My newsletter offers three sections: “Shelter Tales, ” “Out in the Yard,” and “At the Writing Table.”
When I started out posting, it was about bugs and writing, with a few micro-memoir pieces about the outdoors and a sprinkling of book reviews mixed in. Then, in June 2021 I wrote my first blog post on my work with the dogs at the local animal shelter, and it’s been all about dogs ever since. I didn’t slip into a neglect of bugs and other things – I decided to stick to dogs so the blog would be more focused and it would be in line with my unpublished novel, Lucky. But I still love bugs, and of course writing. When I learned about Substack, I saw a publishing platform that would offer a chance to write about dogs, pollinators, ants, gardening, writing, and everything in between in a way that could make sense to the reader.Come visit, here’s the link!
Wow, I haven’t posted since August. What happened? Oh right, the semester started up, I kept going to the dog shelter, I worked to get my yard in shape for winter, and I’ve been working on other writing. On the writing front, I’ve had two poems and an essay published in a pretty amazing anthology: Earth Care: An anthology of poetry and essays about Ecology.
The editor, Martin Willits Jr., took a very broad approach to “ecology.”
The titles of my piece give a sample of the breadth of the topics he was interested in: “Irish Potato Famine,” “Housing Development,” and “Redlining: An Inheritance.” There is a poem about fracking by Lee. B. Savidge, “Modern Horizontal Hydraulic Fracturing,” that gave me my first understanding of what fracking entailed; there is an essay about the successful effort to save the “forever wild” woodlands that came under threat from developers who sought to set aside the terms of a covenant agreement. Another essay, “Energy Choices,” by Linda Griggs, outlines the dangers of nuclear power and so much more. And, the volume ends with pages of resources into issues and solutions. It’s an amazing read.
Speaking of amazing, the dogs at the Potsdam Humane Shelter never fail to amaze. I’ve had a pretty long stretch of very timid puppies at the shelter since I last posted, and I mean “timid” as in, staff and volunteers were carrying them everywhere. I thought Cedric was a challenge – hah! Everyone wound up carrying these young dogs because otherwise they crawled on their bellies – when you could coax them into moving forward at all. That’s a photo of Buddy – you can see he was getting too big to be lugged around. More about them next time.
Each of us is experiencing this shared crisis not only as one of many, but as an individual who is coping with a unique set of circumstances. For me, those circumstances include trying to figure out how best to support my students in a way that helps them stay on track with their academics while not unduly stressing them out. That’s a tall order. I worry, a lot. I worry about students who ‘disappear,’ I worry that too many students are doing too little writing and their skills are plummeting, and I worry that too often I myself come too close to running on empty.
One day, while I was mindlessly following links about stress as a sort of ‘break’ from real life, I came across this page from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). About a third of the way down the page I found a little section titled, “Ways to Cope with Stress.” For me, the little list of four items offered there was the best thing on the page. It got me thinking – which was a welcome relief from the empty-headed mindset that had set me on the path of clicking for answers. The list, I decided, was a good fit for writers and teachers, and I set myself the task of adapting the advice to the context of building skills as a writer and as a teacher. The result of that work – on the first piece of advice – is below.
The CDC advice –
Take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media. Hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting. (CDC)
Here’s my take-away for writers and teachers –
Do Something Else Repeatedly: Write
Checking media can be a habit, and when you want to change a habit the first step is to replace it with another habit. Writing, as a habit, offers great payback:
It is therapeutic – you’ll carve out personal time to check in with yourself, think your own thoughts, and come up with ideas you wouldn’t have had – or known you had – otherwise.
It will improve your ability to get your thoughts on the page, and therefore your skill as a writer.
As a teacher, you have the opportunity to create primary documents that you and your peers can consult and use for lessons on history, health, writing, etc. For example, you can set aside part of your writing time to write a letter to your future students. What is it you’ll tell them about this global experience?
3 Simple Steps to Cultivating Writing as a Habit
Gather your basic tools – something to write on and something to write with – so they are ready for you.
At least once a day when you go to check your phone for news or find yourself heading to Facebook to keep tabs on the feed, say to yourself – “First, I’ll write half a page.”
Go write. Sometimes you’ll only write a scanty half page, other times you’ll find yourself on a roll – go with it.
