Friday, June 21, 2013

How My Life Has Drastically Changed with a Cat

Before Cat (BC)
  • Grade a paragraph, check Facebook
  • Write a paragraph, check Facebook
  • Eat lunch, check Facebook

After Cat (AC)
  • Grade a paragraph, pet cat, post cute picture of cat on Facebook
  • Write a paragraph, note all the extraneous characters cat created when walking across keyboard, pet cat, post a screenshot of said extraneous characters on Facebook to tell the world that cat is a budding writer
  • Eat lunch, shield sandwich from cat, shield water from cat, get up to get a napkin and carry lunch to kitchen with me, pet cat, post "How My Life Has Drastically Changed with a Cat" on blog and share on Facebook

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Unplugged: 24 Hours of (Almost) Low-Tech Bliss

The Assignment

For 24 hours, you must completely unplug from technology: no cell phones, no internet, no computer use of any kind, no TV, no iPads, no iPods, and no radios. You may use electricity for other things and you may drive, though I’d rather you not listen to music in the car. (Spending a little time with your own brain will not kill you, I promise.) Record the date when, and location where, you unplugged.
  • What was challenging about being unplugged?
  • What did you like about it?
  • What did you notice about yourself or your surroundings that you didn’t notice before?
  • Would you ever impose an unplugged-time for yourself again?
  • Overall, what did you learn about this time?

My 24 Hours

I began my unplugged assignment at noon on Saturday, May 6. I chose this time because I had several social things planned, and I thought I would make the best of connecting with people face-to-face instead of having the urge to check my phone at every lull in the conversation. I went into the project feeling pretty confident - I'd unplugged before, especially when traveling, because when out of the country it's too expensive to use the data or texting on my phone. And I actually enjoyed not having the option to retreat into electronics, because I feel like I am more aware, more social, and more introspective. So I thought, no big deal. I'll show this Unplugged assignment who's boss.

The first part of my day was relaxing and enjoyable. Several people came over and we had a casual life drawing lesson, as taught by a friend who teaches elementary art classes. I left my phone and laptop in my office, and didn't feel the need to go for it once. There was a moment I had to shy away from a friend trying to show me an article on her phone, but I otherwise barely noticed that I wasn't using electronics.

On our drive to my boyfriend's college friends' house an hour away, I apologized to him and the other friend we drove down that we couldn't listen to the radio. At first my boyfriend and I were silly and sang some a capella jams, but then quickly fell into a conversation with our friend, so I barely noticed the lack of radio. My boyfriend did ask me to navigate with GPS as we got closer to our destination, but as I didn't want him to wreck the car I decided that was an acceptable "cheat." No big deal, I thought, that will be the only time I'll "cheat" the rest of the night.

We arrived at the birthday party, which had a nostalgic slumber party theme, and I realized this was going to be a tad harder than I originally thought. Part of the night was spent coloring, painting nails, having shoot-outs with Nerf guns. It was when we started to play vintage Nintendo games that I decided I needed to think about what this unplugged assignment was supposed to do.

What I wanted, but what wasn't on the topic paper for my students, was for us to reconnect with people, notice the world around us, and participate in life without being lost in our own cyber worlds. As others at the party migrated to the room with the Nintendo, I thought about how I was participating in life, and realized that if I sequestered myself in the coloring room by myself all night, I was just as bad as if I was with everyone else but distracted by my phone.

I celebrated this decision with several games of Super Mario 3. Then we played a drinking game to the movie Willow. It was an interactive community experience, and I felt not even a little guilt at using electronics (and beer) to achieve that fun.

The next morning everyone was a little groggy from spending the night in sleeping bags and on air mattresses (when we throw a slumber party we're not joking around), so we munched Dunkin' Donuts and watched Aziz Ansari standup. Again, I felt a little bad that I was watching TV when I was "supposed" to be unplugged, but again it was what I had to do in order to be experiencing life with the people around me.


