Yes, Employers Still Want Writing Skills…

The truth is that employers have been complaining about M.B.A. writing skills for more than ten years now. And not just M.B.As.

But the problem is not that writing and communication skills are “difficult skills to teach,” as the article suggests. I think this kind of claim comes from a panacea view of writing instruction: students take a writing class, so they learn how to write. Writing instruction doesn’t usually work that way. Developing writing ability is a matter of cognitive development, not just a matter of taking in information, so it takes time to develop. If a program wants to develop students’ writing skills, students need to be made to read and write and to receive writing instruction in most of their classes, not just their English classes. The problem is that business and other programs don’t invest in practices that develop communication skills; e.g., high reading and writing requirements.

 

One Skill Recruiters Say Is Lacking With Recent M.B.A. ….

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A Taxonomy of Feedback…

2014-10-02 18.47.00

I had a great time the first week of October workshopping poetry and creative non-fiction with other writers at the St. Augustine Writer’s Conference hosted by Connie May Fowler. The best things I heard there, in no particular order:

  • Sascha Feinstein (poetry and creative non-fiction workshop leader) described people he’d met who were so completely committed to their art they believed that their artworks were their children. His response: “No, your children are your children.” His poetry and creative non-fiction were great to listen to. I was in his workshop, and it was run very well. We all helped one another.
  • Laura van den Berg read half of a short story, which was cruel — it was such a good story that we all wanted the rest of it.
  • Loved the poetry of Parneshia Jones and was encouraged by her presentation as editor of Northwestern University Press: it’s good to hear that there are people in the industry trying to treat their authors ethically.
  • Connie May Fowler‘s reading selection from her forthcoming autobiography was lyrical and beautiful. What I think I loved the most was when she told the group that she didn’t take being a writer for granted — that it was a privilege to be able to write and to publish.
  • And one unnamed participant’s description of how she started writing will stick with me for the rest of my life, for better or for worse. When she was working in finance she would have one male client call and ask her to “talk dirty” to him on the phone. She couldn’t because she was in an office with an open door policy. But she did start writing stories for him. And from what I understand, the male caller is a frequent figure on cable news. Now everyone at the workshop will be scanning cable news channels for the guy.

Now I’ve been teaching poetry since 2008 at the graduate and undergraduate level, and I first published poetry around the early 1990s and then the early 2000s. Once I started graduate school I didn’t have time for writing and publishing poetry, but I also ran a writer’s group in the Orlando area in the mid 1990s for a few years. So I’ve been giving and receiving feedback on poetry for a good twenty years now, and this latest round of receiving feedback has prompted some ideas on the feedback process itself. Some of this thinking works itself out into a taxonomy of feedback of sorts, or a list of different kinds of feedback given.