Remember, the goal is health. Smile to yourself when you’ve written, and smile when you realize the day is gone and you haven’t written. On those no-writing days (and there will be no-writing days), say to yourself, “Tomorrow, friend; I’ll meet you on the page tomorrow.”
Working on giving your students feedback on their written work?
Wonder where you’re going to find the time?
If you agree that:
Feedback takes time, Quicker feedback works better, and Talking is faster than typing –
Try this WORD combo: Comment and Dictate
HIGHLIGHT the text you want to comment on
Go to INSERT
Click on COMMENTS
Go to HOME
Click on blue microphone icon DICTATE (a red dot will appear when it’s ready)
TALK to your student just the way you would if they were sitting there
Practical hint: if you mess up (repeat a word, misspeak, sneeze . . .) just keep going – you can easily edit that out.
Pedagogical hints: 1) When you can, give general guidance, rather than specific information: “There’s a word missing in this sentence” rather than “You’ve left out the verb” 2) For missing words and glitches in meaning, suggest that the student use Read Aloud to have the computer read the sentence to them: they can often hear the error, and they’ll learn a valuable self-editing tool.
7. CLICK on the blue microphone when you’re done
8. PROOFREAD the comment – you’ll see you need to add capitals and punctuation. Fix any errors. I speak more slowly than my usual fast pace when I dictate, but not much more slowly. I find few errors (far fewer, for instance than spellcheck routinely commits on my students’ papers).
Questions, Comments? Let me know.
(I generally use my own images, but the colorful stopwatches are by Gerd Altmann. You can find their work on Pixabay.com)
This week I met with students at the Little River Community School in Canton, NY to discuss my as yet unpublished manuscript, Lucky, and talk about writing. The young writers had many questions and they each shared something about the kind of writing they are doing.
Some of the questions were about plot elements, some about my process of writing the book. One student asked about my take on the meaning of the book, another asked how I went about writing descriptions.
In answering that last question, I talked about the items Christopher found and explained that I used small things I own and am really fond of – it was fun to write about them. I began to rummage in my backpack to take out a couple I’d brought with me. Some of the students said they hoped I’d brought the turtle, and I had. The turtle, which is a metal ‘frog’ – a device meant to sit inside a vase and keep the flower stems in place – was well received. Here’s the description in the book (Nursie, by the way, is a dog):
Christopher sat back on his heels to examine it. Nursie sniffed the object, then nuzzled the boy. “Yeah, check it out,” he whispered to the dog. It was a metal turtle. It didn’t weigh much. Resting in his hand, it almost covered his palm. The turtle’s front legs and arched head fit between his fingers, one back leg rested between thumb and finger and its curved tail and other back leg nestled against his palm. The turtle’s shell had a shallow pattern of pentagons that looked like chicken wire. In the middle there was a hole he could fit the tip of his pinky finger into, and around it circled eight more holes. The metal was sturdy, but the inside of the turtle was hollow. He turned it over. This side had the same set of holes, but no pattern of lines. Christopher ran his thumb along the edge between the turtle’s domed shell and its convex belly. It was smooth, he couldn’t feel a seam. When he held the turtle up towards the light of the window, he could see that the holes almost lined up. He smiled. His friends would probably laugh at him, but he liked it.
The questions and my replies worked their way around the room. When it was B.W.’s turn, he slid a sketch across the table. B.W. said he liked to doodle. I am a big fan of doodling, myself, and of course was super pleased to see this sketch. Here it is alongside the turtle, Frog –
Frog is a turtle with an attitude, and I think B.W.’s sketch captures that perfectly. As I was gathering things up to go, a couple of writers told me they had imagined a painted turtle when they read this scene, a colorful rather than monochrome one. That made me think back to my answer about writing descriptions: I described starting from scratch to build an image and then trying to go back to the viewpoint of the reader and seeing what image the words actually build. I see now that in my description of the turtle, I left off color entirely. I’ll need to ponder whether I want to clarify that in the book or not, but either way, their comments are great examples of why getting feedback from readers is so helpful. Writers can do a lot to see their work with “fresh eyes,” things like setting the work aside for awhile and coming back to it. But there’s nothing like a reader’s “new eyes” to reflect back to a writer what the text actually accomplishes.
