Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Wild Ride Endured - So Far - Just Barely

On the ladder of academia, the bottom rung for a recent MFA-graduate with no publications is adjunct professor. First-semester adjunct professors at my school are given freshman writing comp classes, told to pick a theme, and cast out into the wild. Needless to say, I am hanging on to this bottom rung for dear life. Let me elaborate.

I am, all at once, an instructor in writing, literature, sociology, religion, film, journalism, poetry, and history. Only being very knowledgeable in one of these things, fairly knowledgeable in another, and not at all knowledgeable in most of the others, I feel like a four year-old who has been shoved into the deep end without water wings. I try to keep about two steps ahead of my students, but more often it's more like a half step.

The problem isn't that I can't teach them to write. The problem is that I must teach them to write about anything. So tonight, I am hunched over an ethno-historian's account of the predicament of Native American mythology, baffled and lost. The ideas are valid to our explorations, but so much of the article is just plain hard. This is the kind of article that, as a student, I would have read and tried to understand but ultimately would have left up to the wisdom of my professor. Now I am that professor, and I am not quite sure if I have the confidence of knowledge I used to attribute to my own.

At least I can fall back on my creativity and acting skills, which has gotten me through my first few weeks just fine. I just can't help but fall back into the trap of feeling like I don't know enough to be up there, especially tonight. It's all part of the journey - the climb up the ladder - but why does the first rung seem so far from the second? And will it be an easier climb once I go for the third? And will I maintain my sanity - and social life - in the meantime?

And can I even continue to climb the ladder if I'm not taking some time out for my own writing?

The ladder swings and I grasp, hoping to keep my grip for another week.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Seeing the English Language from the Outside In

I recently had the opportunity to write a couple of super short stories (about one page single-spaced each) to be used in a Master's thesis on English Language Learning. Compounded with the complications of writing such short stories (which I counted to be situations, not really complete stories), they were to include many non-count nouns. Non-count what? I asked.

Because I'm fairly certain I slept through most of English class in elementary school, I didn't remember what non-count nouns were. I had to look them up. Also known as mass nouns, they are nouns that can't be pluralized by simply adding an "s." And, as the name suggestions, you can't count them. Technically, we get around a lot of these nowadays: "coffee" is supposedly a non-count noun, but how many times have you said "I need to get a coffee" or "I nearly fell in the middle of the street trying to carry all these damned coffees"?
So I started as I start everything, with a blank page. I knew I had to be rather concise, and I also knew I couldn't be very stylistically fancy - I am a fan of dashes, semicolons, and. You know. Fragments. But these were students learning English for the first time, so style, sadly, was out. I had a list of non-count nouns to look at while writing. This helped, as I really didn't know what to write and had to base some of my narrative around what nouns I could use.

Three hours later, I had two mediocre scenes. I'm used to writing within parameters for the writing exercises I do every other week or so, but this kind of parameter was different. This time, I had to think about the English language in a way I never was required to before - it would be like having to think, Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Now that's a great exercise for Yoga, but not for all your waking hours. It's hard. And it was the same with writing these stories. I could work in the non-count nouns, but then my plot was weak. I could strengthen the plot, and lose some of the required nouns. I could think about every breath in and every breath out, but I might forget to brush my teeth in the process.

Ultimately, I had to tell myself that these were only short, easy-to-understand scenes for use on a questionnaire, not to submit to The New Yorker. They weren't great. I probably wouldn't work with them again. But the act itself was an exercise for my writing mind, and it made me realize how much about our mother tongues we take for granted, especially as writers.  Doing any of these kinds of assignments, I believe, can only strengthen style, and I was grateful to have the opportunity to buff up mine a bit.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

American Mythology

On the writing front lately, there has been good news and bad news. The good news is that I have been given a section of freshman writing comp to teach in the fall. The good news that went along with that was that the school gave me a blank lesson plan and said, "Go!" The bad news is that I've never done this before, so all of my extra effort lately has gone into building a syllabus.

I feel like I'm writing a research paper again, except I have to find enough research to write like ten research papers, on all sorts of different subjects. After only having a week to come up with a topic, I finally chose American Myth. At first I thought it would be interesting to go beyond Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed and dive deeper into indigenous myths and how they evolved over time. I thought I could throw in a fun reading on urban legends to keep their interest. And then I realized that just as America is a melting pot of people, we are too a melting pot of myth - just because the American Indians were the only ones native to the land the United States now occupies does not mean their tales are the only things we can deem "American."

Neil Gaiman's incredible novel American Gods is giving me almost every topic I wish to cover in the fall, like how America changed and shaped myths that were brought here with the people, how the modern world views ancient myths, and how the new "gods" of technology are replacing the old "gods" of some of the ancient religions (literally, in the novel, or if you want to think more figuratively, how technology is replacing traditions of oral storytelling). There's also the idea of the American Dream as a mythos in itself: what about these stories are still true, and how are we building a new mythology in our society today?

I look forward to talking a little bit more about my class as I form the syllabus a bit better, but for now I'm deciding which readings to assign and which books to order. My own writing has been limited to the few precious hours every other week with my writing group doing creative prompts and exercises. But I figure that something has to give after graduation (July 3rd!) and I can get into my own work again. It will always be a balancing act, I keep telling myself, between what makes money and what fills the soul. The result will be one of my greatest life accomplishments.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Cliche Trap

We're always trying so hard to avoid cliche in our writing, and lately I've been noticing how much I fall prey to their traps in my daily life. This has become mostly apparent in my workplace, where I talk about the weather and what everyone did the weekend before and how much we're all addicted to coffee and how we can't wait for Friday afternoons. While I'm sometimes sheepish that I'm not being very original in my exchanges, it's comfortable. Engaging in small talk makes me feel like one of the team.