  • But first, feedback is great. I started writing poems again around November of last year, and I knew they needed editing, but I didn’t feel like I had the distance from them that I needed to edit them. After the workshop, I think I know how to edit my poems now.
  • So the first type of feedback is feedback that confirms what you already know. If there were two weak lines in a poem, I knew they were there, and my colleagues at the workshop focused on those. If there was a slide toward sentimental language, I was aware of that, and they pointed it out, though we may disagree about where it works and where it doesn’t. This kind of feedback tells me two things: first, trust my judgment about the weak spots in my poems, and second, that the people giving feedback are good readers.
  • But at the same time, I wasn’t aware of some verbal ticks I’d acquired, like the habit of repeating some phrases from one line to the next. That may not be bad in every instance, but I need to watch how often it occurs. What I’ve been able to do for the first time since November is write sonnets — I never felt until then that I could write even a passable one, though I’ve written in other formal verse forms and in free verse — but I see now where I was succumbing to form at times rather than making it work for the poem. So the second kind of feedback is feedback about your blind spots. This is perhaps the best kind of feedback a writer can get.
  • Feedback that is, essentially, “I don’t get it.” I don’t know what to do with this feedback. Some of the best works of literature I’ve ever read I didn’t understand fully the first time I read them. I’d even extend this claim to song lyrics. What’s going on here is a negotiation, maybe even a dance of sorts, between the reader and the writer in which the writer makes the work intriguing enough to get the reader to want to do the work necessary to understand it. What makes a work worth the effort is very much a subjective judgment on the part of the reader. Does it give pleasure? Does it address themes important to the reader? But at the same time, there has to be content for the reader to grasp before he or she will want to look more. It’s a difficult negotiation, and we should keep in mind that not all literature is written for the purpose of discursive understanding. Some is written for emotional and, especially in the case of poetry, aural effects. Sometimes the purpose of a work of literature is to communicate a mood or feeling rather than an idea, so readers seeking only ideas will remain frustrated.
  • You have to have thick skin. Sascha Feinstein started our workshops with these instructions: sit and listen to everyone’s feedback without responding, and then you get to respond in the last fifteen minutes of your part of the session. I think that’s good advice. The hardest thing to do sometimes is to just shut up and listen to feedback about your own work without feeling the need to defend it. It’s part of realizing that your writing isn’t your baby, something I learned the hard way while freelance writing for three years after graduating from college –before I started my grad program. Almost everything is subject to revision.   
  • Now overall — in terms of all of my past experience giving and receiving feedback over the last twenty years — I’ve found that there are two types of personal responses writers will give to one another. Some writers see the talent of other writers as an asset to them. Other writers see the talent or education of their colleagues as a threat or a liability to them, as if the extension of recognition to someone else takes away from them, or at least might. If you’re in a workshopping situation, just ignore the latter types and try to be one of the former types. Everyone who attempts to create anything can succumb to professional jealousy. You will at times. Some people may do what they do so well you will be tempted to quit. So to avoid professional jealousy, or at least being too easily threatened, you need to develop a sense of what you can do and what you can uniquely contribute. While you can’t do what other writers can do, others may not be able to do what you can do. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen two writers say to one another in the same workshop session, “I wish I could write something like that.”

Anyway — the St. Augustine Writer’s Conference was a great experience for me. I’d encourage anyone who wants to develop as a writer to try it at least once. It’s worth it just for the time spent in St. Augustine, but it’s a great workshop too.  The months of October to February are probably the best time to visit Florida.

Photograph © 2014 James Rovira: Vilano Beach Marshes, October 2014.

Walter Benjamin on Writing

Walter BenjaminGreat stuff from Walter Benjamin on writing.

Progressive Geographies

This is wonderful – Walter Benjamin’s writing rules, taken from Sean Sturm’s blog. I’ve read this before, but only now does it really resonate. I may say more about why in a bit.

I. Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with themselves and, having completed a stint, deny themselves nothing that will not prejudice the next.

II. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this régime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.

III. In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an etude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as…

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It’s Off…

Star_Wars_Logo.svgToday I let my kids watch Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. My son Penn (8) has lately become a Star Wars freak, largely and most lately due to Angry Birds Star Wars. If you don’t know what that is, don’t ask. He was talking about it so much I thought I’d just let him watch a movie. Not long afterwards, my six year old daughter Grace and Penn started arguing about the Force.

Yes, they are well on their way to Geekdom.

But in the course of the argument my daughter Grace comes up to me, looks me in the eye — demanding a real answer — and asks me if Star Wars is real. I say of course. She, of course, is Highly Doubtful, so asks Mom, who denies the whole thing, thus making Grace determined to extort the truth out of me. So she asks again, this time with raised eyebrows and a cocked head, as if to say, “You better get it right this time.” I let her down (i.e., stick to my guns), so she asked me to check on my computer.

I faithfully did, typing “IS STAR WARS REAL?” into my computer, finding wonderful sites about building lightsabers and about a planet with two suns — surely proof positive — but best of all I found a wonderful site titled “Star Wars — Fact NOT Fiction,” in which the author asserts that Star Wars is in fact true, and that the Force itself inspired Lucas to write the films.

Quite naturally, I think I’ve saved the day: “See?”

