Tag Archives: Writing

Writing Time and the Ph.D. Poet

Recently, I’ve gotten a couple of e-mails from poet friends inquiring as to my digital and 3-D whereabouts. I’ve been teaching a compressed-semester writing course. That means I’ve had exactly zero time for anything else. Unfortunately, “anything” includes my own studies and writing.

All those poets who warn that the Ph.D. kills poetry are correct, in the sense that the Ph.D. demands so much time and headspace for so many things that are not conducive to producing new work. Envision the unholy marriage of repeating your MFA workshop without the fun of making the reading circuit, while simultaneously adjuncting, writing two major proposals a year, and being hazed regularly for five to seven years, and you’ll get some idea of what a creative writing Ph.D. is like.

Is it all bad? No, not unless you allow yourself to get sucked into the vortex that is teaching in the 21st-century university. I finally got to take Spenser and Old English, courses which never were available to me in programs past. I got to pick up a few goodies on the side: ed psych, screenwriting, technical writing, Spanish, historic preservation, a scholarship for a research trip to Cuba.

Every semester, I learn something more about myself, about the students I work with, about building and delivering a solid course, about some great book or study I might not have sought out on my own. I learn what’s worth putting precious time into. I also learn how to say no–to time-wasters, to manipulations, to worthy causes, to counterproductivity, to saboteurs, to bad energy. I learn to say yes–to my research, to my writing in all genres, to my life beyond the university.

Meanwhile, I regroup for the next exam, the next conference panel, the next course syllabus, and Whatever’s Next.

Whatever’s Next is serious business for doctoral students in the liberal arts these days. All options are open.

In my twenties, with no degree and lots of raw talent, I wrote for a living. In my forties, with 2.85 degrees, one small-press book, and lots of experience and education, I grade papers for a living. Projects on hold include two nonfiction books, the dissertation and book to follow, and my freelance writing business.

I would much rather be writing any one of those books. Or producing a documentary. Or filing stories from any number of datelines. I have reached the stage of Ph.D.-dom at which many grad students throw up their hands and say, “I’m going back to work!”

Each day, I remind myself that I’m almost there. Others counsel that the decision to quit the Ph.D. is highly personal, that quitting is not a sign of failure to follow through, that quitting is the best course of action for all those laboring in non-Ivy programs, that the economy and student loan repayments don’t mix, that far too many Ph.Ds compete for far too few tenure-track openings, and any number of suggestions specious or sensible.

My solution: What do I have to do today? Of course, I don’t have to do any of it. So I rephrase: Am I committed to doing this today? Like an alcoholic chasing the sober life, I deal only with today.

Do I write a poem every day? I do not. Do I commit to working on a poem every day? I do.

It’s that simple.

Any project, any problem, I tell my students, is doable if you figure out how long you have to finish it, count backwards, and divide the work into small, doable parts.

This basic time-management principle is a revelation to many of them, especially the younger ones who get caught up in their own anxiety and mistake high stress for hard work. To protect my own sanity, I have had to learn–the hard way–to meet their Velcro with Teflon. (I’m still learning.) All graduate students who teach must learn the fine art of setting and maintaining boundaries between themselves and their students. For poets doing the Ph.D., protecting that space can be extremely challenging. Lately, I think a lot about what I did to finish my B.A. while working full-time at CNN. I read photocopies at lunch and index cards in the ladies’ room. I listened to French tapes in my Walkman between CNN Center and Georgia State. And I refused to deliver updates on the Gulf War when I walked into poetry workshop.

The grades are in. My parents wants me to move my things out of the basement they’re having remodeled. My dog flings himself down in the middle of the living room and bicycles his back legs, begging for belly rubs. My partner is exhausted and needs me to pick up my end of all things neglected. I had planned all year that I would use this time to drive out of town and work on the dissertation–in the field, away from people and in the marsh, on the coast, under the surface.

Will I say yes? Will I say no?

Bear with me.

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The Old College Try(ing)

The fiction reading list expands to fill the time allotted, then overflows: literary Great Stuff oozing through the cracks of the intellectual shack I’ve cobbled together. Great Stuff expands, fossilizes, resists whittling down. Okay. I’ll say it. I’d be an idiot not to postpone comps until fall. I’ve got ten weeks before the exam and my particular reading list is a string of electrons pinging between servers. Even an English major with dyscalculia can do that math.