I had one question for the students, about their reaction to Rachel, one of the characters in Lucky. Several of the writers gathered at the table really enjoyed her, and I’m glad I asked the question. Feedback I received from some readers in earlier drafts about Rachel was more tentative – maybe this latest feedback is an indication that I’ve built her role in a way that justifies the attention she gets (well, being Rachel, sort of demands).
Then the students spoke about their own writing – from work that might develop into a novel in stories, to game scenarios, to finally finishing a story (deadlines are the writers friend!), to sci-fi scripts and inspirations for topics.
We talked about writing as a stress-buster (that has certainly been my experience of it), and their recent experience trying their hand at flash fiction. Beyond its potential as a means to get across some of the most poignant aspects of being human, I find work on flash fiction to be a powerful tool to honing craft at the sentence level.
For me, the hour-long conversation was thoroughly enjoyable – to be part of writers talking about writing is something most writers value deeply. Those of us who make a home in a rural area are especially grateful for the chance to get together with other writers. My thanks to the students at Little River for sitting around a table to talk about my writing and theirs, and to Steve Molnar, Director of the school, for inviting me.
Some information about the Little River Community School: it is a democratic school serving 39 students, grades K-12, in a four-classroom schoolhouse, in Canton, NY. Here’s the link to the school’s website: http://littleriverschool.org/
Somewhere near the end of 2018, I came to understand that my debut novel was, at 62,000 words, still very much a work in progress. I also found out about the Slice Literary Conference that would take place in Brooklyn in August, and I set my sights on getting ready for it. “Getting ready” meant adding almost 8,000 words to the manuscript.
I was determined to be methodical and leave nothing to chance. I cleared off my desk and set to work on creating an Excel file to track my word count. I made columns for the date, for how many days I’d been working, the number of new words I wrote on a given date, the total number of words I now needed to reach my goal, the average daily word count I needed to get in, and the average words per day I was getting in. In other words, the complexities of the chart and the time it took to set it up with formulas that calculated everything with just the insertion of the “Days in” and “Word Count for the day,” began to take on shades of an avoidance technique. But it was worth it. On January 23rd, the first charted day, the numbers were clear – I had 216 days to accomplish the goal of 7,840 words. If I averaged just 36 words a day, I’d have it.
The Excel file proved to be a good companion for the task of showing up to the page. It was both carrot and stick: it was fun to put in the word counts, especially on good days, and there was no way to get around that word count – the numbers didn’t lie, fudge, or make excuses. And it’s good to have that record. Sure, I see the low ebb days sitting there, but if I didn’t have the Excel record to look back on, would I have remembered that on April 20th I added 2757 words to the manuscript? That was a good day.
The number game shifted when I began serious rounds of editing. Sometimes I deleted more words than I added – the total word count was as likely on any given day to go down as go up. And on many, many days I didn’t work on the manuscript at all. Instead, I turned my attention to other projects and wrote thousands of words that didn’t move the manuscript’s word-count needle one tiny bit. When I began a long-planned online course in flash fiction, I veered far off course. Not content with that detour, I headed down a side road and worked on a disaster novel I’d been poking away at, and I wrote the first twenty-two pages of a ghost story.
I kept to my newly acquired Excel habit, though, and added a place in the file for these other long works. That was helpful – even as I worked away, and, by the way, really enjoyed myself – at the end of the day I opened the Excel file to record the word count and was reminded of what I said I wanted to do.
Looking back now, I see from the record of those eight months that fully two-thirds of my work on novel-length projects had nothing, on the surface, to do with my goal for the Slice Conference. I showed up to the page most days, but it was the wrong page. But, oddly, even to me, I wasn’t worried at all. I admit it was a form of small torture to set aside the longer works to create short pieces for that online class. But I didn’t chide myself for that choice or for working on the disaster novel or the ghost story. I knew I needed to take a break from the manuscript so I could see it with fresh eyes. I trusted that delving into the other works would land me in a space from which I’d be ready to approach the manuscript, and that the discipline of steady work would help me come back to it in good writerly form.
The trust was well placed. The Excel file did its work, and I did mine: I passed my conference word- count target on August 4th.
