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    My daily writing--emails, journal entries, marginalia, more emails, blog posts, and tweets--shapes me as a writer, helping and hindering the big stuff I'm trying to accomplish. Every word counts.

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Sometimes You Have to Retreat If You Want to Advance

The university I work for organized a leadership development retreat for the last week of winter break, so I just spent the last week with 60 students and six colleagues. After being on winter break, I’d kind of regretted that I’d volunteered to do this. Despite all the great things I’d heard from last year’s group, I had trouble gearing up for the experience. I just wanted to ease back into work life, and I wasn’t looking forward to spending a week away from my partner and our dogs. And I didn’t want to lose writing time, which has become more and more precious the deeper I’ve gotten into my novel. But five minutes into facilitator training, I realized it was going to be worth my time. I’m not particularly resistant, but neither am I usually so easy to convince.

The curriculum was created by Leadershape. Two student affairs professionals (from other institutions but trained by Leadershape) guided us through the process at a lodge in the Poconos. The curriculum is designed to challenge everyone involved to develop a “healthy disregard for the impossible.” To those who are a little jaded, it may sound like an empty promise. But even if you know what to expect from similar training, you can’t avoid getting involved, because you’re completely submerged in the experience.

The curriculum’s goals are ambitious. The major goal is for each participant to create a vision for change that at first seems pretty much impossible. But subsequent exercises help you build a plan that will at least get you started. Maybe the plan will change, or maybe you’ll only get halfway to your vision. Better to realize that you can effect some change than not even try. What motivated me was finding similarities among others’ visions and mine, which gave me people to collaborate with in dreaming big as well as troubleshooting.

In fact, it was my ideal teaching/learning environment. Serious, complex discussion filled sessions, meal times, and free time. The students appreciated my openness and that I felt the power of the experience as deeply as they did. No one had to downplay their feelings or apologize for wanting to change the world in positive ways. There was precious little use of irony (even by me), except some of us occasionally made ironic comments to make fun of irony.

My big lesson is really a reminder for me: Everyone in a community is a valuable resource to the whole. That’s not touchy-feely, hearts-&-flowers bullshit. Continue reading

Showing Can Be So Telling

In my writing group’s weekly call, I had a breakthrough about writing detailed scenes, an A-ha/Duh moment that allowed me to internalize something I’ve known but didn’t quite know-know.

Elizabeth had us select a character and put him/her in a setting that the writer knows but the character doesn’t. I wrote a scene in which one of the characters in my novel comes to visit me at work. I called up all the complaints I’ve heard about the space: it’s in a basement; it’s hard to find; it’s ugly and depressing; it’s hard to get into my office because the door collides with another door. (I’m going to share; don’t diss.)

The director’s office is in the basement far from the stairs through a set of doors and I miss the sign telling me where I need to go, finding only bathrooms one way and a bunch of seemingly forgotten books the other way. I turn around and walk through the first open door. A student reads at a table not noticing me at first, so I say hello, louder than I mean to. The room is small with boloney-colored walls. There’s a piece of equipment, an old compact CD player maybe, stuck to the ceiling, which feels low. I reach up but to my surprise can’t touch it, even give a few swipes to make sure. The student looks up and sees me waving my arm above my head. “Is everything alright, sir? Can I help you with something?” “Looking for James Black.” “He’s in his office.” She points, and I look to where she points, but all I see is a woman in an office, stepping around her desk, approaching me. She, the admin asst, asks to help me and apologizes for not noticing. I understand given that her desk is back in a corner sort of behind a pole. Mr. Black is located in yet another office off her office. She checks to make sure Mr. Black is available, then steps out of the way. Her office door bonks into his office door. There’s enough clearance, but it’s a bit precarious getting by them.

Most of the details came together pretty well considering we only wrote for a few minutes. But Elizabeth pointed out that “[A] student” in the third sentence isn’t descriptive, especially compared to the other details. I got what she meant. My character might be able to infer that the person in that room is a student, but why would someone in a new space jump to that conclusion? The character is just taking in sensory information. Processing the information leads to more information gathering (e.g., is the ceiling low? can he get past the weird doors?).

FYI, I decided to revise “[A] student” as “[A] young woman in a lumpy aqua sweater.” For the sake of the exercise, I think the change offers more information. If I decided to use the scene, I’d play with the colors and what they suggest about mood. I’d probably also change the description of the object on the ceiling. It’s just a wireless router, and although it does look like a compact CD player, that image seems confusingly specific.

The point is not simply to show rather than tell, but to show in a way that develops character along with setting. In this scene, the character isn’t quite ready make assumptions without testing them, which the reader probably appreciates, being as new to the setting as the character is. A different character would take a different approach, perhaps bringing more knowledge to the experience or comparing this setting to a similar setting. Showing would still be important, but it might involve more telling.