When noon came around and I got home, I knew I would be forced to plug-in in order to grade papers and lesson plan. I knew I would be lured into Facebook, email, and IM in the process. Going back to these things didn't excite me. I knew that being unplugged from them would be easy, but I didn't expect being so reluctant to plug back in. I finally realized why when I thought more about what unplugged really means to me.

Unplugging means a true vacation. Very little of my work these days is done off the computer. I lesson plan electronically. I keep track of grades in Excel and read articles on the web. I make comments to papers using Word's review features. When I unplug, I not only connect more to my world because I can't mindlessly scroll Facebook, I also don't feel compelled to reply to students' emails or grade a quick paper. I literally cannot work, which is the only time I feel free from it.


I think that when we do the majority of our work or school on the internet, we're so susceptible to taking quick breaks to surf Facebook or check email that those things become tied up in the pressure of obligation. We're afraid we're going to miss something social almost on the same level that we're afraid we're going to miss doing an assignment or submitting a report. Surfing the internet, being on email, and chatting with friends heightens our need for immediacy and, I think in a lot of ways, our stress. 

It's kind of like our excitement about getting candy as kids: the less we were allowed to have it on a regular basis, the more a treat it was when we finally got it. But as an adult I can get candy whenever I want, and it no longer represents the treat it used to. 

I believe that it's only when we can unplug altogether that we can truly relax. From the many student responses I've read, it seems like a lot of them agree, though the majority of them say they are unwilling to participate again. I want to feel bad for them, but at the same time realize that they grew up in a different time. I'm just glad they gave it a shot.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Unplugged Assignment

Sometime during the next few weeks, my First Year Writing students will have to complete what might be the most difficult (and maybe even unpleasant) assignment of the year: a 24-hour unplug and response paper about it. From the assignment guidelines:
For 24 hours, you must completely unplug from technology: no cell phones, no internet, no computer use of any kind, no TV, no iPads, no iPods, and no radios. You may use electricity for other things and you may drive, though I’d rather you not listen to music in the car. (Spending a little time with your own brain will not kill you, I promise.)  For safety’s sake, please be smart about this – keep your cell on you in case of an emergency (but turn it off). Tell your family/friends you’re unplugging. Re-discover the world. Take a walk. Read a (paper) book. Talk to people without distraction.
When I announce this assignment on the first day of class, some students react, but most see that the response paper isn't due for a few months and forget about it.

When I remind them two weeks out that their unplugged paper is due, they panic. "What if I have homework?" They ask, frantic eyes pleading. "What if I have a project or a paper to do? I need the computer!"

Just as many teachers and professors have done before me, I remind them that they'd had the guidelines and due date since day one. They should have planned. Just as many students before them, they complain and groan. I ignore it.

This semester, facing a particularly un-motivated bunch of mostly art students, I promised I'd do it too, sometime in the next two weeks. I don't particularly feel like wasting class time presenting my own response paper, so I'll post it here instead. My projected "unplugged" day will be next Saturday, April 6, from midnight to midnight. During this time, I have a drawing event and a birthday party to attend, both which should be excellent opportunities to ignore my electronics and socialize.

I encourage my students to embrace the radio static enjoy it, and some do. Some continue to complain on the page. I hope all of them learn something. I'll (anonymously) share any particularly interesting responses here as well.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Extremely Unscientific Data on Creation vs. Revision Stress in Intro to Creative Writing Students

I'll admit it - sometimes, I ask my students specific questions to discuss for my own edification. An example just recently was this discussion question in my online intro to creative writing class:
Which is more stressful - creation (the blank page) or revision? And if you don't revise, or don't spend a lot of effort on revision, why not?
Obviously, I wanted the students to think about their own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the writing process, but I think also in there, somewhere, I wanted a chance to answer the question myself: I am scared of creation. 

Creation is scary. Creation is why I don't post online for months, or sometimes years. Creation is why I've been working on the same novel for three years and always put it off in favor of grading and critiquing other peoples' creation. Creatiphobia, I could call it, is holding me back as a professional writer, and I wanted to see if my students - most of them in their late teens and early twenties but some adult students with more life experience than me - were creatiphobes too.