For a couple of years I’ve maintained two websites. One offered my ideas about how best to prepare for the NYS Teacher Certification Exams (NYSTCE), with links to my own and the state’s free materials. The other (this one), I used for the rest of my writing life.
Today I’m retiring the site devoted to test prep. I’ve always had some overlap between the two sites – my free Introductory pdf has been available here, for instance – and I’ll keep up my NYSTCE page on this site. (If you have ideas about what else you’d like to see on this page, let me know. )
Why the shift now? The most obvious reason is that the rent is coming due, so it’s a good time to call it quits on the second site. The other is that I’m preparing for the SLICE Writers’ Conference in Brooklyn and that “the rest of my writing life” is the much stronger call.
So, back to those query letters and first five pages, and back to my reading (which is, after all, at least half the ‘work’ of the craft of writing).
Not too long ago, Literary Hub gave space in their online newsletter to a link to an article that was such a rant against literary agents that I kept thinking it must be a farce. I’m not going to offer a link to the article here, or even go back to check on the article again for little details to add: there’s no need to offer click applause to its little spew of nasty. It isn’t alone out there, of course. Soon after, I read another, shorter, less-crazed rant, but a blanket anti-agent rant just the same.
The articles got my attention because I’m spending a lot of
time thinking about agents while I try to figure out which person among them
might “love” my manuscript. Without looking back, I can say from memory that
one of the charges against agents made by the writer showcased by LitHub was
that agents use the language of romance and relationships to talk about books.
Of all the accusations, in a minefield of accusations, this
was, to my reader’s mind, the most absurd. Romance is, after all, the language
of readers, isn’t it? And agents are, by inclination and profession, readers, aren’t
they? “I love this book,” is a reader’s go-to expression when recommending a
book; “It just didn’t come together for me,” is, after all, the readers’
version of “I’m just not that into him/her/them.”
As far as relationships go, the relationship of writers to
their own writing (or their not-writing) is a topic that many writers seem to never
tire of exploring. And how many writers refer to their own manuscripts as their
“baby”? Gag me with a spoon about the baby reference (babies and their
caregivers deserve better), but I certainly do have a relationship with my
manuscript and with the people that go running around in it, the flowers that
bloom there, the fields that await the rain therein. In accusing agents of framing
their dealings with manuscripts, and even with writers, as romantic ones, or at
least ones of true relationship, the writer has dammed the lot of them only with
behaving like readers, and, frankly, like writers. In hurling one insult after
another to try to build the idea that agents are evil ‘others,’ the article
writer has instead offered excellent evidence that literary agents belong firmly
under the umbrella of ‘us.’
Yes, most work submitted to agents is rejected. But does
that add up to the conclusion that most agents are all the bad things they are
pretty often accused of being? (You fill in the blanks here . . . there’s no
need for me to offer the sad words – if you’re still reading you know what I’m
talking about). The most serious
accusation, of course, is that the agent – all agents, apparently – doesn’t/don’t
see enough merit in a piece of work to commit themselves to working intensively
on its behalf with no guarantee of a return. Thinking about this accusation led
me to examine my own reading habits. I offer my findings as evidence in my argument
that literary agents are not horrible beasts when they decline to offer representation.
In the past few weeks I set out to read nine novels that I
handpicked as books I expected to enjoy. The six in the photo made the cut. (I
topped off the pile with Austin Kleon’s little nonfiction volume because the
book is so much fun.) Not in the picture are the ones I started and put down,
and one that I started, loved, then skimmed through to avoid the violent parts:
I made it to the last sentence, but I can’t claim to have read that book.
None of these books – the read and the unread – showed up
randomly. Three of the older books in the ‘read’ pile came from the shelf of a friend
who was moving and giving away big swaths of her collection of books. Based on
her recommendations, what I knew of the book and/or the author, I was 90% sure they’d
be good or great reads. They were.
The Lessing book is one I reread every ten years or so – it is
the book that taught me that timing is everything. I picked it out of my mom’s
home library when I was in my twenties and didn’t make it through the first
chapter. ‘Bleak!’ I thought. I picked it up again years later and thought – ‘Soulmate!’
