Story Telling … continues

Posted on June 5, 2007. Filed under: musing, quotation, reading, writing |

… you can tell when you find a piece of [a true story] in something new, because it makes your heart rise up into your mouth, full of wishes.

So says Nisi Shawl, discussing “How to Tell a True Story.”

Stories are on my mind lately: stories, and the importance of being able to tell them. To others. To ourselves.

Having just spent the last week at a conference full of stories and full of participants who are interested in helping stories come forward, I now feel committed to not only allowing for more stories in the musings I ask students to write for my courses — many of which end up on our blogs — but also in other aspects of our work together. And, interestingly, to doing more work to tell my own stories, something I have often felt I ought not to do. Stories are strongly discouraged in The Academy, more often implicitly than explicitly — but nonetheless effectively. Arguably, that is because they are so powerful.

These are, after all, some of the primary reasons for reading, for writing, for communicating: to learn about ourselves and others, to deepen our understandings, and — indeed — to know that learning is afoot because our hearts have risen up into our mouths.

All of this means, I think, that I will continue this blog, originally started for a particular class during a particular semester, and continue to share some of my own thinking, findings, and stories here. (Sporadically, I expect.)

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Language(s) and the Difficulty of Reading and Writing

Posted on March 31, 2007. Filed under: musing, quotation, reading, writing |

I have been dumbstruck for the last hour or so by a series of videos and writings by Amanda Baggs, a brilliant writer and videographer who is also artistic. (You can watch an 8-minute video on YouTube that illuminates her own ability to communicate and how others fail to understand her as a thinking, communicative being, here: “In My Language“; it is challenging, thoughtful, lyrical, and hands-down the most informative and most beautiful thing I have yet to see on YouTube.)

Baggs also has a blog,, and it is here that I found the irresistible quotation that’s led to this post. In her “Things There Should Be Words For” she writes about a topic I have often mused on myself: why isn’t there a word for… X…? Or Y? And she captures something that, as a writing teacher, I have so often wished there was a word for. I’m sure you’ll recognize it:

“The state of being able to write but unable to read, and therefore unable to check over what you’re writing to see if it makes sense or not. (May feel like you’re not making sense even if you are.)”

Why isn’t there an actual word for this oh-so-common state writers get into? And/or, what could the appropriate word be? (Sadly, Baggs doesn’t offer any suggestions for the words, only definitions.)

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Wednesday Afternoons

Posted on March 19, 2007. Filed under: musing |

{This is the post I did my brainstorming for in class the other day! Did it turn out the way I planned–or even how you expected it to? Let me know in the comments!}

When I was a kid, Wednesday afternoons were special. As a child of recently divorced parents, I spent most of my time with my wonderful mother, who somehow managed the amazing feat of going back to school and getting an advanced degree while caring for me. (I was a fairly good get who became increasingly troublesome as I headed toward — and then away from! — high school. I have a few things in common with Kathy here, because there’s no doubt that I put my parents through a lot. And like Kathy, I’ve come to really respect what my parents went through and how much they did for me, even though I didn’t always make it easy.) But Wednesday afternoons were a break from the day-to-day life of avoiding homework and other activities. Wednesday afternoons were the day my dad picked me up from school and spent the afternoon and evening with me.

Usually, we would have a snack (my favorite was strawberry-rhubarb pie) and then we would go somewhere in San Francisco, like the science or art museum or a park or a movie. (I think I made him take me to see Grease like three times.) Often we would wander through a bookstore, something I still love to do today. Somehow I usually got out of doing much homework on Wednesdays, but occasionally my dad would help me get through some math, or work on a report.

The most importatnt thing we did, however, was eat. This was the one night a week I would eat out, and it was an important part of my growing up because it exposed me to so many kinds of foods. We would eat sushi, and pasta, and a lot of Vietnamese food. Sometimes we would have burritos. For a while, I was famous for making my own burritos at our favorite Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood, Yet Wah. I would take mu shu pancakes, but instead I would fill them with rice and oyster sauce beef and roll them up and eat them like that. (Maybe that was because I couldn’t use the chopsticks so well?) Each week, we would pick a different restaurant, and sometimes we’d like it so much that we’d keep going back again and again.

These dinners out with my dad also exposed me to the idea that sitting down to eat some good food is also the perfect opportunity to have a good, thoughtful conversation. I remember those long dinners as educational experiences, both because they exposed me to so many places in San Francisco and because of the conversation. They were a good time to have arguments and discussions and to think about and learn about things, something I still love to do when I “break bread” with friends and family. Sometimes others would eat with us — maybe a friend of mine from school or my future stepmother — but usually it was just the two of us.

Wednesday afternoon were a tradition that started almost 30 years ago now. For more than 10 years, I spent almost every Wednesday afternoon with my dad, but you probably won’t be surprised to learn that I didn’t really appreciate that time until much later, when I realized how much that time had influenced me, and how many friends I have who never got to spend that kind of time with their parents. Now, I realize how lucky I was then!

For a few weeks this summer, it’ll be one extended Wednesday afternoon: my father and I are going on a two-week trip together to visit some old family friends who moved to Switzerland a while back. I don’t really know much about the food in Switzerland, or how much I’ll like it, but I count myself as lucky to have the opportunity to have that many more long, thoughtful conversations with my dad — and to really appreciate them, too!

What’s your favorite childhood memory of your parents or someone you are close to? Write about it in your journal — or even tell us about it in the comments, below.

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Reader, Writer, Teacher… a collage about me

Posted on January 25, 2007. Filed under: musing, quotation, reading, sample, writing |

Writers are notorious for
using any reason to keep from
working: over-researching,
retyping,going to meetings,
waxing the floor–anything.

