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.

The Beatles, Get Back

The first really magical moment, when everyone was feeling the power of the music, was Paul’s first performance of “Let It Be.”

I just finished watching the new Beatles’ documentary on Disney+, Get Back. It’s in three parts, and the third part ends with almost the whole rooftop concert (some but not all downtime between songs seems to have been cut), which wound up being their last public performance together. So I put together this playlist to reflect all the songs they performed, using rooftop performances where available in the order in which they appear.

https://music.apple.com/us/playlist/the-beatles-rooftop-concert/pl.u-VL2aIBYGkNr

My playlist covers these songs:

  1. “Get Back,” original studio version. This wasn’t part of the rooftop performance, but was captured in the Beatles’ studio on Saville Row some time before. The first rooftop performance of “Get Back” doesn’t seem to be available on iTunes.
  2. “Get Back,” 1969 Glyn Johns mix. The second rooftop performance of “Get Back” doesn’t appear to be available on iTunes, so I substituted this one. Glyn Johns put together a version of the songs on Let It Be originally intended for an album titled Get Back “that would match the documentary nature of the forthcoming film” (more about the film later; taken from the liner notes to Let It Be… Naked). Johns’s mixes are now available on a deluxe version of Let It Be recently released.
  3. “Don’t Let Me Down” (first rooftop performance).
  4. “I’ve Got a Feeling” (album version, originally taken from the rooftop performance).
  5. “One After 909” (album version, originally taken from the rooftop performance).
  6. “Dig a Pony” (album version that sounds like the rooftop performance to me, but I’m not sure).
  7. “I’ve Got a Feeling” (the second rooftop performance doesn’t appear to be available on iTunes, so I substituted the 1969 Glyn Johns mix).
  8. “Don’t Let Me Down” (1969 Glyn Johns mix, same as above).
  9. “Get Back” (third rooftop performance from The Beatles Anthology 3. The anthology doesn’t indicate which rooftop performance, but Paul has a line in here about getting arrested, which he added after seeing the police on the rooftop, so it’s the third performance).

We should keep in mind the whole recording session was intended to be released as a TV special. According to the liner notes on Let It Be… Naked the original concept was a TV performance of songs from the white album, and then it transformed into a documentary recording the creation of a new album from the beginning. The conclusion of the TV special was intended to be live performances of the new songs in front of an impromptu audience, which would be their first live performance since August of 1966. What wound up being a documentary film about the recording of the album was released concurrently with the album in 1970.

A few observations.

It’s a miracle they got anything done. Of course the eight hours of video we see is greatly edited down from the 60 hours of video available, but they seemed to spend most of their time singing their own and other people’s songs in funny voices. Sometimes it seemed like they were just having fun (most of the time, actually), but sometimes it seemed like they were tired of it all and not taking it seriously. Billy Preston showing up changed everything and made everyone feel better. He was great. George Martin’s presence seemed like a good thing as well, even though John told Martin to stay away at first (liner notes for Let It Be… Naked).

Paul goes on a little tirade at the beginning, at the very beginning, saying something along the lines of, “If we’re not going to do this, we should just quit right now.” I felt at the time like that was what split up the Beatles. Throughout the sessions Paul refers to their days in Hamburg several times, which leaves the impression that he hadn’t really had much fun with the band since then because that was a few years back by this point, and he seems dissatisfied with just making albums.

I don’t want to create a false impression. Paul was playful most of the time and upbeat. He just had some moments. George actually quit and the other three had to take a few days to get him to come back, and then later on George talked about all of them just doing solo projects and then coming back together. He seemed frustrated in having too small a role in the band and its songwriting.

There is a little scene, sound only, where Paul and John are talking together about what they need to do to get George back. The documentary claims that the filmmakers at the time hid a microphone in a flower pot at a diner where Paul and John went to discuss the situation with George. That sounds like nonsense to me. You have to realize this was 1969. There is no WiFi or Bluetooth. Of course they had transmitters, but they weren’t that small, and a sound cable running underneath a random booth at a diner would be kind of obvious, not to mention the fact the filmmakers had no way of knowing exactly where Paul and John would be sitting. So I think the conversation was staged. That doesn’t mean the conversation didn’t reflect anyone’s real feelings, but I’m just not buying the hidden mic in the flower pot story.

Moving on, I had a strong impression that anything Paul touched musically would be golden because of it. Any input he gave would make a song better. And the first really magical moment, when everyone was feeling the power of the music, was Paul’s first performance of “Let It Be.”

The wives were all there at different points. Yoko the most, then Linda (still Eastman with her very young daughter from a previous relationship, who was precocious and hilarious), then Ringo’s wife Maureen, with Pattie Boyd (Harrison) appearing once. Yoko was quiet and unassuming throughout the sessions, and watching her occasional facial expressions and gestures — and they were rare — is worthy of some study and attention. She would at times sing/screech into a mic while the Beatles played to it; at one point Paul played drums to Yoko’s singing. So yes, there were tensions within the band. It’s not clear they weren’t manageable. It’s hard for me to say that Paul, or John, or George, or Yoko split up the band.

What really seemed to be working against the band was having to come up with a bunch of new songs in three weeks and then be ready for a television special at the end of it. They could only agree to get George to come back by scrapping the TV special idea and moving their songwriting and rehearsals back to their own studios instead of the warehouse in Twickenham that was serving as a sound stage. So I think a number of factors were working against the Beatles, the biggest one of them being the Beatles.

I wish they had been able to do what John suggested, which was record their own solo albums and then come back together and record as the Beatles, especially in retrospect of the enormous creative output each of them enjoyed as solo artists in the 70s. It really was something seeing them all at different times sit behind drums or piano or strum the guitar. I think George was the only one who didn’t play any drums.