I’m still backfilling on Welty, a writer whose works I came to late but now always
appreciate. (As a kid I tired of being asked if, based on my first name, I was
related to Eudora Welty. The question seemed emblematic of the idiocy which
adults could be capable of and led to a personal boycott of her books that
lasted a couple of decades.)
The two newest books in the ‘read’ stack are both books I
discovered in my research on literary agents. Reading them helped me get a
sliver of a sense of the taste of that agent. And, while I initially read them to
find out whether a book the agent liked enough to bet their time and energy on
was one I liked, agent quest aside, I now have two new good books under my belt
and two new writers whose other books I’ll be on the look out for.
What I noticed in reviewing my own reading habits is that, despite
my active role in the selection process, my “acceptance” rate for the nine
novels I picked was 66%. What would my rate be if nine unvetted novels just
showed up at my door, with a “please read me, please!” sticky note stuck to the
cover. It would plummet.
This musing about my own reading has helped me put the genuine
circumstances and likelihood of acceptance/rejection into perspective. I still
hope that on one of its ventures out to find an agent, my work will spark the
interest of an agent who will understand the book and love it. But each time it
doesn’t, I’ll keep my own acceptance rate in mind. After all, if my queries
meet with silence or a boilerplate ‘no,’ what has happened is merely what was
likely to happen. The only things in my power to make it less likely are to
keep honing my craft by reading and writing, keep researching the industry and
individual agents, and keep trying.
I always feel a tiny bit of “why’d I ever say I’d do this?”
when I first start a class. Like many writers, I’m more comfortable with a book
than with a room full of people. But it
is always worthwhile if the room full of people are writers. And despite the
disclaimers of “I’m not a writer,” I hear as a class starts, by the end of the
first session, we are all writers. As a writer who is also a teacher, it doesn’t
get any better.
The SOAR writing class I taught this spring confirmed for me, again, my faith in two conditions that will help writing break out in a group: time to write and time to share that writing and get audience response. Long ago a colleague taught me, “If you want something from your students, teach it to them.” Following his wisdom, whenever I teach writing, I teach how to respond to a piece of writing in a way that encourages the writer to keep writing and entirely avoids false praise.
Getting a response from a reader is such an important element of the process of crafting a well written piece that I am very specific in how students can respond to each other. I limit feedback to these two observations: “I noticed . . “. and, “I wonder . . . ” Just that, and it works. There’s no room for false praise because the only praise that fits with those two sentence starters is the praise that the writing got my attention in some way, and it got me thinking and wondering.
Another ‘rule’ I impose on my students is that as we’re learning
this approach to feedback, the writer doesn’t get to respond verbally. Why do I
do that? Because I want the writer to listen to the feedback and process it –
mentally and in their writing. I don’t want them to ‘answer’ the feedback, but
to use it to consider its value to them and to think about whether to return to
the piece and implement something that the feedback made them want to explore.
No doubt I’ll teach other writing classes. For the moment I’m happy to refocus my creative self on my own writing, and I’m back to devoting more time to working on my novel, Lucky.
Sometimes “what to write” comes easily; we walk the street or overhear a conversation, or glimpse a memory, and we have enough material to last us for hours. But sometimes we could use a prompt to tickle our imagination, get us to jump off our usual track and find rich new material. In that spirit, here’s a prompt (with a bit of backstory):
In her memoir, Just Kids, Patti Smith – poet, artist, rock star – includes this story. She and her very sick lover have left a flophouse on the advice of other residents who recognize that these two young people are misplaced among the terminal junkies who make up most the population. The pair sneak out taking only their two portfolios, but Patti goes back later to settle her bill and retrieve their belongings. She sees that her most prized possessions now decorate the landlords’ sitting room, some of them displayed on his mantel, one of her drawings hanging on the wall. Her books and record albums are packed in boxes. Over coffee Patti and the landlord negotiate the bill. All but her notebooks and a few other items are left in payment for the rent. She ends the scene with this comment, “I said goodbye to my stuff. It suited him and Brooklyn better. There’s always new stuff, that’s for sure.”
Prompt: What have you left behind? Is there always new stuff? Do you recognize it when it arrives? What is it about ‘stuff’ anyway? What role does the ‘stuff’ we gather around us play in our lives? What ‘place’ suits you?