Every Day We Write the Books: Please, Contribute to My Tumblr

Every Day We Write the Books: Please, Contribute to My Tumblr

Writing

Selfies + Accountability

During the summer of 2013, I wanted to keep track of how many days I wrote. Like making a big fat X on a calendar. Except I don’t use a physical calendar anymore.

So I hit the Photo Booth icon on my Mac and took a quick picture, and it was saved by the date. Here’s one from May 17.

 

It’s how I kept myself accountable all summer. Sometimes I took a picture from the POV of my computer, sometimes from my POV looking at my computer.

June 22, 2013

I used to use 750words.com a lot. I liked sharing that a writing session had taken place, similar to how I can share an exercise session has taken place on MapMyRun. I liked that all my friends were using 750words. It felt like we were all in it together.

So at the end of the summer, I made a Tumblr that anyone can contribute to. It’s called Every Day I Write the Book.

Perhaps you think sharing info like this is bragging or narcissistic?

Well, screw you. This is for the rest of us.

This isn’t like Selfies at Funerals or Selfies at Serious Places.

This is like, Hey look at all these people who are writing! 

Writing Accountability Tools

There are many ways to hold yourself accountable as a writer.

I have many writer friends who post weekly or daily updates on FB about how many words they’ve written. Personally, I like getting this information. It keeps me motivated, and they do it, I imagine, because it makes them accountable.

But yeah, I know, it gets to be too much sometimes.

Selfies

Then there’s the fact that this Tumblr is about WRITING ACCOUNTABILITY and SELFIES. At the same time!

I don’t do selfies much. I have complicated feelings about them.

I like sharing. I like offering support. I like seeing what people are wearing or that they’ve lost weight or that they’re happy or that they’ve developed a six pack or that they like their new haircut. Yay!

But yeah, I know it on the other hand, it all feels like too much sometimes.

The rules

Every time you sit down to work on your book, take a pic. Of yourself or where you’re sitting.

Keep it clean.

Be real. No sprucing or preening.

Don’t show off.

Use this to keep yourself accountable and motivated.

Submit here.

[Let’s see if this works…and how it works.]

Twitter in a Creative Writing Class

Twitter in a Creative Writing Class

Teaching Writing

Inspired by the way Adam Johnson shares innovative classes via Blogger, I decided to create a blog for two of my classes this semester. One is a graduate course on Linked Stories, and the other is an undergraduate course on Novel Writing. Long after the classes are over, the blogs will remain, archiving the experience of the course. I’m curating the Linked Stories blog, titled #amlinking, and my intern Lauren Burch is curating the Novel Writing blog, #amnoveling.

Why those titles? Well, if you use Twitter and you’re a writer, I’m sure you recognize what I’m doing, so let me take a minute to explain hashtags to the rest of my readers. See picture below. Also, non-Tweeters should read this. Continue reading

FAQ

Teaching

So Cathy, what happened? How did your students do?

I’m so sorry it’s taken me awhile to update you! The end of NaNo is also the end of the semester, a busy time, as I’m sure you know.

Okay: FINAL RESULTS.

15 students

12 reached 50,000 words. Four of 12 started October 1. Everyone who started October 1 finished. Eight of 12 started November 1 and also finished. Most spent the month/s writing toward the novel they planned to write, but a few students started writing towards another project when one idea petered out.

Three did not reach 50,000 words. One came within 5,000 words. Another came within 12,000 words. Another stopped generating new words at the midway point and started revising.

So did the students who failed to reach 50,000 get a bad grade?

No.

The 12 students who reached 50,000 words got full credit, 100 points. The students who did not reach 50,000 did not get full credit, but still received 90 points, an A-.

When I created the syllabus, I made “NaNoWriMo Completion” worth just 10% of their grade. I wanted their NaNo performance to be about something other than Writing for the Grade.

However, I did not reveal how many points they would receive out of 100 if they “lost” NaNo either.

