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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.

    My name is James Black. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. Friend and/or follow me if you like.

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Practice Makes Writers

Elizabeth Stark’s observation about writers’ tendency not to practice their art interests me a lot. I’ve been a writing center nerd for well over a decade, struggling to get college students to explore their writing processes, to engage with the page.

What students care about is product: getting the assignment done and getting a good grade. They don’t give a crap about practicing and/or don’t trust that practice will help them, which makes sense given that they probably weren’t taught to practice. Some of the students I’ve worked with assume that they are excellent writers already, unaware that the A’s they received in high school convey as much or more about their obedient classroom behavior than the quality of their prose.

Most, though, believe they aren’t writers. I don’t mean that they doubt their current status as writers. I mean they believe they simply aren’t writers and won’t ever be, that they lack the gift, and that no amount of practice would help them find it. (See Carol Dweck‘s work on fixed mindset vs growth mindset.)

Identifying as non-writers manifests in some annoying behavior and habits. For students who think they’ll never be textual artists, written communication is just a tool to achieve other goals. Writing is a product that should be cheap and easy to come by. Students protest their instructors’ seemingly unnecessary critiques. “You know what I mean,” they rail. “What I wrote in my paper is close enough.” The stakes aren’t high, or they shouldn’t be, they assume, and they’ve got better things to do with their time. Once they’re writing for “real” purposes in the “real” world–to get into grad school, to get published, to cut the deals that will make them zillionaires–they’ll be able to whip out the writing with no problem.

Of course, the practice they get in college-level coursework is supposed to help them prepare for the “real” stuff. But there isn’t much time to have students practice in class, and without modeling that behavior, it’s unrealistic to expect many of them to practice on their own “for fun.” So we give them assignments, expecting that will get them to practice. Maybe we have them write a draft or two, but again, there’s not much time, so we only ask for the “completed” assignment. The course becomes an obstacle course, and the student is given the textual equivalent of impossible tasks. From a standing position, leap over this 8-foot wall. No, you can’t have a rope. Just figure it out. Continue reading


Get Inside

I’m wondering if students have trouble learning to take chances in their writing, or if a sense of adventure is worn out of them (by which I mean it may be taught out of them).

Today I covered a friend’s writing class. She told me what they’ve been doing and let me decide how I would work with the students. The final draft of an essay is due on Friday. They’ve received response from the instructor and peers, so I decided to lead an exercise that might help them with late-stage revision.

I gave them two options: 1) Select six to eight key points from the essay and write a six- to eight-line poem (an idea borrowed from friends who teach writing); 2) Or they could write an adventure story about the experience of writing the essay–how they overcame challenges, whether or not they achieved their goals, etc. Whether or not these were brilliant ideas (not my intention) or fun for them (I could hope, but probably not), I thought these prompts would help them learn something about what they’d written and how they’d written it.

Revision should help you get inside what you’ve written. It’s like when you’re trying to open a cereal box. You know where to open the package, but sometimes it’s difficult to get your finger underneath the tab and you need to use a butter knife. Or you may have trouble getting hold of the tab but you pull at an odd angle and mangle the tab, so you can’t get the box to close properly.

You want to get inside but without causing damage. It’s okay if you do; it’s not as if you’ve completely destroyed the box and contents, except in those rare situations when you pull apart the sides of the internal plastic bag with enough force to nearly dislocate your shoulder and send chunks of granola flying onto the counters, floor, and the top of the refrigerator. Sometimes you have to clear the mess, dump it, and start over because you can only pick up a few chunks before the five-second rule expires. Continue reading

My Internal Editor Is a Big Nag

Referring to internal editors in my last post made me realize that mine has been sabotaging me lately. Ze tells me that none of the manuscripts I’ve submitted in the past few months is going to be accepted, and adds that if I really plan to submit more in the next few weeks, then that’s up to me, but why would I want to waste my time on that when nobody really gives a shit about what I have to say. Of course, I’m also wasting time on this blogging; ze suggests that perhaps that’s the reason for my failure to get anywhere close to finishing the rough draft of my novel this summer, as I had so ambitiously planned to do.

