On Language: Part I

Here is a fantastic NSFC (Not Safe for Classroom) illustration of Ten Words You Need to Stop Misspelling over at The Oatmeal.

I, by no means, consider myself a grammarian. Oh, wait, but I’m the composition teacher, right? Right. Which means I can’t get away with ignoring my ignorance. That worked for a while; in grad school I would not, did not, register for graduate level English Grammar. Can you imagine such a course? I mean, such a course assumes you have been studying principles of grammar for the previous sixteen or so years of your life. I felt out of the loop.

To this day, I cannot remember one grammar lesson, a real-life scene of grammar instruction, from K-12 school. I blame this on the overcrowded public schools I attended. They were “good” schools on paper, but there were so many of us they had to chop us into groups for instruction. I remember being immediately shuffled into the top ‘reading group’ in kindergarten because I could already read; kindergarten is the first time I experienced boredom outside my house. In eighth grade I was one of six students, out of a class of about three hundred and fifty, in an accelerated English course. By that point I could read and write well enough, and still didn’t know anything about mechanics or grammar–or, at least how to talk about such things. Eighth-grade English consisted of reading really good books, talking about them, and playing many games of hearts. I never once had to diagram a sentence.  

Several things have encouraged me to tackle this previously avoided subject: one, the most base human desire not to embarrass myself; two, my partner; three, to excel at writing instruction. One is self-explanatory, and it ties into two. My partner’s education varies from mine; he had a militaristic education in principles of grammar, among other things. I can’t count the number of times some curious soul at a party has asked me something along the lines of what is up with the whole split infinitive thing? and I’m like, go ask that guy, he knows. I often ask him for writing advice. I still do silly things on paper. We all have bad habits. The fact that I am a writing instructor does not exclude me from misplacing modifiers, flinging around clichés, or committing other various sins of weak writing. This is what revision is for–for fixing things that are not quite as they should be, not the clearest and most precise.

In “On Language: Part II” I will express my love for Grammar Girl, as well as outline how I use Grammar Girl in the composition classroom.

Onward

I’ve been searching for the rhythm of this website for a while–well, maybe not searching but more so avoiding. What kind of ‘Writer’s Blog’ to have? Yes, I know the entire concept is as trite as getting your panties in a wad. I am not new. Anyway, figuring out what would work best takes time, effort, and a good deal of thinking. So, priorities. Please, bear with me, this does relate to the previous post, though not in a ‘finishing the job’ sort of way, because if it did completely wrap up the previously posited ideas then I wouldn’t be who I am.
 
The new NOVEL, right? There’s no getting around that. The fact that I need to go visit Martha’s Vineyard in the winter, sleep in a creepy New England mansion for a few nights, sleep by the ocean, research late 1800s New England architecture and furniture trends, immerse myself in 1988 style and pretense, discover more about the 1980s music and recording industry, besides all of these oh-so-arduous tasks, I should be cracking the whip. On what?–what is the object of that sentence? That is the question, how to prod myself into GO mode and crank out more pages.
 
Lacking the time to titillate you otherwise, perhaps this repository will be that of a writing journal. The journal of the new NOVEL. As odious as the journal concept is, and believe me I am aware of the sprawling stinkage, it might be just the thing. I know I have some secret readers–those who lurk; perhaps focusing on the progress, or lack thereof, of the new NOVEL, will help…me. Yes, me. If you are close to me you know it is not going away. It is more insidious than the gym. I abandoned the gym and feel guilt, but it is an easy-to-push-aside guilt. The gym is not the third thing I am most in love with. The gym is not my future. Sure, the ten pounds gained sucks, and I wish I had that line in my triceps back. Whatever. The NOVEL cannot be pushed aside. I am living a life with imaginary people and I must figure out how to set them free.
 
I have read exactly 100 pages of Geronimo Rex and am feeling a distinct desperation. My god. What am I going to do? Things seem completely impossible and hopeful at once.

Organizing the Creative Process: I

I’m a chronic list-maker, filing system conceptor, three-ring binder organizer, and chalk board / white board scribbler. I have outlined the steps for How to Do Everything from completing the in-progress great American novel to preparing fresh green beans five tasty ways. Yet, everything is not done. Doneness is elusive.

Obligatory work that breeds on a regular schedule (grading papers, scrubbing the toilet, getting the old Chevy an oil change, buying groceries) aside, what’s the best way to complete a large project? For a creative project, I know the process is intimate and different for each individual, but there have to be some guiding principles.

I believe the first principle is deciding to have the discipline to try and figure out what your principles need to be. You have to be honest about your weaknesses and also figure out how to structure your time to take advantages of your strengths.