Here’s what studying great literature at a public university involves nowadays. See how well this squares with the ideal Oxbridge tutorial, that Ivy League privilege-anxiety foremost in current anti-intellectual discourse, that “Dead Poets Society” cave scene before youth, freedom, and discovery expanded into a synthetic blob of backstabbing, suicide, and kangaroo committees.

First, I’m lucky because I’m fully funded through Year Six. This is the middle of Year Five. Twelve years was, until recently, not unheard of for doctorates in the humanities, although that’s the outer limit of one’s scholarly welcome. Now, we are being prodded to finish in half that time or less, as opposed to the seven-year norm. For grad students in the humanities, being fully funded entails teaching. In the current academic climate (everywhere, not just at my alma mater), that means we are responsible for planning, running, and grading multiple introductory sections. We also have to attend this meeting, that meeting, the other meeting, in a kind of dry run for tenure-track Valhalla. One thing you’ll get at my institution is professionalization in excelsis. I admit that’s a good thing. All that extracurricular training gives us a sliver of an advantage in the academic job market, which itself is pretty thin.

Teaching assistants’ take-home pay may be about 1/3 that of a convenience store manager, but tuition is on the house. To make ends meet, I gamble on the future: I take out student loans to cover the rest of my (well, actually, our) very modest living expenses and to pay for conference travel once, possibly twice, a year. The People’s Universities no longer pay for their graduate students to present at regional or national conferences, which is where grad students go for the elusive academic job interview. That’s because The People’s Universities everywhere function at the pleasure of elected state officials, many of whom think “the gubmint” (reminder: that’s you and me, folks, not them) shouldn’t pay for anything (but sweetheart-deal private contractors). What little money comes the grad students’ way trickles down through layers of administrators and warrens of managers, many of whom (but not all) manage the university as a private corporation, not as a public trust. When the annual budget cut or the mid-year budget cut strikes, as it always does, our non-degree-program workload increases. Academic trench warfare means holding the line for graduate funding while finding more ways to justify graduate students’ presence at The People’s Universities everywhere.

It’s been this way for over a decade. It reminds me far too much of the oil bust that interrupted my undergraduate studies in (hello) the early ’80s. I know what it means to work three crappy jobs and go to school full-time, or to work one real job all night and then go to school 2/3 time on the quarter system. I hardly lack motivation. I just want to finish my reading and get on with whatever’s next. High on the list: paying off my student loans and trying to mitigate all those years of lost income/retirement savings. I’m not 25. I’m not single. I have grown folks’ bills. I will never sell my soul, but I will sell my time to the highest bidder.

One hungers for the idealized graduate life of yesteryear. Did it ever exist? Whither the corduroy-elbowed denizens of library carrels? Whither library carrels, for that matter? I’m not sitting around smoking a pipe and debating the merits of Hemingway’s vs. Faulkner’s prose in the campus pub with my three closest pals. (Whither the campus pub?) I don’t smoke a pipe–I don’t smoke anything–but I remember, by proxy, how grad school was in the 1970s and 1980s. My mother was one of those housewives who went “back to school” and is now happily doctored, published, and tenured. I watched her study; I studied alongside her; sometimes I even helped her study by reading manuscripts aloud while she transcribed them. My father, who never finished college but has read more than anyone I know, was a muckraking journalist. My family, it seems, was not the norm. They let me play with typewriters. I watched the Vietnam War three times a day. They did not censor my reading. By the time I was ten, I had read Wordsworth’s poetry, The Tempest, and The Godfather (wedding party and horsehead and all), all of my own free will, and my mother had vouched for me with the librarian because I’d read just about every book in the kids’ section. I was also writing poems and stories from first grade on, producing and peddling my own magazines in elementary school, and binding books by junior high.

I never had a chance. I was doomed to be a writer, a reader, a thinker.

Where I do this is immaterial; that I do it is vital.

I say this using my fancy college words. But I also know about smoke-filled rooms and lying politicians and putting my bus money in my shoe and acting crazy on the street when a shifty-looking guy is about to mug me. I sought my first craft training in newsrooms, not workshops. Like my dad, I can and do read on my own time because reading is its own reward–just you and the (in)glorious mind on the page. Seems to me, though, that a university oughta be the best place to read a lot in a short time.