Honestly, about midway through the month, I expected the students who were falling behind to pin me down on this. “Professor Day? If I don’t reach 50,000 words, how many points will I get? If I only get halfway, will you give me 50 points? Zero points?” But, to their credit, they never asked me, so I didn’t talk about it. I just kept saying, Keep trying. Keep going.

Did they write from scratch, as NaNo encourages?

Yes and no. It was up to each student. Some students started from absolute scratch, others wrote towards ideas and plots and characters that had been germinating for awhile. One student said,

I pulled out a stack of short stories I wrote in high school. Each was short, no more than five pages double-spaced and they concerned a high school student living in California with her lawyer mother and her socialite aunt. Since I was already familiar with each character, and since a novel concerning the three had been marinating in my head for years (I even based a half-finished screenplay on my stories once) I deemed this a feasible world to write about.

What kind of novels did they write?

One wrote a novel of psychological and aesthetic realism, akin to What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Outsiders. One wrote an epistolary novel akin to The Perks of Being a Wallflower (which we read as a class) and Go Ask Alice (her favorite book). The rest wrote some form of genre fiction. There were many speculative, science fiction stories about time travel, the mind and identity, dystopian futures. There was some fantasy. There was mystery and suspense. Two students ended up writing toward nonfiction projects rather than fictional ones: one student worked on a memoir, an account of a trip he’d taken to another country, and the other wrote worked on an immersion memoir, an account of her November preparation for a very important qualification exam.

So, how well did they write? Did they cheat?

On December 1, each student sent me the Word doc file that contained all their NaNo writing. I opened each file, scrolled around a bit to make sure that all the words were legitimately theirs-not cut and pasted text from Wikipedia. All of it was legit. The quality varied widely from somewhat unreadable, very rough (my own 50,000 words could be described as such) to very readable, very decent prose, which is incredible considering how fast they were going. This “readability” quality seemed to depend on how much thinking/planning/writing they’d already done toward the project, but ultimately, readability and writing quality were not the desired outcomes anyway.

So, if you’re not grading the quality of their writing, what the heck are you grading?

Here’s the breakdown:

Process Blog : 20%
Book Report 1 : 20%
Book Report 2 : 20%
Participation : 20%
NaNoWriMo Completion : 10%
Revision of NaNoWriMo piece 10%

What is a Process Blog?

Simply, it’s a class blog where students chart their progress transparently. They don’t just talk to me. They talk to each other. Over the last few years, I’ve been introducing emerging media technologies into many of my classes. This has been a significant ongoing project: integrating into my teaching practices the lessons I’m learning as a working writer in the 21st century. Blackboard allows me to create a closed social media environment that builds camaraderie and community, a fertile environment for risk taking among students. You might ask why not use Blogger or WordPress so that you could “follow” our process discussion? Interesting in theory, but I think asking students to post to an open blog rather than a closed one might change what they say, what they write about, what they’d be willing to share.

From my syllabus:

Imagine that each of you has requested to work with me on an independent study project, a Big Thing. I want you to write a description of your project, a faux independent study proposal, and the Process Blog is a virtual meeting place, a transparent journal, a think space where you’ll post, update, and maintain information related to your project. Every week or so, you will be required to check in with the process blog and take stock. “What did I do this week toward my project?” The process blog is the place you go to talk to me (and everyone else) about your project and your process.

What is a Book Report?

These reports were worth a combined 40% of their grade, and thus, much was expected. Each report involved a four-step process in which students create their own learning activity.

  1. The first step: Identify the technique you want to study, something you struggle with and know you need to focus on. Creating emotionally complex characters. Transitioning between scenes and chapters. Structuring a plot over X number of days/weeks/months/years. Creating suspense which leads to a “surprise ending” that actually works. Grounding dialogue so that it’s organically integrated into the scenes.
  2. The next step I call “Taking Note” in which you don’t just passively read the book, but also take notes as you read-in the book or on your own. It helps you notice things you don’t always notice while “just reading” and helps you identify and mark patterns, rhythms, recurring motifs, echoes, chronology, the passage of time, the introduction of characters and ongoing subplots, themes, conflicts, characters.
  3. Next, they write what I call a craft analysis (3-6 pages) that responds to these prompts: What did I learn about X from reading this book? How can I apply it to my own writing or to my reading of the work of others? Why did the author approach X this way and not another way? How would different narrative decisions produce different effects?
  4. The last step is to produce a visual aid, an artifact that represents your physical interaction with the book. An outline, storyboard, collage. A transcription to get the “feel” for the style or voice. You should do whatever you think will be useful. This is shared with the class-because what you find might help someone else, because what you find might help us read your work better

What books did your students read?