I have rarely come through a big project convinced I took the most efficient route. That said, the efficient route may be impossible when creating original works, as the working and doing of each component opens new doors and lends new knowledge to the creator.  I am trying not to sound hippy-dippy about this, but I do think it is a bit of a mystical feeling for artists, especially writers, to look back at something and think to themselves, okay, that thing there is amazing and full and bright…now…how did I do that? How can I do that again end up with an equally brilliant product? Or for those of us that haven’t sent brilliant work out to the masses yet, how do I finish my big stuff in the first place?

This is where anxiety comes in–there are expectations! Personal expectations for a level of artistry and quality are bad enough, but what about expectations from others (editors, agents, colleagues)?

Despite the evidence of this writing sample, the key here is organization. Organization is simply an arm of hard work. We’re going for efficiency here, remember?

What I have found out about myself by trying to be organized, efficient, and diligent at this novel writing is that my brain does not respond well to various organizational schemes/goals: daily word-count or page-count requirements, namely. The horror! I thought it seemed like a simple idea, an ambitous idea. Oh, the pages I would have if I could have just followed through! I would be golden right now. I abandoned my goals. God forbid, I abandonded my goals.

But, not really. The real goal, the big goal, is the same. I’ve changed how I’m judging, assessing, and organizing my process. Instead of telling myself “Write for four hours today,” or “Finish writing scenes X, Y, and Z today,” or “Gain 10,000 words by next Friday,” I say things such as “Research Milli-Vanilli,” or “Browse images of Regency style furniture,” or “Research differing opinions on preparing Bolognese sauce.” On some days (insecure days) a to-do list like that feels like cheating. But in reality, it is these types of to-dos that lead to scenes getting completed and characters getting developed.

I’ll (eventually, heh) write a follow-up to this: more ideas on how to organize (thereby complete in an efficient manner) a large creative project. I have some specifically writing-related strategies and tools I’ve discovered. If you have any strategies/tools/organizational tactis you’d like to share, please do comment.

On Progress: Manic Optimism and Wildly Irrational Doom

How can a writer judge progress on a manuscript? The problem is that the writer can be his only true judge of progress, as much of the ‘work’ he does is indecipherable to others. So, he is the ultimate judge, and he is also the harshest critic. He judges not only the work, but the creator. Forget objectivity. The spectrum of judgement flows from Manic Optimism to a feeling of Wildly Irrational Doom.

The contemporary-gothic-cinderella-pop-music-new-england-island novel fills me with excitement and, at times, dread. The pages are not writing themselves, for sure. Mistakenly, I thought I was at a point to chug through scene-writing, when in fact I am now drowning in research and complex lists of questions for my characters. I have a chunk of the manuscript written, but it is half as long as I’d planned it be by this date, this time in July.

My friend Stephanie, over at Natural/Artifical, posted recently, “Oh Yeah, That Writing Thing.” I could have written many of her words. Stephanie writes,

In other words, Second Novel has suffered — from both a lack of attention and too much attention. From endless brooding and constant avoiding. From comparisons to award-winning work, comparisons to my friends’ work, comparisons to my own work.

It’s safe to say that I pretty much beat the crap out of Second Novel.

It’s no wonder I felt beaten in return.

As writers, we are the dictators of our work. We are the slayers of our work. We build nations. Then we let our people starve. It is because we are ambitious and confident. It is because we are lazy and unsure. Doomed to fail! It can all seem doomed at times. With creativity and creation there is euphoria. With euphoria there’s always a down. We can’t escape the oscillations, and we never will.  Stephanie, clear-headed and not doomed, writes,

I’m learning that sometimes I need to cut myself a break. Which doesn’t mean giving up or taking a vacation, but it does mean going easy on myself when the writing isn’t moving as quickly or as smoothly as I’d hoped.

This is true. Our hopes for our work are always overly ambitious. We just have to remember that, and then we can calibrate our emotional reactions to how we perceive our progress and give ourselves a break. Maybe we can do this, or maybe we will always be falling into holes and then diggind ourselves out again. I’m trying to move forward, as is Stephanie:

I keep asking them questions, scribbling down their answers, and trying to make sense of it all. And I’m not there yet, but certain aspects are becoming clearer. I just have to keep moving forward. I have to remember that I don’t need all the answers yet.

Today I put a wildly huge amount of notes into a black three-ring binder in an attempt to organize (or perhaps quantify?) my work, a big chunk of which is questions, scribbles, and more questions. Most of the  questions will not be answered today, but the mere conception of the questions was a type of work: progress.