So what happens when your characters really do talk about something that's considered "cliche"? What if you really do need your characters to have a water cooler moment where they all talk about the freakishly warm spring weather? How do we make these moments truly honest and something people can look at and feel comfortable with rather than find boring and predictable?

Like most writing, I think it comes down to character. I'm the kind of character who would have a hyper-aware conversation about the weather with my cube mate, then turn around and write a blog post about small talk. Maybe he's going to have a conversation with me about the weather before turning back to his computer and talking to himself for the next half-hour, possibly about the cage match on Pay-Per-View later that night. Maybe it will spark a story in my supervisor about a woman who gave her umbrella away on a rainy day, only to have it given back to her by a completely different person weeks later when she was struggling through a sudden downpour. I think we have to remember that even though on the outside a scene may look cliche, it's really not because it's being experienced differently by everyone who's involved. And by looking at those different perspectives, it becomes a singular event, less boring, and less predictable.

And maybe next time I find myself aware of such things, I can try and turn up my perception radar and ask myself, "What makes this a real scene in reality, and how could I re-create it on the page?"

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Nick Hinton and Delving into the Music Industry

Recently I had the pleasure to work with Nick Hinton, a talented singer, songwriter and composer, on some promotional materials for his website and upcoming releases for his CD, The Brave Unknown. Though I hadn't heard any of Nick's music before we started collaborating, I was instantly drawn to his soulful style and moving instrumentals. This is going to be his first full-length album release and hopefully will help him break into the U.S. from the U.K. Check out some of the songs on his website or his MySpace page.

This is my first freelance project in the music business and I've really enjoyed getting to know the vocabulary with which musicians talk about sound, rhythm, and structure of composition. Although I don't have very much experience in many fields, this project proved to be very rewarding in the process of research, and I look forward to honing my skills in writing about music for future projects.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Doubts on Teaching

Every now and again, I'll doubt my desires to be a professor. I worry I don't know enough. What if I can't think of books to read? What if I don't know a reference someone makes in a paper? What if someone asks me about a 19th Century Irish novelist whose name I have never heard and I appear suddenly small and insignificant to my class?

Thankfully, I usually pull myself out of this doubting situation rather quickly and easily. It's called research. It's not like it's going to stop when I'm the one assigning the papers; if anything, I'll be doing even more. It's called Google and Wikipedia and that ancient thing called a library.

And then there are days like today, when I was prepping for a seminar I will have to teach as one of my graduation requirements for the MFA. I literally outlined the whole thing on the hour-long train to Providence this morning, and couldn't stop yammering about it over lunch with some of my classmates. I had so much fun figuring out how to engage the class, present the information, and create the handouts, that I was reminded that this is why I want to brave those random questions I might not be able to answer. It's because I love to do it.

The doubts will probably not go away. I will probably doubt myself all the way through my first semester. But hopefully I will still love to do it, and still have moments of epiphany, and still wade my way through Freshman comp papers. I guess at this point all I really can do is try it and see.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Evolution of a Writer

First poem is written. "Down went the celery, down went the cat. Down went me but not dat dat." Very proud of self.

First Grade:
Cute furry animal is happy, cute furry animal gets into trouble, cute furry animal gets out of trouble. The end.
Writing method: Dictation to mom, original artwork by me.

Third Grade:
Joint story with best friend about the misadventures of bat and flying squirrel.
Writing method: Two heads better than one. Original artwork by both of us. Giggling abounds.

Fifth Grade:
Possibly embarrassing time-traveling story involving middle school gym teacher.
Writing method: Mechanical pencils and legal pads. Inspiration hits anywhere and everywhere.

Eighth Grade:

Painfully cliched natural disaster story inspired by hit mid-nineties movie. Stilted dialogue and too many adverbs. Lots of fun to write, though. Flew through it.
Writing method: Mechanical pencils and mead notebooks. Lots of Mead notebooks.

High School:
Mushy stories about having lots of free time with my boyfriend. Writing as coping mechanism and escape from "overly strict" parents.
Writing method: Sparkly pens in secret journals and notebooks, scribbled behind illegally-locked doors.

Senior Year:
"Real" fiction as learned in college creative writing class. Previous writing shown to be positively awful. Damn, this stuff is hard.
Writing method: Parents' slow, slow, computer.

Character development, plot, theme, setting, description? Story arcs...inspiration and ideas coming slower, pushed out by craft. Am I actually going to major in this?
Writing method: Laptop at Village Coffee Shop, caffeine addiction begins.

Senior Year of College:
Tackle novella for senior honors project. With 3 weeks left before due date, decide to completely switch from third-person to first-person POV. Write straight through spring break. Accomplishment. 130 pages. Phew.
Writing method: Village Coffee Shop, Granville Coffee Shop, Library, Quad, Maine, on Floor of Room, on Ceiling of Room, on Top of Fridge. Caffeine IV inserted.

Last Semester of MFA:
Write a paragraph. Check Facebook. Walk away. Write another paragraph and decide that character isn't flushed out enough, so write a character interview. Make coffee. Decide that that character wouldn't do what I wanted him to do so change what he does. Do laundry. Research antelopes. Stare at the ceiling. Check Facebook. Write another paragraph. Wait until the last weekend before submission to write the majority of the story and then wonder why I'm developing an ulcer.
Writing method: Survival.