From an extremely unscientific data set (i.e. me reading all the responses and deciding their categories), my results were that out of 16 responses, 8 students thought revision was more stressful, some even going so far as to say they hated it. 3 students agreed with me, saying that the blank page was more stressful/revision was easier or more fun for them. 5 students, surprisingly, either answered "It depends" or "Both are difficult." In the interest of looking super-awesome, I made a pie chart:
If I actually was a scientist, I would have surveyed more than 16 students and would also get more information to think about, like, their age, number of school years or semesters completed, perhaps socioeconomic status just for funsies. But I am not a scientist.

The most interesting response was this student, who is an art major and said it has to do with medium:
[Anxiety of a blank page] only gets worse if it's nice paper, or a pretty book, or a fancy medium/tool--it creates this sense of having to have all your marks and ideas perfect immediately or your ruined the page and the entire book. Your tools have to create a sense of comfort so you're okay with making mistakes, because those mistakes sometimes aren't so bad or mistakes at all...but you won't know that or even reach that when you're afraid of making a mark. Writing or sketching on medium-low grade sketchbooks and journals feel safe, because they don't feel sacred or special. The same with the computer. Things feel less consequential so you can just jump in.  
-Ashley Almeida-Souza (*
Conclusion? I don't know if I have one, at least not the one I wanted. I found it interesting that most early writers are more excited to create, and I think I remember that: before I learned too much, before crippling doubt set in, I filled yellow legal pads in the back of my parents' minivan on our long summer vacation drives. But of course I didn't tell them this. I didn't tell them that for me, the more I learned the less I wanted to create. I didn't want to scare them off. So I replied, here and there, that I agreed with the ones I agreed with, that revision was fun, and I admired the ones who liked creativity, and I nodded wisely at the ones who said "It depends." And I especially resonated with Ash's response, which is why the Moleskin I got for my birthday is still empty, and why this blog is full of half-written posts of less consequence.

Sometimes it's just nice to be reminded that we are not alone in this.

*used with permission

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Water, Water, Everywhere

The ancient mariner in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's famous poem lamented, "Water, water, every where, / Nor any drop to drink." I finally knew exactly how he felt, though not about water - about books.

Though I've had several opportunities to travel out of the country, I'd never been to a mostly non-English-speaking city before, so this past weekend's brief road trip to Montreal was actually more challenging than I expected. In addition to losing 3G coverage on our phones (as data roaming charges are too ridiculously high), we had forgotten to purchase a paper map and found ourselves faced with French, French every where - and not many words did we speak. There are, of course, plenty of English-speaking people around, but it was interesting to me to be so disoriented by traffic signs, business names, and even the Metro map.

Our last stop on Sunday afternoon was a new and used bookstore where our Parisian friends browsed while I kind of stumbled around feeling quite thirsty indeed. Bookstores - especially used bookstores - are some of my favorite places to kill time, especially lazily after a big brunch on a Sunday afternoon. But of course I couldn't read a thing. I found several books I recognized from cover art and some from the author's names, but otherwise it was a lesson in guessing. It made me regret, a little, not continuing on with my foreign language studies in college past what was minimally required to graduate.

The one thing I did take away from this experience was that bookstores, no matter the language of their materials, all stir the same desires in me: to read, to write, to learn. The smell of the books was the same. The enviable position of the old woman proprietor, sitting in an armchair reading and occasionally answering questions, was the same. My fingers' itch toward my wallet was the same. Even though I couldn't follow a single sentence, I still wanted to hole up somewhere soon and soak in some of my own language, just as the ancient mariner needed so desperately to find some fresh water to quench his thirst. 