The Odyssey

Today was a particularly tough day on this odyssey, this journey of completing grad school. I needed to print the final copies of my thesis. My computer, since Windows Vista is such a cranky vengeful dictator, has decided my printer is now invisible. So, I had to get the file over to another computer and try and print from there. And then that computer auto-updated itself and restarted, interrupting the print job. And then it took about a year to open everything back up and print what I managed to print, which was only three random fragments of the final manuscript, and then I ran out of paper. Don’t ask my why I didn’t think printing five hundred pages was going to be a big deal. I was sure I had a couple of reams in the office closet; but as we can see, actually finding extra paper in the closet would not have been a matching episode in the progression of my day. Which item does not match this set? Oh, they all match => all are crappy. The existence of the paper would have been too CONVENIENT. Or NICE. Or LUCKY.

And then my desk light went out and the dead bulb was stuck in the lamp and I couldn’t make it budge. I had to give up, lest the glass shatter in my hand. So then it was dark, and I had to face the fact that I COULD NOT EVEN ACCOMPLISH SUCH A SMALL TASK AS CHANGING THE LIGHT BULB. And then I realized I should have mailed my application for an absentee ballot a while ago, but I didn’t because as we can see someone stole my concept of time within the last week.

At least comps are over. At least wasabi peas exist. At least it is not hot outside. At least Tide To-Go pens are awesome. At least there are new episodes of The Office….I better stop before I talk myself out of my writerly grad-school moodiness. This evening’s task remains: print three copies of said thesis, hopefully without any grand procession of error.

Nineteen Questions

“What should we do?”

“Do you have a book you don’t want?”

“The Ikea catalog?”

“Wait! Don’t use the 2009. You can use the 2008. Here.”

And that was the end of the gigantic roach and the 2008 Ikea catalog; farewell, good friend.

————————————————————————

I’m returning from my hiatus. I haven’t been blogging lately because I have tendinitis in my hands…from typing. How freaking LAME is that? No, I didn’t tear my acl doing anything amazing, nor did I get scathed by a bullet while doing anything extra-amazing. I’ve been on a big dose of naproxen for a while so things seem to have eased up. I vowed not to do too much typing, but I just had to finish revising my novel or my head was going to explode over the fact that I only have TWO WEEKS and ONE DAY left until my comprehensive exams. Given this timeframe, I had to get that damn book out of my hair. So, I finished typing it. I would call it a failed novel. I love the characters and absolutely adore several of the chapters, but …I’m confident that next time around I’ll have a good go at it, a good go at a novel that actually has a PLOT. Heh. Anyway, there are many things I would like to write about right now–what? I shouldn’t be typing so much? This is true. Therefore, I’ll limit myself to replying to Stephanie, who tagged me with nineteen questions, and then I’ll get back to making my notecards for comps.

1. What are your nicknames? I don’t think I have any. Well, some folks probably call me a bitch, but that’s more like being called a name rather than having a name to be called by.

2. What is the first movie you bought in VHS or DVD? As a kid I remember a lot of taping from t.v.; I know I had Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland (the super awesomely-creepy version with Sammy). Both of those were the kind of recordings where you had to jump up and press pause on the VCR when a commercial came on to try and avoid taping it, and this was never accomplished 100%. 

The first VHS I bought for myself was in high school. I might have been 16. I joined a music video buying club, which I cannot remember the name of. It was sort of like Columbia House, but I received VHS in the mail. I suppose that is where some of my hard-earned money from working at the grand Target went. The only bands I can remember from those tapes are The Lemonheads and The Breeders. Remember the bowling ball?

3. What is your favorite scent? I like lavender. I also like authentic nag champa.

4. What one place have you visited that you can’t forget and want to go back to? Boston.

5. Do you trust easily? Trust has to do with my intuition. I may intuitively trust you upon meeting you. It’s that easy. But if there’s any unease, then no, trust will not come easily. I trust my gut.

6. Do you generally think before you act or act before you think? Think. sometimes for a very long time, which is not always a good thing. Sometimes expedience in action is wildly appropriate. Sometimes thinking for too long = putting up with b.s. for too long.

7. Is there anything that has made you unhappy these days? Dear Horse Flies, Where the f— are you coming from and what do you want with my house? Please go away. You are huge and loud and your big buggy red eyes squick me out. Thanks!

8. Do you have a good body image? Do you mean image as in my imagination, or image as in the public perception? Who knows. I’m sure folks say things like that girl always wears that same dress, because that’s how I am. 