Haven Kimmel, A Girl Named Zippy

Haven Kimmel, Something Rising (Light and Swift)

Stephen Chbosky, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

+ one book of their choice

Haven Kimmel is a native Hoosier and a Ball State alum, and so it was really amazing to have her visit campus right before NaNo. A Girl Named Zippy provided a good model of a non-linear narrative, a way to write a novel as a collage rather than as a straight line. I chose the Chbosky book because the subject matter is “relatable,” it’s got a discrete timeline (one school year), and it’s got what my colleague Matt Mullins calls “Two Plots,” the suspense plot (the scenes that dramatize Charlie’s life and build tension) and the emotional plot (the internal character arc, the change Charlie undergoes). I’ve already talked about using Kerouac here.

Also: each student was allowed to pick a book that most directly matched their particular needs for their NaNo project.

What did your classroom look like day to day, week to week, month to month?

We spent most of September and October discussing the assigned books. If you had walked past my classroom on most days, you would have thought it was a typical English class. But I set aside a few class periods as “Studio Days,” time devoted to students working individually or in small groups on their Book Report or NaNo Prep. On some Studio Days, I provided focused prompts and we typed, generating character profiles and short scenes. Some days, we simply “sprinted” just to gauge how fast or how slow we tended to write, depending on the circumstances. Studio Days helped us acclimate to writing in that room with each other.

During November, the class became a writeshop. Students signed the attendance sheet, checked in with me to update their word count, listened to my announcements, and then spent the hour typing furiously. Once, I surprised them and asked to see the words they’d generated that day, which they sent in an email. But for the most part, I removed myself from their writing process. I wanted them to turn off their Internal Editor, that pesky voice in your head that leads to writer’s block. I wanted them to write for their own pleasure and edification. I did not want to be a voice in their head until December.

On December 1, they turned what remained of their energy toward producing a good first chapter or excerpt of 10-25 pages. They gave this excerpt, along with a novel synopsis, to their peer group (three people) and spent time “workshopping” each other’s novels and talking about what to do next. I read over all these excerpts very quickly-two days with about 150 pages-and provided one or two suggestions about how to polish the excerpt further.

Now what happens?

Tomorrow, December 13, 2010 at 4:30 is their scheduled final exam. They will post these synopses and excerpts to the Process Blog. The process isn’t over. They haven’t written novels yet, and they understand that. But those polished pages do represent a milestone, and as anyone who has ever written a novel or run a marathon can tell you, milestones are pretty powerful things.

Next post: “No More NaNo.” Why I won’t be “doing NaNo” again. Not officially, at least.

Finding Time for a Big Thing

Teaching

The last two questions on the midterm Survey Monkey survey I gave to my students:

What has been the hardest part of this process? What has been the easiest part of this process?

Far and away, they said the hardest part was finding the time to write:

  • Making time within the day to write. I have so many things going on.
  • Sitting down and actually writing… I get distracted by online quizzes and video games easily.
  • Actually finding the time day to day in order to write.
  • Making myself sit down and do it.
  • Writing without distractions has proven difficult.
  • Exhaustion. Approach-avoid conflict.
  • Keeping up with the writing.
  • Scheduling time to make up missed days.
  • Forcing myself to write.
  • Finding the time to write.

You might be surprised by what they said was easiest. (Here’s a sampling.)