I couldn’t wait to see them get on the rooftop, because that was a public performance. That’s the one time there is no doubt that while they were having fun, they were also taking the music seriously. The rooftop concert deserves special attention, but not only because it was their last public performance. As a performance, it seemed more like a rehearsal of their new songs than a performance. “Get Back” was played twice at the beginning and once at the end, and two other songs were played twice. Two of those performances of the other songs wound up being the tracks used on the album, while the version of “Get Back” used was performed in the studio some days earlier.

What was enjoyable about the rooftop performance, beyond just seeing the Beatles perform, were interviews with the public on the street. Young and old said, “It’s the Beatles!”, “I wish we could see them,” “This is wonderful,” with a number of complaints too: “They woke me up from my sleep and I don’t appreciate it.” Ha. The police arrived after reportedly receiving 30 complaints about noise in a few minutes. They were stalled, and the two officers who initially arrived on the scene looked like two rosy-faced little fourteen year old boys, blustering and threatening like teenage boys too. There’s been quite a bit of reporting over the last day or two (from this writing) about the officers. The main one in the film was Ray Dagg, who was 19 years old at the time. I can’t track all the references right now, but he admitted he was probably making up “30 complaints” (he had no idea how many they received), and that he was bluffing about being able to arrest them on the charges he specifically mentioned. They don’t apply on private premises.

Most interestingly, he said he knew he was being recorded in the lobby of the Beatles’ studios because he saw a microphone in a flower pot. On the one hand, this validates the mic in the flower pot story explaining the recording of Paul’s and John’s earlier conversation about George, but on the other hand, if he saw it just looking casually while standing up, it’s hard to believe Paul and John wouldn’t notice it sitting at a table.

But throughout all encounters with the police, everyone was very polite. When the police arrived at the rooftop, the Beatles finished their performance without being asked while the officers stood by and watched. They ended with the version of “Get Back” in which Paul sings a line about being arrested which appears on the Beatles’ Anthology 3 collection.

And that’s the thing with the lyrics. No one showed up with written lyric sheets except maybe John for “Across the Universe” and perhaps George’s songs, but I don’t recall in the latter case. Otherwise, lyrics were improvised on the spot with the music. In one of the film’s highlights, Paul wrote a first run at “Get Back” while they were all waiting for John to show up, who was an hour late. “Get back.” He’s late. Get it? “I miss the old days at Hamburg.” “Get back.” Get it? Several of the songs seemed like immediate reactions to the situation at hand later revised into songs. One version of “Get Back” reflects anti-immigrant feeling in Britain popular at the time, which seemed terribly and painfully familiar.

It’s a great documentary. It’s real life. But it’s real life hanging out with the Beatles while they try to make some new music. It’s real life amplified. It was 41 years to this day since John Lennon died when I posted an initial draft of this review to Facebook. I am grateful for the timing of it all, but what a loss.

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.

How I Learned to Love Bad Student Papers

I read once that J.R.R. Tolkien came up with the idea for The Hobbit while grading student exams. Bent over a desk, grinding away scoring exam book after exam book, he finally came across one with a blank page at the back. He was so relieved by that short break from grading that he wrote on the blank page, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” He wrote the novel The Hobbit to find out what hobbits were.

After eighteen years of teaching college English, during most of which I’ve taught at least one section of first year writing (often more), I’ve come to appreciate how Tolkien felt. Grading papers is one of the worst parts of the job, and I’ve heard that from quite a few fellow English teachers as well. I could quote from my Facebook feed right now.

It’s partly the tedium of grading paper after paper that’s performing the same task, and it’s partly that student papers are always very much early works: students seldom have the time to fully revise, some students don’t attempt to write well at all, and others just don’t seem to have been taught. After spending years in graduate school reading literature, great writing, the best writing, it’s hard to spend that much time reading writing that’s often the opposite.

But then I started listening to myself.

I’ve been telling my students for years that writing is an acquired and then developed skill, like playing a musical instrument or a sport. You can’t shoot free throws at over 60% without standing on the line and practicing shot after shot. You can’t really play guitar or the piano without hours of practice, a lot of it boring: scales. And you can’t learn to write well without writing a lot and without reading a lot. Those two skills — reading and writing — are intimately related.

In other words, I’ve started telling my students, you only learn to write well by writing badly, and by writing badly a lot. And on top of that, even though I’m years past my Ph.D. now, and even though I’ve been publishing since about 1991 (my first poems appeared in a student-run college literary journal, The Valencian), and even though I’ve been reading constantly and like crazy since I was a kid, I still write badly. Sometimes, not all the time, but still sometimes. Even just this year.

At one point I looked at a batch of student papers, some of which were remarkable (in either one direction or the other), and I told myself. . . this is them trying. This is them doing the work of becoming good writers. This is my students following my advice and writing. . . badly, or well, they were still writing. Some of them were on training wheels, some of them were riding wheelies down the street with their hands behind their heads, but they were all on the bicycle, moving forward.

So when I listened to myself, finally, I learned that I loved bad student papers.

Writing for College and Beyond Book Site Up

Bright Futures Publishing is providing marketing and administrative support for the new first-year writing textbook Writing for College and Beyond (Lulu Press, 2019). Contact Bright Futures Publishing for desk or review copies, and check out the book webpages for more information, including links to ordering information, the table of contents, the book flyer, testimonials, and a list of special feature.

Writing for College and Beyond is a new kind of first-year writing text, one that emphasizes connections between the writing students do in typical English composition classes and their future business and professional careers. It’s also fully customizable for departmental or group orders. Contact Bright Futures Publishing for more information.

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