive for me, as he did all the literature he taught to all of his students at the college and high school levels. 

I chose Blake because I wanted a subject of study that I could attend to for twenty years without getting bored, and he has not disappointed. In addition to my own writing about Blake, I was also privileged to work with Michael Phillips on three occasions for Blake printmaking demonstrations, one of these resulting in an exhibit at Rollins College and another in an exhibit curated by Lee Fearnside that consisted of contemporary artists inspired by Blake alongside Phillips’s own reproductions of Blake’s work through his reproduction of his printmaking methods. 

And Blake has informed and inspired my own creative work — following in his footsteps I’m working on my own reworking of Milton’s Paradise Lost as a steampunk western as well as assorted collections of my own poetry. We will see where it all leads, but I remain grateful for what Blake has meant to me.

I should end this with Blake’s own words… 

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.

Line and Poetry

20821239I read a few pages of Mary Oliver’s Blue Horses (2014) this morning — which is very enjoyable, by the way, pick it up if you can — and while reading recalled an experience I had publishing one of my own poems in a small journal. The poem was a little gimmicky. Titled “Liber Abaci,” it was based on the Fibonacci sequence, a series of numbers in which each number is based on the sum of the two preceding ones: 0+1=1; 1+2=3; 2+3=5; 3+5=8; 5+8=13; 13+8=21, etc. The sequence was discovered by Leonard de Pisa in 1202, later known as Fibonacci, and is historically and mathematically significant because it’s so often found in nature: tree branches, leaves on a stem, bracts on a pine cone, fern leaves, and on and on.

I wrote my poem so that each line had a number of syllables corresponding to each sum in the sequence. 1, 3, 5, 8, 13, and then 21. The poem was six lines long ending with a twenty-one syllable line almost too long for the page, and it compared objects in nature to a woman waking up in the morning and not wanting to get out of bed. I used words like “stone” and “mountainous.”

Now I’d like to describe publishing in the United States: there’s real publishing, and then there’s poetry publishing. In real publishing, publishers allow authors to see proof copies and make corrections before the book goes to press. If the publisher edits or changes your work, you know about it, and you know how and usually why. In poetry publishing, at least most US poetry publishing, you don’t see your poem until you get it mailed back to you in the published work, you may not have even been told your work was being published, and often they — whoever they are, but they’re everywhere, you know them — do whatever they want to your poem without telling you.

In my case, the published product was eleven lines instead of six, none of the line breaks were followed, and of course that ridiculously long twenty-one syllable line was broken up into at least three lines. The editor of the collection didn’t understand the main conceit of the poem, didn’t understand the placement of the line breaks, and was only reading the poem for imagery and nothing else. In all fairness, it’s a weird and unexpected conceit, but the poem looked weird enough that s/he might have thought to ask first. I would bet, though, counting syllables doesn’t land on the editor’s radar, but even if it did in this case, the pattern may not have been identifiable.

Either way, I initially wanted to title this post “The Unbearable Stupidity of Poetry Publishers,” but somehow (and in the end only partially) restrained myself. To be honest, I’ve collected a number chapbooks and poetry collections over the past couple of years, and aside from the big publishing houses, what I find is very inconsistent. Some of it is very good, but quite often poetry publishers and editors seem to care only about what is being said with no attention to how, or how well, and the results are often juvenile and embarrassing. Poetry publishing follows the basic US business model: selling a lot of stuff cheap will make you rich, so don’t sweat the details or worry about quality. Save time and money and just get it out there, especially if you can get a bunch of people to pay you to publish their work. The product itself doesn’t matter.

So I’d like to start on the ground floor about what a poem is. A poem is a written creative work characterized by attention to…

  1. rhythm
  2. sound
  3. imagery
  4. metaphor/metonymy
  5. originality in its use of all of the above

Notice what I’m not saying: “meaning” and “emotion.” It’s not that meaning and emotion don’t matter, but that meaning and emotion don’t make a poem a poem. Prose works, both fiction and nonfiction, convey meaning and emotion. Paintings and sculptures do. Movies do. Facial expressions do. Hand gestures do. Almost everything does, but not everything is a poem. What makes a poem a poem is attention to rhythm, sound, imagery, and metaphor/metonymy, not meaning (in a big sense — imagery and metaphor are a kind of attention to meaning) and emotion. Poets who know what they are doing certainly convey meaning and emotion, but they do so by paying this kind of attention, by paying attention to the craft of writing a poem.

Rhythm and sound don’t necessarily mean fixed rhyme and meter, as in a sonnet. Free verse pays attention to rhythm and sound too, and employs it deftly to create emotional and other effects. It’s not that free verse doesn’t follow any patterns of sound and rhythm, just not fixed patterns of sound and rhythm. Free verse creates its own patterns and its own effects. But I think this brings us to a fundamental truth about poetry: what makes a poem a poem is its attention to line.