“Writing it. I just find it enjoyable and I love taking time off from homework to do it. In fact, I stopped calling the writing process homework. I just find it too much fun to consider it in that category.”
“When I get going, I usually don’t stop unless I have to go do something. Also, writing directly after amputating the words ‘distraction’ and ‘road-block’ from my vocabulary. Sitting down and writing 2,000 or so words an hour every class period has helped immensely.”
Many students said they would have liked “more guidance on how to find the time to write.”

I laughed. Well, duh. Limit or eliminate television, gaming, and Facebook, and you’re golden. The request made me cranky. It’s not my job to teach you time management skills! But then I realized that, yeah, it sort of is given the unique nature of the course.
A former student of mine who lives and works in San Francisco just started participating in #Reverb10. It’s kind of like 750words + New Year’s Resolutions. Each day during December, Reverb10 sends you a writing prompt, which my student is using to reflect on her life generally and her writing in particular. She’s sharing these reflections on her blog—>sharing your journey is part of the point—>you send out “reverberations.”

Her prompt for December 2 was “Writing. What do you do each day that doesn’t contribute to your writing and can you eliminate it?She outlined a typical day and took a good hard look at how she spends her time. Next time, as part of our preparation for this course, I will require my students to outline their own days and take a good hard look at how they spend their time.

(Actually, why not do this in all my creative writing classes?)

Even if you don’t become a writer in the long term, even if you don’t finish the novel you drafted, you learn a lot from participating in NaNo. It reveals with startling (sometimes painful) clarity the reality of how you spend your days. 

How do you find the time to write 50,000 words in a relatively short period of time? Well, how do you incorporate any big thing into your life? Said “big thing” being novel writing, having a baby, caring for a dying parent, taking a second job, studying for the bar exam, taking 1,000,000 pictures, training for a marathon, traveling to every country in the world,-eating a healthy, well-prepared meal every single night, etc. You find time, make time, create time. Or you don’t.

Recently, The Fiction Writers Review asked the incredibly productive writer Benjamin Percy this question:

“You’ve got this novel coming out. Stories keep popping up in magazines. You teach at Iowa State University and in the low-res MFA program atPacific University. You contribute toEsquireand other publications. How do you balance it all and still find new material and time to work on your fiction? How do you stay in the ring, to reference another ofyour P&W articles?”
Ben said:

You’re forgetting the hardest job of all: I’m father to two young children. I don’t sleep: that’s the answer. Five hours a night sometimes. My blood type is caffeine. I never take it easy-I’m always working, always writing or editing or grading. Even when I’m supposedly relaxing, I’m not. If I’m at the gym, I’m listening to an audiobook. If I’m watching a movie, I’ve got my notebook out and I’m jotting down ideas. If I’m out in the yard with my kids, I’m pushing around sentences in my head. People often seem to view writing as an indulgence, but I operate under the belief that you must give up all indulgences if you want to write seriously. I used to think this was a calling-that’s too romantic of a term. I’m fairly certain that I’m driven by obsession.

For some, the answer isn’t how to do more with less time, but to alter one’s life, to make it more outwardly simple in order to live more richly.

In her novel, The Maytrees, Annie Dillard writes:

She took pains to keep outside the world’s acceleration. An Athenian marketplace amazed Diogenes with, “How many things there are in the world of which Diogenes hath no need!”” Lou had long since cut out fashion and all radio but the Red Sox.” In the past few years she had let go her ties to people she did not like, to ironing, to dining out in the town, and to buying things not necessary and that themselves needed care.” She ignored whatever did not interest her.” With these blows she opened her days like a piata.” A hundred freedoms fell on her.” She hitched free years to her lifespan like a kite’s tail. Everyone envied her the time she had, not noticing that they had equal time.

A few months ago, the New York Times ran this piece, “But Will It Make You Happy?” which seemed to strike a cultural chord. I know it certainly did with me.

Finding time to write wasn’t something I thought about until I was no longer in school. Suddenly, the external structure that had guided my writing life up to that time was gone. NaNoWriMo teaches valuable lessons about personal development and life planning, knowledge that students can keep for life, the ultimate transferable skills.