So here I am, mixed diction an’ all, dawl.

My street sense tells me The People’s Universities are getting mugged, conned, jumped, jacked, and hustled by the folks with the purse-strings. And they never, ever will say, “Okay, I’ve got enough money now. Here’s your temporary fee increase back. And let’s expand the arts programs. Those guys in the Sports Palace have enough. It’s time for Our Fair State to develop world-class writers.”

This is why I have taken a 1.5 graduate courseload while teaching a .5 FTE load (plus professionalization, teaching portfolios, tutoring portfolios, editing publications, serving on committees, presenting at conferences, publishing, and all that professory jazz). For folks keeping score at home, that’s the equivalent of two full-time jobs, not one. When I started, I looked at how many years of funding I was guaranteed. Then I counted backwards from there and took the required core as quickly as possible. I had planned to take a year to study for each comp exam and a year for the dissertation (only because I’ve written a master’s thesis and a book already, have had the concept in mind since before I applied, and have been picking at the research and planning in odd moments). Sure, I “lost” a year or so with “unnecessary” forays which are, in fact, completely necessary supplements of or complements to my research interests. I flog my “advanced” Spanish whenever I can. I took a doctoral-level ed psych. I took a master’s-level screenwriting class. I took Old English, because I believe no self-respecting English Ph.D. should escape at least the rudiments of Old English. I took various lit courses which I never got around to during the previous two degrees, nearly all of which count as requirements. Other than that, I’ve gone straight through with no break. I teach every summer. I do the “voluntary” work required, in light of budget cuts, to maintain my preexisting level of funding.

And Lord have mercy, I have to reread every freaking novel and craft treatise I’ve read in grad school and a handful more that I’ve heard of but never read, much less studied.

This is not going to happen between now and ten weeks from now.

Part of me says, “Oh, hell, you’ve read most of this stuff more than once or twice, even if it was in 1992. Or at least once in the past five years. Maybe you can go get a trot like everyone else (surely not everyone relies on trots–do they? Grad students?!. . .).”

My real self says, “No way. This is not a capsule plot recitation. You gotta deal with some bad mofos struttin’ around with all their kaleidoscopic plots hanging out. You have points of comparison to consider. Swann’s Way. Moby-Dick. Your boy García Márquez. And you’ve never gotten around to Midnight’s Children. Or Housekeeping. And you want to read Tres Tristes Tigres in translation. And the incremental perturbation of an unstable homeostatic system and its catastrophic restoration to a complexified equilibrium. And you need to make fresh notes on all of it. Girl, you might have enough time between now and October. Maybe.”

So after several e-mail exchanges with my fiction advisor, I think I’ll need to apply a little TV news horse-sense to the situation: Restack the show. Dedicate this semester to reading and note-taking, and to generating the working draft of the diss, which is the working draft of what I prematurely describe to all as “my real book”–meaning my over-48-page-minimum-for-full-poetry-collection-status-in-the-world book–and take the fiction exam this fall. It makes more sense. I have all kinds of strike-force research trips planned this spring and summer, and there’s no law against working on the diss before finishing both exams. Plus, I’m itchy-antsy to stay in poetry mode while I teach poetry this semester.

Because no one (well, almost no one) is going to say, “Here, O Poet-scholar–take $30K and a year off to travel and work on your beautiful dissertation-real-book-manuscript,” I squeeze in tiny side trips on the way to and from other places. I become a poet-field reporter in full crash mode. I use my reporter brain and my poet brain, my emergency brain and my scholar brain.  (I also keep a backup light-up brain in my office, but that’s for real emergencies.)

Now I just have to keep all the Great Stuff from oozing out between now and October. And keep my dollar in my shoe.

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Eight Cards, Ten Minutes: A Writing Exercise

Today, I gave a workshop on using creative nonfiction in first-year composition. The exercise I came up with seems to work. Try it in your own classroom, or use it to generate your own writing.

What follows was originally meant for the beginning writer who has trouble organizing ideas, getting started, finding something interesting to write about–all the usual freshman comp puzzles. Students love it when you “break it down” for them. I’m assuming the usual personal narrative first essay. If you want to talk about what constitutes creative nonfiction, you can do that as an introduction and give them a few excerpts from good writers.

