A Writer Threads The Needle

As a writer, there are some impossible assignments. Where the degree of difficulty is just too great to put pen to paper.

You can’t write anything sympathetic to Republicanism in The New York Times, just as you can’t write anything sympathetic to the Left in The Washington Times.

If you identify as male, you can’t write about the “female experience”. If you are rich, you can’t write about the poor. If you’ve never had kids, you can’t write about parenting.

I mean, you can, there’s a First Amendment after all, but good luck to you.

And if you’re on “the tenure track”, or a tenured professor, you can’t complain about anything higher education-related without understandably unleashing the growing army of adjuncts who struggle to feed themselves and make rent. They. Aren’t. Having. It.

Unless you were an adjunct before you landed your tenure-track position? And you acknowledge your good fortune. More than once. Then, just maybe, you can pull off the rarest of feats.*

Cue Sarah Emanuel’s essay, “The Deflating Reality Of Life On The Tenure Track” with the provocative subtitle—”Walking dogs helps me make rent.”

Props to Emanuel for her hustle and her risk taking as a writer. And her good humor.

Historical footnote. The Good Wife and I started our journey in a one-bedroom Venice apartment.

*I haven’t read the comments yet. Kinda afraid to.

Sometimes I Can Only Muster The Strength To . . .

. . . read headlines. Recently, I’ve been diagnosed with “CEFS” or Current Events Fatigue Syndrome.

Some recent headlines are funny enough that I don’t even have to read the article. My spirit is already lifted.

I Became Extremely Hot In The Pandemic. My Husband Did Not.

Okay, so maybe I didn’t read it because I was afraid the Good Wife wrote it.

Some recent headlines are so cringe-worthy I can’t bring myself to read the article. This is CEFS in action. In increasing order of cringe:

Misinformation Is A Pandemic That Doesn’t Have A Headline

Tie for First. . .

Election Offices And School Board Meetings Could Become Weapons-free Zones In Washington

Report: World’s 10 Richest Men Doubled Their Wealth During COVID Pandemic

And sometimes since I know how the story is going to turn out, it’s unnecessary to read on.

Help! My Husband Throws Away My Things Without Asking In The Name of “Minimalism.”

Dude’s wife divorces him. He moves into an apartment a few steps below the one he lived in during college. Can’t afford any real furniture to speak of, any art, anything. Shortly thereafter, dies from loneliness in his minimalist “paradise”.

Okay, so maybe I didn’t read that because I was afraid the Gal Pal may have authored it as well.

Thinking In My Sleep

When his friends rip him for what they perceive to be an unusually lax job, an egghead professor friend of mine likes to joke that “The life of the mind is 24/7.”

A very successful writing friend of mine once told me that “if you don’t think about your current writing project when you first wake up, something’s wrong.” I’m fascinated by the subconscious which I think of as the nearly continuous internal dialogue I have with myself. 

Sometimes I can write a medium-long, (hopefully) substantive blog post in 20 minutes only because subconsciously, I’ve been sporadically working on it for days in my mind. Sometimes even, while asleep. 

In one first year writing conference a student of mine described her pre-writing process on one paper this way, “I talked about the prompt a lot while driving around with my friends and then my dad and I really got into it.” For which she received historic levels of extra credit. 

Of what does your internal dialogue consist? Are there patterns or themes? What shapes your subconscious? For me, it’s a combination of things I read, watch, and listen to; reflections on interactions with people past and present; and then staring at the Cooper Point coastline of the Salish Sea while nursing my morning latte. 

If your subconscious has atrophied as a result of not exercising it enough, maybe you should give this a go.   

Source: @AwesomeLibrarians

Part Of The Circle

One-on-one conferences with my first year writers are a wrap. At the end of our convos I asked what most contributed to their learning and what if anything I should tweak going forward.

We ended up liking each other, so the feedback was almost universally positive. One recurring theme was, “We sat in a circle and you were part of the circle.”

When the classroom architecture makes it possible, it’s pretty simple isn’t it? Ditch rows. Ditch hierarchy. Ask challenging questions. Listen. And whenever possible, laugh.

Tell Someone They’re Amazing

In preparation for tomorrow’s writing seminars, I’m rereading old final papers to select a few to share with my current students who are writing their fifth and final ones of the semester. In short, the final paper is a self-assessment of the progress they’ve made throughout the semester.

One former student wrote:

“This course has had a profound impact on the way I think about writing and life. I have become a stronger conversational writer with more confidence in my abilities, and I have been encouraged to continue writing outside of an academic setting. Now I really enjoy informal writing: I am planning on writing an op-ed in the Mooring Mast (the school newspaper) and am even applying to work at the Writing Center at Professor Ron’s suggestion. Without his support, I would not have had the confidence to make that decision.”

Thanks to their elementary, middle, and high school teachers; and parents I presume; about a third of my first year students have really high ceilings as writers. And over the years, I’ve gotten better and better at helping them realize their writing potential. I do it by telling them they’re amazing. While they’ve earned good grades throughout their lives, they’ve received very little or no meaningful and specific praise. The good grades don’t add up to much over time and many of them lack confidence.

I make a boatload of electronic comments on every paper. Some are suggested revisions, but many others are smiley faces, comments like “really excellent paragraph” and “nice insight”. At first their insights are sentence-long, now they come in waves of paragraphs. I always end with a long comment where I highlight their clearest strengths and next steps and often conclude by telling them how much I enjoy reading them. Upon returning papers, I follow up in class with praise for their last writing effort and positive examples of their improving work.

Those are some of my ways of telling them not that they’re “A” students, but that they’re amazing young adults. Pete Carroll, of the 3-8 Seahawks LOL, refers to it as “relentless optimism”.

Like my students, we lack confidence that there’s anything amazing about us. We could change that if we started telling family and friends what we most appreciate about them.