“I don’t believe your computer.”

At this moment by six year old is trying to type “IS STAR WARS REAL?” into Google on my desktop computer.

My son, bless him, is fully on my side.

On another note, I’ve been working on an essay for a forthcoming anthology on Kierkegaard and the Arts and have finally sent out of the first draft. The essay is a complicated machine: it has a lot of parts so can break easily. I’m genuinely looking forward to comments from the editor and the readers.

I paid a bit more conscious attention to the writing process this time around. When I write anything of any length I find that I often pick an album, artist, etc., and listen to nothing but that until I’ve finished writing. About fifteen years ago I listened to Abbey Road over and over again while writing a short story, and found out I wanted to write the characters on the album into the story. I had a lot of fun writing Polythene Pam, let me tell you, who, you guessed it, at one point came in through the bathroom window.

This time, I listened to Bob Dylan. Almost the entire discography. I have all of his studio albums except 1973’s Dylan, which was released by Columbia to fulfill contractual obligations with no involvement on Dylan’s part at all. It’s mostly outtakes, cover tunes. I still want it. But it was never rereleased on CD, so it’s hard to get.

So I listened to all of the studio albums from 1962’s Bob Dylan to this year’s Tempest, started them over again and then remembered The Bootleg Series, so listened to the nine volumes of those I had, then listened to the live albums, then Biograph, then started over again. Then I picked up the 30th anniversary concert album, and now I want the Amnesty International album that just came out.

Weirdly, I think Biograph is my favorite Dylan album, but after that, it gets harder. Probably Shot of Love, not just for the songs, but for what it’s meant to me. It was there when I needed it. I remember hating Dylan and the Dead when it came out (what a waste), but now I like it. I just wish it were longer. I’d never noticed the complex interplay of bass lines with acoustic guitar on Blood on the Tracks. Never could stand the countrified albums, but I’ve reconciled myself to them now and like his voice on them. He’d been in a bad motorcycle accident before the recording of Nashville Skyline and wasn’t able to smoke for six months or so and his voice came back. It’s a bit operatic — a bit like Roy Orbison’s — just not as strong.

It’s been interesting. It is indeed tempting to divide Dylan’s music up into “periods,” but I recall hearing him speak dismissively of critics who divided his work into periods. I think I can see why — he had elements of gospel and blues in those early folk albums, and once he picked something up he seemed to carry it with him. Anything can be brought back and nothing completely disappears. I can also see why people would divide his work up like that, though. There’s the first four folk albums, then folk-rock albums, one of them heavy on blues, then the country/folk albums leading up to Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and then the 70s folk rock albums, which were more rock than his forays into that back in the 60s. That’s followed by the gospel albums — an influence that extends at least all the way through Down in the Groove, maybe even into the 90s with Under the Red Sky, and then the return to folk. His music since Time Out of Mind seemed to change again. But that’s very artificial — none of these “periods” are that cut and dry. Everything he’s ever done stays around and waits to be reinvented again.

Then I found myself thinking about his desire to plug in after those first four folk albums, and I think I see why. Really — it’s just all about the music. Record companies kept him early on just because he was a great songwriter, you know. His first album sold so badly they almost dropped him, but they kept recording him to keep rights to his songs. Turns out they did see that much clearly, but no one could have seen just how much he would come to mean to American music. I think he plugged in because he wanted his music to expand. The purists — the “voice of our generation” people — hated it. They just wanted him to be a voice. But he’s always been about the music too, and his music had to open up and breathe.

Anyway, I think I see what music does for my writing process. I think forward as I write, and my ideas wind up mapped across the music too, so that when the songs or album comes back around so do my ideas. The organization of the writing becomes embedded in the organization of the music, so that I have to keep listening in the same order. If I tried to associate specific ideas with specific songs, of course I’d be missing the point. It’s more like data storage. The medium doesn’t matter, just that the data is kept in order.

I’m not done with Dylan yet. I’ve finished the first draft of the essay, but I think I’m going to give his albums another go-round.