Changing Habits During NaNo

Teaching

Survey Question 2: Did you start writing on Nov. 1 or before?

9 students started on Nov. 1

4 students started before Nov. 1 (sometime around Oct. 1)

Are you happy with that decision?

All the students who started on Oct. 1 are happy with that decision. And they are all cruising right along, almost done.

Of the 9 students who started on Nov. 1, five are happy with that decision and four are not. Not surprisingly, the four who are not happy with their decision had the lowest word counts.

In an earlier post, I talked about why I encouraged my students to start NaNoWriMo on October 1 instead of November 1, so I won’t rehash that here, except to say that next time I do this project (and I will do this again) I am going to mandate that everyone starts on Oct. 1. It’s just more reasonable to ask students to write about 850 words a day than it is to ask them to write 1667 words a day while taking classes, working, etc.

Besides, writing 50,000 over the course of two months rather than one instills a far more practical lesson in young writers: that it’s better and easier and healthier to do a little writing every day.

I’m serious people: doing this NaNo thing as a class activity is very, very enlightening. It forces students to confront their writing process–or lack thereof–in ways that would never happen otherwise. My god, it’s forced ME to confront my writing process–or lack thereof–in ways that should have happened years and years ago.

I’ve been teaching craft for years, but I’ve never really talked with students about time. How much freaking time it takes to write a book. Probably because until recently, I was just like my students, writing without a regimen of any kind.

In The Writing Habit, David Huddle says:

“The major difficulty a writer must face has nothing to do with language; it is finding or making the circumstances that make writing possible. The first project for a writer is that of constructing a writing life.”

Later on the Survey Monkey survey, I asked my students, “What has been the hardest thing about this process?” The responses were almost unanimous: finding or making the circumstances that make writing possible.


Before NaNo, one of my students said she planned to create that circumstance by finishing all her homework so she could focus solely on her writing. I told her, “I used to think that way, too. But that’s a sure way to never write. Because the desk will never be clear. You’ll never get all your work done, and besides, even if you do get it all done, you’ll be so tired and brain dead, you won’t have any energy left to write. Write during your good hours.”


Write during your good hours. That’s advice from Huddle, too.

If you’re a would-be writer, what you need to find out is not how someone else works but how you are inclined to work. You have to determine your good hours, the writing tools and the writing environment that best suits you, the limitations you can overcome and the best methods for dealing with the limitation you can’t overcome. You also have to become aware of your inclination toward laziness, dishonesty, glibness, and other personal foibles. You have to become skillful at outwitting those negative aspects of your character.”

Turning my class from a workshop into a writeshop has created the circumstance that makes writing possible for 16 people, myself included. And that’s a good thing.


In The Writing Habit, David Huddle describes his “Lake St. Clair Experience,” a few productive months he spent writing in solitude, which “demonstrated to me what it felt like to have a real writing life–I have never been able to duplicate that experience, but because I had it that once, it gave me something to aspire to again.”


Will my students continue writing a little each day even after NaNoWriMo and the semester are over? I don’t know. I hope so. But even if they don’t, I’m glad they’ve had a version of their own Lake St. Clair experience.

Next time: Plotting a novel vs. “pantsing” it

The Gamification of Novel Writing

Teaching

Are Word Counts like “Points”?

For twenty years, my writing practice had no structure. I wrote when inspired and I would keep writing until I wasn’t inspired. If I didn’t have a big block of time, I wouldn’t write. I waited until I did have a big block of time–which happened…oh…never.