MyNoRevMo Day 26: Weaving

With only a few days of November left, I’m struggling to maintain my usual working pace. For months, I’ve been doing about 1.5 hour per day. I definitely haven’t stopped, nor have I slowed considerably, but between dealing with narrative problems and distractions from real life, I feel as if I’ve trudging through mud during most of MyNoRevMo. Better to keep going than give up, so I’ll keep going.

The problems are opportunities. My first draft includes many lengthy scenes that need to be sliced apart and woven into other scenes. I’m trying to connect past and present. Instead of dropping some clunky flashback into the text, the characters remember relevant past events as new events unfold in the present action, emphasizing the “flash” in flashbacks rather than just dredging up the past.

As a writer I have been warned away from using flashbacks of any kind because it supposedly prevents the story from moving forward. But as a reader, I see this notion ignored all the time. And as the protagonist of my own life, I do this all the time. Past experiences inform choices I make in the present. New experiences inform my interpretations of past events. I’m constantly revising and, probably, fictionalizing my memories.

In both my reality and my fiction, revising reveals a lot of information that I can cut. It’s for me to know, to help me envision an arc or remember how the character go from then to now, but no one else needs to know. The information would distract a reader.

I learned this process as an art student. In high school, my teacher suggested I tear one of my abstract watercolors into strips and weave it back together. Doing so would get rid of what didn’t need to be there and reshape what was–a new approach to what felt too obvious. Continue reading

Empathy and Civility? Those Are Just Words, Right?

I attended a panel discussion that was set up to respond to the suicide of a local high school student. As a result, I don’t want to say I’ve lost all hope in society’s ability to deal with this problem, but my hope has taken a painful, debilitating blow.

The principal spent a lot of time and energy insisting that bullying will never end. It happens everywhere, not just her school, and fighting bullying requires everyone’s involvement, not just hers. Every so often, she emphasized that she didn’t mean to sound defensive, although it was hard to read her mostly well-intentioned comments as much more than an attempt to gain control of the story that the local media and rumor mill (hard to separate those forces) have painted.

Fine. We’ve all got to be committed to solving the problem. I agree. Any halfway responsible person can agree with that. So what does she recommend we do, based on her experience? The principal told a story about going to a parade at her son’s school. As her son passed on his float, another parent who didn’t know this administrator said her son should have been killed at birth. What did this administrator, this trained professional, do? She froze. After demanding that we audience members avoid standing by and letting bullies get away with their offenses, she gave us an example of her doing that very thing.

To be fair, it was a shocking comment, and when she told that part of the story, audience members let out a collective gasp. But I really expected to hear that she collected herself and did something, either immediately or shortly after the incident. I hoped she might have told us the story to illustrate the difficulty of anti-bullying work and to encourage us to prepare for such situations, to anticipate how we might feel and plan what we might say, to do role-playing to rehearse those moments so we’re not caught off guard as she was. I would have given her a standing ovation if she’d had a rhetorical purpose other than playing the I’m-a-parent-too card. If educational professionals are also parents, they are, apparently, supposed to be forgiven for inaction because they, too, have feelings. But if the feelings for one’s own child doesn’t inspire action, Maybe we weren’t supposed to notice that she did offer no clear solutions from either perspective.

There was also a police officer on the panel. He preached the gospel of structured behavioral training. He didn’t use those words, but that’s what he meant. He spoke about the effectiveness of dress codes, saying that it gives children one less thing to have to worry about. When educating children, we should set high standards of behavior, the most effective height to be determined by him, apparently. He gave examples of ideal educational environments, such as private schools and a summer camp he’s involved with where parents drop of their kids so he and other law enforcement professionals can “hammer them all week.” The rigid structure he recommended doesn’t give kids room to misbehave. While I agree that not giving kids choices is an extremely effective way to modify their behavior for a time, such an approach doesn’t do much for helping young people learn to make responsible choices when rules aren’t clear. Furthermore, the imbalance of power and the repeated, aggressive approach he recommended are key features of bullying.

For all the railing I’ve heard about how “kids today!” have become desensitized to violence, I’ve heard very few adults consider that kids become desensitized by watching the adults in their lives use bullying as pedagogy and/or avoid dealing with what actually affects kids. Continue reading

The Queer Kids Are Alright. But They Deserve So Much Better.

As advisor to the Gender-Sexuality Alliance at my university, I have to judge when to stay out of students’ way and when to step in to advise. They do great work on their own. For example, a few years ago they decided to change the name from Gay-Straight Alliance to recognize that many students were coming out as trans and genderqueer. But when they want to host an event with a famous speaker, I can help them find funding and coordinate PR. Basically, I don’t really run anything, but I’m pretty much always available if they need help.