For the pedagogically-minded, this approach turns intimidating little index cards into manipulables. However, you can use it with advanced students and for your own writing.

Everyone who attended this workshop is a fairly advanced creative writer. They ran with the exercise, generated some great new work, and we all brainstormed ways to apply this technique to creative writing (for example, substituting various literary devices or craft points for the 5W+H on the small cards). Later, I explained the process to a doctoral student who’s having trouble with her dissertation. She was excited based on the description alone and said she would try it, too.

You’ll need a timer or a watch/clock that counts seconds. Each writer will need eight cards: six 3×5, one 4×6, and one 5×8. The number of cards is not set in stone; you can adapt it to your needs. I say six small cards because I ask beginning writers to consider the reporter’s 5W+H (who, what, when, where, why, how) as part of this exercise. However, I make them save the “Why” card for last.

Ask students not to talk during the exercise and not to race ahead to the next card. Explain they will have one minute to write on each card. Then, ask them to think of a place, a time, a sensation that they enjoyed. Ask them to go back in their minds to that time and place and observe it. Give them a minute or so to think.

Next, have them fill out the WHO card–who’s there? Anyone else? After one minute, have them turn that card face down. Repeat this process for the WHAT, WHEN, and WHERE cards.

Then, have them set aside the WHY card. Do the HOW card first. Then do the WHY card. They may seem puzzled. That’s OK. Beginning writers are hair-trigger ready to tell you why this or that happened before examining the people and situations involved. They won’t realize it, but they’ve already begun their research by analyzing the basic elements of their story. How something happens often leads to larger synthesis of why it happened. By doing the WHY card last, students have to weigh the scene relatively objectively before passing judgment on its players.

Now, you can play with these cards–mix them all up, rearrange the order, perhaps even swap cards with other students if you’re using this in a creative writing workshop. Ask the writers to look at their cards and pick a favorite. That’s going to be the hook for their essay. Based on that card, have them write one and only one sentence on the big card.

Because beginning writers often need to exorcise cliché and vague language, have them use the medium-sized card to collect concrete, descriptive words that might work on the small cards. (The advanced writers were drooling to write their paragraphs by this point, so we skipped that step. Your mileage may vary.)

Then, give the students five minutes to write a paragraph on the big card. When time’s up, ask for volunteers to read what they’ve written if they feel comfortable doing so.

Handout excerpt:

“…in less than ten minutes, you’ve generated new writing; you’ve brainstormed; you’ve outlined; you’ve created a system of organization; you’ve quite possibly developed a thesis statement; you’ve opened the door for further inquiry through research and observation; and you’ve developed a focus for a piece of writing you actually want to do.

“This is good for an in-class writing exercise. It’s also good for students who have trouble with sequencing ideas or writer’s block.

“Also, by putting your ideas on cards, you’ve created tangible objects that you can move around, tape to the wall, tack on your forehead, whatever works for you.”

I got the idea for this approach thinking about how I’ve used Post-Its as a low-tech, tangible, portable editing tool. I’ve used digital cluster diagramming software, but sometimes I just want a little less techno-mediation between my brain and my writing process. I’ve shown students how to use Post-Its in this way; they always find it helpful and I’ve seen them take enormous leaps shortly thereafter.

I also had to study on the run because I worked full-time during most of my undergraduate career. I always had flashcards or a folded-up photocopy of the assigned reading in my back pocket. Every time I went for coffee, had to walk to another part of the building, rode the train, or went to the bathroom, I had those cards handy. (I like to joke that I earned my B.A. in the ladies’ room at CNN.) As card-carrying students, your writers will gain valuable time management and study skills.

You can also do things like have students post the day’s cards on a course management site for your records, for a grade, for safekeeping. You can offer a private area for some cards of their choosing and a public area for others. Let them keep their cards. That’s their writing, not yours. Don’t pick up the cards to check; definitely don’t edit the cards; and don’t grade the cards as anything but participation. Respect the cards!

The premise here is that writers write because it makes them happy on some level (see T.R. Johnson‘s ideas about writing as pleasure). Happy writers get started writing by doing several tasks in a certain order. First, we collect bits of string or a few quick sketches. Then, we browse our treasures until we pick up one to play with. Next, we write down that idea before it floats away. Next, we shape the idea quickly–weave in more bits of string, shade in small details. We are surprised and delighted when we realize we’ve created something.