In that aspect for me, perhaps, it was less of a tortuous experience but more of an eye-opening one; it was the reminder that literature is literature and a reader, like a sailor, can't so long be away from its vast ocean. I plan to go back up to Montreal soon -- after all, it's only a five-hour drive -- and though I'll be more prepared next time I am excited to again be cast out into semi-confusion. Adventure, after all, is one of the best things to keep a writer's inkwell full.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

To: Natalie, Greg, Ina, Mari, Finn, Jason, et. al

Dear Characters of My Novel,

First off, I know it's been a while. I'm sorry for that. You see, out here in the out-of-book world (I hate to say "real" world, you know what I mean? Your world is real to you. At least, I try and make it real to you), things are hectic. Money must be made, rent must be paid, and classes must be planned. I think about you all a lot, see out-of-book versions of you walking around all the time, but I know it's not the same. I miss you. I miss our hours together alone. I am hoping to spend some of that time with you soon, but until then, know that your existence will be pondered by me at least an hour a day, if not more.

Hang in there, my friends.

Your Writer

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Kate Recommends: The Weird Sisters

Reviewer's Note: I usually like something about everything I read, but I will probably most often be writing about books I liked overall. These are really meant to be less "review" and more "recommendation." Oh, and of course "Ways for Kate to Remember What She Liked Reading." Enjoy!

The Weird Sisters, Eleanor Brown
2011, Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam

As I am now reading quite a bit, I've been getting a lot from the library. Let's face it: M.F.A. doesn't stand for "Multitudes of Financial Assets." So when I heard about this book, or read a review somewhere, I dashed right off to the Cambridge Public Library. Turns out I dashed in vain, because it was a month before my name came up on the reserve list and I got my copy.

Anyway. It was worth the wait.

Growing up with a Shakespearean scholar for a father, in the world of the Bard, the Andreas sisters never watched television, nor did they leave the house without something to read. But it is almost only this - and their perchance for quoting Shakey - that they have in common: Rosalind feels she holds the family together single-handedly, Bianca escapes for the big city only to find herself sabotaging her own dreams, and Cordelia, the youngest (and favorite, they all agree), flits around the country aimlessly until she is forced with more than she can handle alone.

"We came home because we were failures," the book begins, and the stress of their mother's cancer and their own personal crises unravels in the following 300 or so pages. It's a homecoming story - a rediscovery of one's past, one's hometown, the idea of one's identity in a family unit, and how to achieve happiness within all of that. The sisters must come home to face their parent's mortality, each others secrets, and ultimately, their own issues.

So here's what I liked:

I like stories like this, in which characters find ways to see rebirth in what they had always found boring and commonplace, so I found myself very comfortable with the premise immediately. I try to do a bit of this every time I visit a town I used to live in, when I have the chance.

I also liked the style of the book. Each chapter and section is from the perspective of a different sister, but the novel as a whole is really narrated by all of them, and the collective first person ("we") provides not only insight and characterization, but also flavor. I can imagine it was a natural decision for Brown, and her comfort with the form made it feel very natural for me to read.

The story's setting, fictional college town Barnwell, Ohio, reminded me so much of the towns of my high school and college years, and I honestly wondered if Brown used Granville as a model city (I later read in this Columbus Dispatch review that it was "Kenyon and Oberlin, with a bit of Wooster thrown in." - I was close.) It made me a little nostalgic, to tell you the truth.

And then of course there's Shakespeare - from Shakespeare class in high school and college, to a three-week Drama in England trip in 2004, to my own Arden Complete Works of Shakespeare on my shelf, it was a bit of a no-brainer that I would appreciate that the Bard featured in this story. One can really draw a fine line, however, between integrating classic Shakespearean themes and quotes into the world of strong characters, and alienating readers who might not be so brushed up by making the story all about his work. I thought Brown did a fine job of letting the characters run the show, and I don't think readers would find the book any less enjoyable without recognizing certain themes or placing from which play each quote was pulled.

Overall, I think I might have waited two months, and I will be picking it up in paperback.

Read For: Unique Writing Style, Lovable Flawed Characters, and Shakespearean Indulgence.