So, basically, my internal editor is a big nag who assumes that time is a vessel to be filled and that goals (must) never change.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been feeling very rebellious. As usual, I’ve been focusing on what I haven’t done rather than what I’ve accomplished. Not that I buy the internal editor’s bullshit, but I don’t quite have the energy to challenge zim on my own. A few friends have heard my call for help, which I communicated in the form of whining, and they patiently let me talk it through. I know what to do in these situations. If this were happening to you, I’d pump you up to help you externalize all the negative messages you’ve internalized over the years. My friends helped me get that kind of critical distance. (Don’t worry; I’m not going to start singing, “You’ve got to have friends,” or anything like that. Yeesh.)

True, I could be further along with the rough draft, but I was never going to finish it this summer. That was a ridiculous goal that desperately needed to be revised. I need to push past all of this, finish revising another piece, send it out, and get ready to send out another while I keep the novel going in the background. That’s reasonable. It’s a short-term goal that invites momentum. For now it’s all I can do.

You Don’t Have to Be a Genius

On a recent visit to Kansas City to see my parents, they take me with them to the Apple Store. We’ve become rather devout Mac users and go to the house of worship every so often. The store is small but busy. No one loiters for long, unless you count me, camping out at a MacBook to reply to a few emails (that day’s daily writing).

Take away the clutter of bustling customers, and you’d be left in a room with a simple design. There are many tables, each large enough to fit about six computer workstations. At the end farthest from the door, there’s a counter that serves as the store’s Genius Bar, where customers ask questions and technicians–yes, the Geniuses–attempt to answer them.

The Genius Bar is home base, but Geniuses are scattered throughout the store, easy to spot in bright-colored t-shirts. As I click through my email and type a few replies, I realize something unusual is going on in this public, commercial setting. The Geniuses attend to the customers, neither bowing to them nor revealing thinly veiled resentment for being asked for assistance. They seem interested in the customers’ concerns, and the customers make reasonable requests.

Hardcore selling is not happening here, but the parties in question are negotiating. The power differential is decidedly less lopsided than in the tech support horror stories I’ve heard. None of the Geniuses rolls her or his eyes condescendingly as a demoralized customer asks earnestly how to open a laptop. Rather, each Genius-customer pair I observe seems to be having a civilized conversation. I don’t hover so close or so long to see any of these conversations through to the end, but they all move along to reasonable solutions. No one throws confetti. But no one storms off in a huff, either.

Learning takes place, and not just for the customers. I assume that’s part of the plan. Customers and geniuses bring expertise to their interactions. Although it should be no surprise that the Geniuses know what they’re doing, the customers know their stuff, too. One session that I do watch involves a customer trying to add photos to a book she’s laying out with her Mac. She needs advanced-level help. The Genius asks many questions, inviting the customer to establish her expectations and, beyond that, to guide the session as much as she wants.

I understand why I’m drawn in by this activity while experiencing déjà vu. I run academic support services at a university. My staff and I are no Geniuses, but we try to do what they do. We attempt to meet students “where they are” and to help them learn what they need to learn so they can do what they need to do. Our best work happens when students open up about what they expect and know. In those situations, I learn a lot about how I learn and how I write. If things are going well, my daily work allows me to reflect, learn, and grow.

That doesn’t always happen, of course, and I’m guessing the same is true for the Geniuses. I may have just caught them on a good day. There’s a strange mix of education and customer service in this kind of work, so consistency is difficult. But I doubt Apple would devote resources to this if it didn’t work pretty well.

And how comforting it would be for anyone trying to learn anything to have access to a bona fide Genius. I love the term Genius to describe an educator. At once, it conveys a sense of humor and a grain of truth. But beware. In the search for answers, questions often raise more questions. Which can be helpful. Frustrating. And just brilliant.

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