How poems divide up their lines controls their rhythm, sound (whether or not they’re using rhyme), metaphor and metonymy (as words at the ends of lines will be implicitly linked), and the poem’s arrangement of white space, which can also convey meaning. In other words, the poem’s use of line, more than anything else, is what makes a poem a poem. There is one exception: prose poetry, which runs its lines from one margin to the other just like prose, but that’s a lone exception. Otherwise, you know that a poem is a poem just by looking at it because it is broken up into lines, even if you don’t know anything else about poetry, or in other words, if you’re like most poetry publishers.

So mungling up a poem’s line breaks is a cardinal sin, and not paying attention to where you put your line breaks is a sign of ignorance in poetry writing. Amateur poets pay attention, and use line more or less effectively (as do professionals), but a complete lack of attention means you haven’t written a poem but a sentence with line breaks. And no, a sentence with line breaks is not a poem. It might be a greeting card, or a song lyric, and it might get you laid, or published, or both, but it’s not a poem.

So, if you like reading poetry, and want to try writing poetry, and especially if you’re publishing poetry: pay attention to line. Start there. Write the whole thing out as one sentence and then break it up into lines again and ask yourself: what changed? If you noticed a difference, that’s a poem.

 

Kicking the Bucket in Academic Writing

I think that when students (at any level) are given a writing assignment, they sometimes think of the assignment as if it were a bucket. So a ten page paper is a bucket of a certain size and a twenty page paper is a bucket that’s exactly twice as big. In this way of thinking, academic writing consists of pouring words into a bucket until the bucket fills up, and writers get in trouble if they run out of words before the bucket is full — say, at page fifteen of a twenty-page paper.

I think that’s a painful way to think about writing, though. When we think this way about writing, we’re writing in order to meet a page requirement, not writing because we have something to say. I think it’s better to think of academic writing — or any kind of writing, really, even creative — as if it were a piece of architecture. We should think of our writing as if it were structured like a building. Bigger buildings have more rooms in them and are differently organized. And, bigger buildings with more rooms have more room for different functions, and these different rooms relate to one another sometimes in very specific ways.

So when we first get married, we might live in a one-room apartment. There’s a kitchen with a linoleum floor, a little metal border, and then carpet, and you’re in the living room. The bathroom connects in there somewhere. The couch folds out into a bed. But if you move into a bigger apartment, you might have a kitchen, living room, and a bedroom. A bit bigger, maybe a house, and you’ll have a living and a dining room, maybe a breakfast nook, maybe a study, and maybe a bathroom that opens up to the backyard if you have a pool.

Similarly, a two page paper might have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. But a ten page paper might have an introduction, a literature review, a section of the body that reflects on the literature review, a section of the body that argues a new thesis out of the literature review, and a conclusion that develops the thesis in a more complex form and considers its significance. It might have subsections within each section that alternate evidence with reflection. It might have a section that addresses counterarguments and, as it does so, modifies its thesis. This paper would have many more rooms than a two page paper, and the paper is the length that it is because of the number of rooms that it has, not because it’s being written to meet a length requirement.

When we think this way about academic writing, we lose concern with page count and start being concerned instead with the size of our idea. How many different parts does our paper need in order to present, explain, support, and develop our main idea? My dissertation was 300 pages in a Word file when it was done. At the time, it felt like one continuous essay with section breaks. But really, when you consider the section breaks, it wasn’t 300 pages. It was six forty-five page(ish) chapters (with a 25ish page bibliography at the end plus front matter). Each of those chapters were usually broken down into three fifteen-page sections. And if you look closely, each of those sections were broken down into three to five page increments. So did I write a 300 page dissertation, or did I write 54 five-page papers — which could be further broken down into paragraphs serving different functions?

Since I had no specific page length in mind, I wrote to the size of my idea. Now of course we don’t want to write 300 pages when only twenty pages are due, but maybe we can think that part of planning and research is developing a ten, or twenty, or twenty-five page idea.

So the key to writing is not writing to fill up a bucket, but writing to develop an idea. In practice, writing to develop an idea might look like this:

  • first you have an idea,
  • then you think about its parts,
  • and you think about how its parts relate to one another,
  • and you think about what each part contains — what kind of evidence, reflection, or explanation is needed in each part.
  • Once you start writing, you rethink each part of the process as you go, as needed.
  • Once you’ve finished writing, you rethink each part of the written product in the light of its conclusion.

I think we can turn this idea around and let it guide how we think about reading too. Do authors put meaning into books the way we might put something into a bucket? In that case, authors put meaning into a book and readers take, hopefully, the same meaning out. Or did they create a structure of some kind, a patterned object, and our acts of reading involve different kinds of pattern recognition? I think the latter is a better approach. It helps us comprehend not only the parts and a central idea, but how the parts relate to one another. It also allows us to ask different questions about the same text, so that we can carry out different pattern recognition activities to draw different meanings from the text.

So I think the best thing we can do is kick the bucket in our academic reading and writing practices. The mind is more complex than an empty container.

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