–Gloria Steinem

My favorite way to keep from working is the dishes. Or, occasionally, organizing my desk.

* * *

“…reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The marked book is usually the thought-through book.”
–Mortimer Adler

* * *

I am a reader and a writer. And I am also a reading and writing teacher.

Much of what I know and have learned about how to teach reading and writing comes from participating in these acts. But most of what I know about them comes from another angle, another viewpoint: it comes from paying attention to how I do my reading and writing…

Yeesh. That’s not it.

…blah blah blah blah blah blah blah…

This is it:

“We learn to do neither by thinking nor by doing; we learn to do by thinking about what we are doing.”
–George Stoddard

* * *

I was a very slow reader. That is, I was slow to learn how to read—-for a long time my teachers said I just didn’t seem to be very smart because, well, I wasn’t catching on, I wasn’t reading. I was always put in the “slow” group.

Later, when I got a little bit better at reading, the big frustration was how slowly my reading went. It took f o r e v e r for me to read anything. Sometimes it still does.

* * *

I am both frustrated and intrigued by writing and reading as reflections of how we do and don’t learn.

* * *

Mortimer Adler argues that “There is no such thing as the right speed for intelligent reading. Some things should be read quickly an effortlessly and some should be read slowly and even laboriously. The sign of intelligence in reading is the ability to read different things differently according to their worth. In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through you–how many you can make your own.”

He doesn’t account for differences in readers, only in texts being read.

* * *

In graduate school, I was overwhelmed by the number of pages I was expected to read each week. Big, dense books. Books that took me what seemed like f o r e v e r to get through one page, and at the end I wouldn’t even be sure what I’d just read. I would time myself and then calculate how many hours I would need to spend to finish reading a chapter before the next class.

* * *

Paragraphs shape thinking: I am fascinated by how they affect what readers take from a text. Paragraphs function visually, marking a chunk or a unit of information: readers sense, as with the end of a sentence, that there is a shift in thinking with a paragraph break. So changing where a paragraph begins or ends can completely reconfigure what readers assume is important.

Readers instinctively know that they should pay attention to the statements at the beginnings and ends of paragraphs: they “naturally attend to end-points” (Eden and Mitchell 115).

* * *

Becoming a stronger writer involves noticing how readers read.

* * *

To get started, I have to allow myself to have a lot of bad ideas.

* * *

Advice I’ve given to others that I can’t seem to take: “Try not to get too ‘hung up’ on formatting: work on content, and worry about format later.” But I get stuck on this: I format, and over format, and move little bits around to make things fit on a page, or align perfectly, or some other kind of silliness. It’s some weird kind of sickness…

Sometimes, knowing what is best for ourselves doesn’t help. Not one bit.

* * *

It’s helpful to work only on ideas, content, and organization first, rather than focusing in on grammar (or formatting) too soon in the writing process. As George Hillocks said, “In real world writing, careful editing of insipid ideas will be of little use” (196).

I often see writers who skip straight to the grammar and then lose sight of the bigger picture; sometimes they find themselves spending a long time on a few sentences or a paragraph, and then later they discover that the paragraph is off-topic and they didn’t need to include it. If they’re smart, they cut the perfectly worded sentence so that the essay makes better sense overall.

If they’re thrifty, they keep that perfectly worded sentence and use if for something completely different.

* * *

Advice I’ve given to students that I think I’m usually pretty good at following: “If you need to, allow yourself to feel discouraged or frustrated–but don’t let this stop you.”

* * *

Poet and essayist Adrienne Rich has described revision as “the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction” (35). I like this definition: it gets to the idea that revision is not just a matter of “fixing things” like grammar or mechanical errors.

Revision is about re-thinking and re-seeing a piece of writing, about considering how you can make it more effective. This usually means a good amount of reorganization; often it can mean re-thinking and even completely changing your ideas. It is–at least some of the time–about transformation.

* * *

Philosopher Walter Benjamin describes the writing process abstractly, but effectively in this section of his collage-like essay “One Way Street”:


Caution: Steps

Work on good prose has three steps: a musical stage

when it is composed, an architectonic one when it is

built, and a textile one when it is woven. (455)

In other words, writing doesn’t just happen all at once. It requires stages and revision–“steps.”

* * *

I’m way too wordy.

This collage is a case in point.

* * *

“I keep coming back to it” is the first line of a poem by Charles Olson that I used to know by heart. (“The land falling off to the left”…) I was going to write about something else, and then realized I must have written the first line of this poem, which I hadn’t thought about in quite some time. (And now, of course, I can’t remember where I was headed, originally, before I got off track thinking of ChOl.)

Words do that. Take you to places, times, that are elsewhere.

* * *

I like these two quotations together:

“The first draft of anything is s@#t.” –Ernest Hemmingway
“The work is the death mask of its conception.” –Walter Benjamin

Benjamin seems to value the earlier stages of the process–the inchoate image of what could be in art, writing, creation, and also perhaps the process of bringing it into being, of giving it life.

Hemmingway, on the other hand, recognizes that the early stages of creation are just that–early stages.

They are both right.

* * *

Works Cited, or at least part of one:


  • Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913 – 1926. Bullock, Marcus Paul et al, Eds. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1996.
  • Eden, Rick, and Ruth Mitchell. “Paragraphing for the Reader.” College Composition and Communication 37 (1986): 416-30. Rpt. in Background Readings for Instructors Using the Bedford Handbook. Ed. Glenn Blalock. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2002. 113-118.
  • Hillocks, Jr., George. The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning. New York: Teachers College P., 2002.
  • Rich, Adrienne. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose, 1966 – 1978. New York: W. W. Norton, 1980.
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