Following the heightened awareness of LGBTQ suicides in mainstream media, I’m more attentive if not necessarily more concerned about queer students on our campus. (I’m pretty much always already in concerned mode.) I usually observe when I attend events, although for the Coming Out Day SpeakOut, I shared a story as most everyone else did. What struck me was that my students’ experiences haven’t necessarily been better than mine. Although my mother loves me unquestionably, she said some unkind words as she adjusted to the news that I’m gay, and a generation later, parents still have trouble dealing with the news that their children are queer.

More to the point, their problem seems to be that their children aren’t heterosexual, and sharpening that point even more, there’s disappointment that their expectations for the child’s future aren’t going to be met. It’s not that parents don’t support their queer kids, but there’s a break in the support. For those of us lucky enough to have trusting relationships with our parents, it’s painful to watch them for that moment–maybe longer–and wonder if unconditional love is no longer guaranteed. Our relationships with our parents are changed forever by that experience. If all goes well, the break results in a stronger bond, as with a bone. But it was clear as I listened to my students’ stories that a few of them are still waiting to find out if their parents love them as much as they used to. Continue reading

How My First Time Became Never

I first thought about killing myself in bio class junior year of high school. My teacher probably thought I was thinking big bio thoughts. My obedient behavior apparently gave her the impression that I cared about what we were doing. I had learned that the only reason to talk to her was to affirm that she was right.

The plans I was considering came from movies and TV, mostly. I knew not to talk to my teacher about them. She wouldn’t have drawn on her knowledge of human biology to help me choose the most efficient option. She would have told me I was wrong, and probably referred me to the appropriate administrators. Maybe I would have gotten the help I needed, and probably for that very reason I didn’t risk telling her or anyone else.

I’d already been through the psychological support process in fifth grade, when I freaked out in class about a gray cloud in the sky and panicked that a tornado would kill us all. I ended up spending six months or maybe a year in weekly sessions with the school district psychologist. We met in windowless storage spaces. She measured my IQ. One week we built a model airplane together as we talked. I thought she was a weirdo but trusted, and still trust, that she had some good intention. I just didn’t get it. And if it helped me, it didn’t work for long.

When I moved from elementary to junior high school, I had panic attacks throughout the first month of school, my body’s way of rejecting the transition that I didn’t want to go through. The school counselor did his best to talk me through it, but basically I just got used to the discomfort of the new environment. A lot of my classmates turned mean and, along with kids from the other schools that fed into our junior high, they turned on me. I’d taken some crap in elementary school; I’d been called “sissy” so many times I lost count. In junior high, it only got worse. They called me “faggot” and other slurs. When dressing out for gym class, other boys would point at my fleshy chest and say I had breasts, which was an extreme version of the more common attempt to insult me by saying I was a girl. I don’t remember teachers saying anything like that except my gym teachers, who called us “ladies” when we weren’t moving fast enough. Later, I would learn about gender expression and identity and come to understand that the “insult” hurt because it was mostly true for me.

So by the time I got to my junior high bio class, I felt pretty worn down. But I didn’t act on my plans. Things got better senior year. I made friends, spent more time with the friends I already had, and learned I had some talents I’d hoped I had. Although the good times didn’t erase the pain, I was too busy to acknowledge the feeling that everything would surely fall apart. I was avoiding the problem, yes, but I wasn’t aware of how I could get help. I did what I had to do to stay alive.

Continue reading

Want to Stop the Bullies? Stop Acting Like One.

Does anyone else find it ironic that Dan Savage and Perez Hilton have become so vocal against bullying? Bullying is integral to their personae. If they were devoted to calling out hypocrisy in a kind of Dexter-style verbal assassination approach, they might have more credibility, but I question whether their motivations are even that honorable.

Whether providing sex advice or standing up for gay rights, Savage throws slurs against trans people, people he judges to be too heavy and others. Until spring 2009, he even used that mainstay of middle school culture, “retarded,” although by the request of a reader promised to start using “leotarded” in its place. Of course, Perez Hilton’s fame is the result of his daily attacks on celebrities, regardless of how much power or sanity they have.

I have enough of a sense of humor to appreciate that some people make money doing things like they do. But I have enough plain ole sense to question their motivations and whether their efforts deserve much support. To be clear, they aren’t the worst offenders. They’re not stalking particular college students and blogging about them or posting video of their private lives online. But the bullying inherent in the work they do to make considerable amounts of money has become insidious in our culture. They didn’t cause the problem, but they certainly support it, which makes it hard for me to believe they can be part of the solution without undermining it.

Of the two of them, I keep looking for reasons to respect Savage. Maybe that explains why I’ve spent so many words questioning his significance in my last post and this one. When he’s at his best, he ditches the naughty sex-columnist act and just gives straightforward observations with an unapologetic tone that is far more provocative than anything he’s ever said about cock-sucking. But then he makes a wisecrack, apparently to entertain Keith Olbermann, and softens the blow. It’s as if he doesn’t take himself seriously. Continue reading

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