The Good Wife is grieving the loss of her mom and dad. Last night, in an attempt to cheer her up a wee bit, I told her she had been an amazing daughter to them for the last five years. She replied, “I have?”

I couldn’t believe that she was too close to it and too hard on herself not to see how amazing she had been. Flying to see them in Central California repeatedly, moving them to Washington State, and then putting her life on hold for the last year as their needs grew exponentially. Lovingly and completely selflessly caring for them to the end almost by herself.

It wasn’t her fault that she wasn’t sure she had done enough. Because no one had told her she was amazing.

Empire of Pain

Good grief it took me a long time to finish this book. Had to renew it at the local library three times. My students are to blame for that. Yesterday, finally, I eschewed football and dusted off the last 90 pages. 

Truly excellent. Radden Keefe pulls off an amazing feat. He takes complicated topics including pharmacology, corporate maleficence, the law, and philanthropy among others and makes all of them imminently understandable for someone of my intellect. Deserves a Pulitzer.

As a writer, he reminds me of a savvy, veteran quarterback who “takes what the defense gives him”. When it comes to word choice, he always checks down, always choosing the simpler word and phrase in the interest of clarity. I found myself rereading some sentences twice not to better understand them, but to marvel at the cogent prose. 

In terms of the content, I find the “Sackler family-Mexican drug cartel” analogy convincing. Spoiler alert that you already know if you read the news, the Sacklers largely get away with their crimes against humanity. Well worth the read anyways. Just don’t dawdle like me. 

Next in the queue.

Why Economic Diversity Matters

Some once derided the place I teach at, Pacific Lutheran University, or “PLU”, as “People Like Us”. I’m happy to report PLU is doing a much better job recruiting diverse students who look a lot more like their Pierce County peers. Which makes teaching about writing and multiculturalism a whole lot more fun because the students regularly enlighten one another with their very different life experiences.

Case in point. The other day we were discussing the concept of “social infrastructure” or the physical places and organizations that shape the way people interact. Specifically, public libraries. The question was where would we be without them. To which Lizveth said, “I have four siblings and we have one computer and no printer. Whenever I had to print something in high school, I headed straight to the library.”

Lizveth, the first in her family to attend college, is one of my top students. Her future is bright. The beauty of her story was how she told it. Wonderfully matter-of-factly. The subtext, “There’s way more to me than my family’s economic struggles.”

It’s hard to understate the importance of Lizveth’s abbreviated story. Especially for middle and upper middle class students who have few frames of reference for thinking about their relative privilege.

In 23 words she taught everyone more about economic privilege than I have all semester. If they were truly listening.

Monday Required Reading and Listening

The semester is in full swing. Time to raise your game.

  1. Our high-speed transport future. Doubt I’ll live long enough to find out if it’s 670 (Branson) or 760 (Musk) miles per hour.
  2. And the future of weight-loss.
  3. How to help kids struggling with their mental health.
  4. The best young adult author going explains how to connect with kids through the written word.
  5. China’s Hot New Rental Service: Men Who Actually Listen. Groovy, we’re trending.
  6. Astute Ryder Cup analysis you’ve been clamoring for. I hope the U.S. hasn’t “ushered in a new era”. I prefer my Ryder Cups like I do the Good Wife, close.

Be Adventurous, Tell Stories

Apologies for going silent during the annual dose of cycling and running in Bend, Oregon last week. Pretty damn selfish, but at least I didn’t kill the Humble Blog like The Former Guy did. Grow a spine Former Guy, if I closed shop every time a “friend” made fun of the Humble Blog, the world would be bereft of all my insights. Cue “friends” making fun again.

Yesterday, I was driving north on Hwy 26 from Bend to Gresham at the same time as a badass woman in a convertible MiniCooper. Like me, she was OLD, but that didn’t stop her from embracing the elements. The air temp was 45F/7C, but we were doing 60mph, so adjust accordingly. She paired a hooded winter jacket with ski gloves.

I would never do that (how could I hear my podcasts; plus, my hair), but I loved that she was. Each time we leap frogged one another, I became more intrigued with her story. What kind of person drives with the top down when it’s hella cold? The answer of course is an adventurous one.

I wanted to meet her because anyone that adventurous has to have a lot of great stories from a life well lived. That’s one of the best things about adventures, besides the actual experience, you end up with a treasure trove of stories that enable others to experience your adventure vicariously, and therefore, for the experience to live on.

But then I ruminated on the fact that she was alone, which of course means she doesn’t get along with other people. I mean, if she did, even just a little, wouldn’t she have someone in the car with her? Someone she’s shared some adventures with?

So, maybe having a beer with her wouldn’t be so great an experience after all.

But then I thought about the fact that apart from Blanca and Rosa, I was alone in my car too. So who am I to judge, maybe I’m not God’s gift to interpersonal relations. So maybe I shouldn’t keep her solo-ness from proposing we stop for a beer in Sandy for some story telling.

But alas, I wasn’t adventurous enough to propose that, so I don’t have any stories to tell about the woman in the convertible MiniCooper.

Don’t be me. Get jabbed, be even more adventurous, meet people, and make stories.

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I Got Into A Fight

A week ago and lost bigly. The saddest part, it was the fourth time I went into our green space to trim bushes and weed underneath them ignorant of the poison oak lying in wait. For 48 hours I was fine, and then, not so much. I will spare you the pictures which I should sell to a medical textbook publisher.

The poison oak plague is just one of repeated health challenges I’ve been struggling with this spring. Challenges that have left me with less energy to read, think, and write.

I’ve been reminded that control is elusive and life is fragile. Eating well, running, swimming, and cycling doesn’t guarantee anything.

If I come out the other side more appreciative of my health and whatever time I have left, my travails will have been worth it.