I was 25 years old, two years into an MFA program, and I still acted (without really realizing it) as if writing was something I did “for school.” And then one fall, the buzz among all students in my program was that Inman Majors had returned from summer break with a 200-page manuscript, a rough draft of a novel. Of course, we all hated him immediately.
I ran into him at a back-to-school party, and I asked him how he did it. He took a swig of beer and spoke the words I have been quoting ever since: “Well, I’ll tell you, Cathy. Every day, I’d write two pages. And then I’d play golf.” [Inman has since informed me that he was playing BASKETBALL that summer, not golf. My apologies.] I felt like Moses at the Burning Bush, hearing the voice of God. Really? It was that simple? Well, of course it’s that simple.
It only occurs to me now (because I am incredibly slow sometimes) that Inman turned lots of things into games. It’s in his blood, so to speak. He liked to make things interesting. He was the guy who always organized the NCAA Bracket Pool (before the internet started doing it for us). He liked to place a bet or two, as I remember.
You can’t just sit down and draft a book. You can’t just sit down and write 50,000 words. A marathon is run mile by mile. A football game is played one down at a time. Like Anne Lamott says, you have to take it bird by bird. NaNoWriMo forces students to turn an abstract big thing into a series of small concrete things. Words. Pages. Accumulating incrementally over time.
Like gold stars.

Like X’s on the calendar.

Like Weight Watchers points.

Like frequent flyer miles.

Like earning your stripes.

Like racking up points in a video game.

Aha!

This is why NaNoWriMo is so popular with Generation Y: because it turns writing a novel into a game. A huge, dynamic multi-player game in which you accumulate words and pages instead of points.

Here’s an interesting article from The Chronicle on the trend of  “Gamifying Homework.”

Here’s an interesting talk (30 minutes long) by Carnegie Mellon professor Jesse Schell on the Gamification of…well…Everything.

Are you appalled by what I’m suggesting? Are you thinking, “But Cathy, novel writing isn’t a game! How dare you suggest such a crazy ass thing!”
But anyone who has written a novel knows that, indeed, it is a game–one you play against yourself, mostly. The only way to win is to get a first draft, and you do it bird by bird, page by page, racking up words until you hit 50,000. Game over? No. There are many more levels, but you can’t get to those levels until you hit 50,000. 

[Here, my video game metaphor breaks down a bit because I know nothing about them. Sal Pane, where are you?]

For a very long time, what separated “real writers” from “wanna-be writers” was that real writers figured out some way to get the writing done. More than likely, this involved creating some kind of internal rewards system or “gamification” to tap into the motivational part of their brains. And then they crafted, yes, and they used their talents and intellects, yes, but first, they had to write a freaking draft.

Now we have have lots and lots of external rewards systems. Like NaNoWriMo. Like 750words, whose creator, Buster Benson, is a big believer in “gamification.” And–oh my god–what are creative writing classes and programs but another form of external rewards?

More and more people writing more and more words. The word count keeps climbing.

You either find this up-ticking counter frightening, or you find it thrilling.

I’m the latter.

Writing Together

Teaching

On Monday, I opened the door to my classroom and my Advanced Fiction students filed inside. I opened up some cookies, scattered some leftover Halloween candy on the desk. I showed them that we’d received another postcard from the students in Lori Rader Day‘s class. They’re doing NaNo, too. I passed around a postcard, and a few students wrote down their words of encouragement.



I walked around the room to find out how everyone was doing. “What’s your word count?” Some people started in October and are farther along than others. At this point, one week in, they should be at about 25% of the goal or 12,500 words. Most were. Some weren’t, but they recognized this and told me their plan to get back on track. I marked their progress on this handy-dandy poster I got from the Office of Letters and Light.




They settled in. Some like to use the computers already in the room, always the same one, same spot. Some bring their own laptops. Some sit on the floor. One student brings her own pillow for this purpose. They fired up their iPods. Logged into 750words.com. Opened up Word or Q10. And then they started writing. Tap tap tapping. Everyone entered the world of their story.


I have been teaching creative writing for almost 20 years, but I’ve never witnessed anything like this.


My students.


Writing.


Right in front of me.


Usually, this activity takes place privately, out of sight, and I am merely presented with the fruits of said activity. Over the course of the semester, I’ve slowly gotten them used to writing in this room, with each other. It wasn’t easy. Many of them resisted, and I understand why. I’ve never liked writing in public places–coffee shops, libraries, etc. But I’m realizing now that there’s something profoundly comforting about doing so, like the difference between practicing yoga alone vs. in a studio full of people.