9. What is your favorite fruit? Clementines. Fresh cherries are good too.

10. What websites do you visit daily? Aw, let us not spill all our secrets.

11. What have you been addicted to lately? Fine-point sharpies, decaf Colombian coffee in the late afternoon, making lists.

12. What kind of person do you think the person who tagged you is? Edearing, creative, and amazingly hard-working.

13. What’s the last song that got stuck in your head? Nick Cave’s Bring it On.

14. What’s your favorite item of clothing? A black sleeveless v-neck dress with thick cream lace along the hem and the neckline.

15. Do you think Rice Krispies are yummy? I don’t know, the cereal might be good on top of ice cream, pre-soggy stage. As for the treats, I like them if they’re vegetarian, which they very rarely are.

16.? I’m mystified.

17. What would you do if you saw $100 lying on the ground. Pick it up, and then order in some Thai food and place an online order from Old Navy.

18. What items could you not do without during the day? I think I need my make-up, my coffee, and my computer, and things with which to make lists.

19. What should you be doing right now? Um, making more NOTE CARDS about ALL of the novels and short stories and things and things and things…..for comps in TWO WEEKS. Cough.

I am tagging EVERYONE, because the last step of this game is requiring more decisiveness than I have right now. Pretend you are in the exclusive eight.

Revisions

Stephanie over at Natural/Artificial has had some awesome recent (09-09) posts about REVISIONS. We are talking about revising a novel here. I love reading about Stephanie’s experiences in being totally sleep deprived and busting her ass more than she ever has in her life, because I’ve known her for years and I’ve known myself for years, and I’m busting my ass more than I may have ever before also. Also, who wouldn’t want to look at pictures of Hot British Actors and Steph’s Adorable Doggies? I love her advice of creating a scent for your project; I will do that next time around. Send me suggestions for scents for a Contemporary Gothic Romance set on Nantucket. My advice to all writers on a manic spree: Take care of yourself enough so that you don’t get sick. I’ve been teaching an 8 a.m. class, taking one grad class, starting up various editing duties again, working to be a competent and pleasant and inspiring mommy, studying for comps which are in FIVE WEEKS, revising my novel which must be complete in FIVE WEEKS, and I get sick. FIVE WEEKS! F-I-V-E.

Of course, I could also be sick simply because the new semester has started and I’m spending much more time downtown, or I could be sick because my son returned to preschool at the beginning of the month, or I could be sick because I started going back to the gym. THERE ARE HUMAN SIZED PETRI DISHES EVERYWHERE, PEOPLE. Anyway, I will get over it. Because I have to.

NaNoWriMo

Is anyone a veteran of NaNoWriMo? I’ve been resistant to the idea for some reason…..oh yeah, grad school and mommy-hood, those reasons. However, I feel pretty grounded now when it comes to working and writing. I have a spiffy new office on the bottom floor of my place; my office used to be upstairs. I hadn’t estimated what a positive change moving the office downstairs would be. Now, I can’t imagine how I ever worked upstairs—right now I’m sitting next to a ten foot by five foot panoramic window. I kid you not. 

My primary work-related goal for the rest of the year is to complete my MFA degree. Comprehensive exams are the last two weekends in October. I’ve submitted my novel to my advisor, but I’m unsure of how much revision will have to go into that manuscript. Hopefully, that won’t be that big of a deal. So, October. I’m teaching the mini-mester, which also ends in October. All of this everything-culminating-in-October business got me thinking about NaNoWriMo, which is in November. Besides revising the MFA thesis, completing a directed reading, and continuing to work for the magazines I work for, I don’t have much else work-stuff going on until I graduate in December. Wait, that somehow doesn’t sound like not much else all of the sudden. I felt very optimistic about it last night. Eh. I will plan on it. I’m telling myself I can do anything for a month. And it would be awesome to have two completed manuscripts in hand, even if one is a rough draft, by the time I graduate.

I’ve been researching modern adaptations of the Cinderella tale for my directed reading. I’ve also been reading a lot of Joyce Carol Oates, as well as a huge chunk of short fiction in preparation for exams. I keep coming back to the ideas of Gothic romance and horror. I’ve become slightly obsessed with Nantucket, or more so the idea of a small New England island with lots of empty big houses in the off-season, old history, isolation, the water, the fog and cold. I think I’ll let all these ideas brew for NaNoWriMo…perhaps a modern spin on the Cinderella tale and the Gothic. I’ll go with a young male protagonist Byronic hero. A haunted house estate. A devious woman femme fatale, a love interest damsel in distress, a villain. A mystery hereditary curse.

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