Kenneth Achity in The Writer’s Time has a lot to say about the “Managing Editor,” and anyone who teaches college composition is familiar with Mina Shaughnessy’s landmark Errors and Expectations. Freshman composition is enormously stressful for both student and instructor. This exercise separates the editing process from the proofreading process, and both from the act of creation.

You can tell beginning writers to revise; you can show them how; you will get identical printouts (as opposed to revisions); you will grade the same paper twice without the students having bothered to read your comments or make any corrections.

Or, you can give them a stack of index cards and make every class meeting a productive writing session. You can move around the room and help the stragglers, You can watch your students take responsibility for their own writing. You can, indeed, have fun.

Once you show your students how to write on their own, they’ll be able to generate decent first drafts. By the end of their first week in class, they should have a decent first draft, one in which they are invested, one that they might want to edit and proofread, one that makes both them and you happy writers. I’m interested in anything that helps students revise. Eight Cards in Ten Minutes gets them started.

If you try it, please let me know how you adapted it and how it went. You can leave a comment here and I’ll repost it. (I moderate the blog to keep out spam, so please excuse any minor delay between submission and reposting.) I’m collecting feedback for a book on this process and will acknowledge all contributors.

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Please, no more national math and science initiatives…

A couple of the Democratic candidates, when pressed about education reform during last night’s debate, issued the stock call for new math and science initiatives.

I issue my stock call of hooey.

Naturally we need math and science education. However, what is far more desperately needed is leadership that recognizes the importance of humanities education. You may feel lucky, but I don’t really want future nurses who think plagiarism is OK writing on my chart, nor do I want inarticulate future bankers messing with the annual reports and quarterly filings of my stock.

Where, I ask, are the calls for a new national humanities initiative? Where is the national push for developing critical thinking skills? The closest we usually come are facile history initiatives that frequently morph into unthinking “patriotism” indoctrination and conveniently ignore the more complex issues surrounding U.S. history.

I am pedagogically unfashionable. I believe that students think and write better when they develop a stronger understanding of grammar, spelling and word origins, and basic linguistic issues (e.g., orality and literacy, codeswitching, descriptive vs. prescriptive grammar, and the wisdom to know which to use when). I am of the both-and school: I believe that grammar can be observed and described, and that all educated people will be best equipped for life in the real world if they recognize and value not only the version of English they use, but also gain some fluency in other versions of English. Whether the student’s “new”English is AAVE, SWE, “Spanglish,” “Engrish,” or whatever dialect, the more a writer knows, the richer and more powerful his or her own idiolect (and writing) will become. No one is ever too smart to learn more about language.

Our distinguishing feature as humans is language. A student may read a sentence in a book or speak one fresh from his or her own mind. If that student cannot parse the sentence, no matter how smart or articulate that student is, he or she is at a disadvantage when trying to develop the idea further–especially in writing. This isn’t a slam against the smart but semi-literate and/or inarticulate (on some days, I also fit these categories). It’s an observation of what was a dangerous trend and is now a fait accompli.

We live in a society run by powerful interests who do indeed have a solid command of the English language.–and who are happy to do your thinking for you. Advertisers, press secretaries, spokesfolk of all stripes, politicians, and petty bureaucrats make their money (and take ours) because they know exactly how to use language. Too often, they manipulate it cynically: using the passive voice to evade responsibility for actions; substituting a synonym for a more-precise, less-palatable word to varnish the truth; filling the airwaves with fallacies during heated public debate.

Many young adults (thankfully, not all) genuinely believe that Wikipedia holds all the answers they need and that the university is merely a vo-tech holding pen.

These young people have been well-trained by various petty bureaucrats not to think, not to question, not to go the extra research mile.

This mindset is inimical to everything within a writer’s soul.

It’s time for a national non-standardized-test-driven writing initiative, unhampered by arbitrary benchmarks. Give me a room and a year and I’ll give you a hell of a lot of good writers. As writing starts with reading, we’ll be reading and discussing all kinds of texts, but not many textbooks. (Okay, maybe Vitto.) However, we’ll also be turning to poetry, to fiction, and to drama to exercise our critical thinking skills. Moreover, we will become more humane in the process–something an externally-motivated automaton can never learn by being taught to the test and brainwashed into consumeristic, me-centered anti-intellectualism.

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