Writing is a profoundly meditative activity, and to do so in the presence of others reminds us that we aren’t alone in this endeavor. Anti-NaNo-ists are troubled by the idea of millions of people engaged in the act of writing–alone or in small groups, in real rooms and virtual ones–but I don’t understand why they are so troubled.


This morning, I got up at 6 AM so that I could spend an hour inside the world of my book. This is my 43rd day of continuous writing. Sometimes, I rise a little earlier than normal so I can get my words in before the day begins. Sometimes, I close the door to my office for twenty minutes. Sometimes, I write in the classroom with my students. I’ve come to look forward to this time. Its sanctuary. Its blessing. I’m beginning to realize that writing isn’t something I should associate with a physical place. Not a desk. Not a particular computer. Not a room. Rather, it’s like a small garden in my head, and finding a way to spend time in that garden–making time for it–is what matters.


Everyone wrote for 70 minutes or so, and then I gently announced that class was almost over. Slowly, we all left our stories and returned to the room, returned to the real world. We looked around at each other. And then we left the room and went on with our days.


Publicity as a Motivator

Teaching

The Ball State Daily News ran a story today about National Novel Writing Month.

Seriously. Front page. Above the fold.

The neighboring headline read “Sex Study places BSU 31st.” And right above, there was a huge picture of Conan O’Brien. So: the editors could have led with a story about S-E-X, or a story about a HUGE CELEBRITY, but instead they went with a story about a bunch of students writing fiction.

Which is pretty awesome, I think.

It was a nice article (thanks Keshia Smith!) and it definitely got my students pumped today. They walked into class full of energy and quickly got to work. Making the front page of the student newspaper will do that to you.

This is what my classroom sounded like today. I think it’s a glorious sound.

Five (or Six)

Teaching
five
Charles Demuth, Figure 5 in Gold

A few days ago, Sonya Chung posted this great essay on The Millions about being a teacher of creative writing and about the uncertainty that’s inherent to the writing life.

She mentions a recent visit from author Jennifer Egan, who confessed to being an unconscious writer. The first drafts of her novels are written by hand on legal pads. The handwriting is illegible. She doesn’t consciously think about craft at this stage. She just goes, and because she’s writing by hand instead of on the computer, she doesn’t fiddle with what she’s written. It’s only after she’s hand-written a full draft that she goes back and revises and shapes and crafts and starts thinking and making choices.

Chung says one of her students raised her hand asked Egan about what sort of goals she sets, given her largely unconscious way of writing.

“Five pages, she said. Every day I aim for five pages. It doesn’t matter how much time I spend, I could sit for three hours and not get any pages. I’m after the pages.” I saw a number of students scribbling in their notebooks. I thought I heard a collective exhale of relief. Five pages. Something concrete, something quantifiable.”

It’s worth pointing out that a NaNo participant is doing the same thing as Jennifer Egan. Some proceed with a plan, some without, but still, they’re just trying to get pages done every day. Not five, but six pages down every single day during the month of November.
The next time I hear someone criticize NaNo, I’m going to tell them that Jennifer Egan is a NaNo writer, too. And I’m going to tell them to read this passionate, articulate defense, too.

Egan’s not an official NaNo Novelist, of course. She doesn’t sign up on the website or get a widget. She doesn’t need external reinforcement and the behavioral rewards system. Maybe she did once upon a time, who knows? She’s come up with her own regimen, which she self-enforces.

[Which begs the question “Does writing performed with the aid of constraints or rewards make said writing less valid than writing performed without those aids?” I’ll address that issue soon.]

My students are very resistant to the idea of writing a shitty first draft, to letting their unconscious minds run amok. They say to me, “I respect novels too much to write something crappy.” Or “I had three hours to write new pages today, and all I did was fiddle with what I wrote yesterday. I can’t stop myself.” Or “It’s just embarrassing to me to know that I have written all these crappy sentences. Eventually, I will have to fix those crappy sentences, so why not now?”

All their lives, they’ve had to write, tinker, turn in, get a grade. The rhythm of the semester demands that a messy first draft needs to quickly become a polished final draft. It’s interesting to me that even though I’ve said to them over and over again, “You’re not required to turn that messy first draft into a polished final draft. So just write. I’m not grading this.” But the impulse to “revise as you write” is so well ingrained they want to do it anyway. Some days, I have to forcibly tell them to stop it.
[Could it be that it’s the “credentialed writers” especially, those who emerge from writing programs, who have the most difficulty moving from short stories to novels? I’ll address that issue soon, too.]

For now, I’m going to tell my students about Jennifer Egan’s process. Five–or six–pages every day.

NaNoDra2Mo?

Teaching

Not only do I want to change the name from “Novel Writing” to “Novel Drafting,” I also want to change it from one month to two.

National Novel Drafting Two Months!

NaNoWriMo creator Chris Baty says he picked November as National Novel Writing Month because “it’s a bad weather month.” Really? What about the long, dark nights of February or March? Why not schedule NaNoWriMo in say, May or June, when lots of people start Summer Projects? Or what about September! It’s time for school and shiny pencils and new notebooks. You’ve got back-to-school energy, even if you’re not in school. November? My internal batteries are fading. Why November? It’s a busy month. Final projects. Deadlines. End-of-year reports. Plus the holidays. Commitments to family and friends. How does anyone expect you to do anything this big during November?

But that’s the beauty of it, see. Because who doesn’t have a ton of shit to do all the time? As I tell my students: You’ll probably never have time to “just write,” so ask yourself how you’re going to organize your life so you can get writing done. How are you going to incorporate it into your already scheduled life? What’s on your plate? What can you remove from that plate? And what can be shifted around to make room for writing? Now, nobody’s asking you to quit your job or break up with your girlfriend or flunk a class or stop tucking your kids in at night. What about television? Gaming? Facebooking? Yammering? Putzing? Hard-core partying? Recovering from hard-core partying? Shopping on Etsy or Ebay? I don’t know-whatever else it is that you do that I can’t think of because I’m old and boring.

Still, I was worried. Maybe it’s not possible or reasonable to ask the average college student to draft a novel during November. Maybe it contributes to their well-ingrained “binge” mentality. They deny themselves all week, and then binge drink on the weekends. They don’t write anything for months, and then binge write for 30 days. Is this healthy? Then my husband said, “I don’t know how they can stand the suspense. Why don’t you just let them start?”

So I decided to offer the class a choice: They could participate in NaNo just as Chris Baty intended, or they could modify the experiment and start writing on October 1. Instead of writing 1667 words a day for 30 days of November (NaNoWriMo), they could write 980 words a day for the 51 days of October and November (NaNoDra2Mo).

[Wow, do I suck at math. Wow. Make that 819 words a day for 61 days. Because 31 + 30 = 61. Yes.]

At the end of September, I gave my students an in-class timed writing exercise: write a profile of your main character. They wrote for about 30 minutes. Then I had them shout out their word count. Some typed swiftly-no editing or tweaking-and pounded out over 1000 words. Others wrote more slowly and laboriously, only producing about 300 words.

I said, “Okay, some of you wrote quickly and some of you didn’t. There’s no right way to write. But what does this exercise tell you about how much time you need to write 819 words? To write 1667 words? For those of you who wrote quickly, you could do what you just did-spend just a half hour at the keyboard every day for two months-and you’re done. You could go on with the rest of your day. You’ll hardly notice the difference–other than the great feeling that comes with writing a little bit every single day. For those of you who wrote slowly, how much more time do you need to write 819 words? To write 1667? And ask yourself if you can realistically create that much time in your day? Maybe you need to use both October and November to accomplish this task. Or maybe you need to stop being so hard on yourself and just write like hell. Don’t edit or spell check. Get out of your own way and just go.”

So: half the class started on October 1st, and they are all about half way to the goal of 50,000. The other half of the class decided to wait and start on November 1st.

I’ll keep you updated on their progress.