First Name Basis?

I am warning you, readers, right up front, that this post is a complaint, but  I will also say, right up front the I love my job and love my students, so this is not an “anti-student’ rant.  I have recently completed grading a set of papers in which students had to analyze a poem, examining the way poets use metaphor, imagery and sound to create meaning. In many of these papers, the students consistently referred to the author by his or her first name, as in,  “In her poem, ‘I could not stop for Death’, Emily writes about her journey with  death.” Emily?  I see this every semester. I really want to know possesses students to think that they can refer to writers by their first names.  “William’s play involves star-crossed lovers,”  “Robert’s poem about apple picking” I have never referred to writers this way in class. Nothing in the other literature uses first name only, so I am puzzled about where this usage comes from. I tell my students that they cannot do it simply because the convention is either the last name, “Shakespeare” or first and last, “William Shakespeare.”  I used to tell them that these authors are not their personal friends and, therefore, they need to use the conventional way of writing about authors, but it’s not that, because even if they were friends with the authors, they should still use the convention. When I write book reviews for friends or acquaintances, which I occasionally do, the fact that I know the writer has nothing to do with how I refer to that person in the review. I am interested in examining the work, not writing about my relationship to the author.

So, is this pattern of using an author’s first name simply ignorance? Is it that my students have not read enough writing about writers to understand the convention? Is it that somewhere in high school, they did this and were not corrected by over-worked high school teachers? Or, heaven forbid, some teacher told them to do it?  Or is this a reflection of our familiar culture where everyone is everyone else’s friend, a sort of “Facebook” in the literary world?  Do students have the mistaken idea that they somehow sound part of the “literary world” if they use an author’s first name?

I wish I knew the answer to this. I know it seems like a small thing, but as I read these papers, the first name only reference grates on me like fingernails on a chalkboard.  I want polished, articulate work from my students, and polished, articulate work must, necessarily, follow the accepted conventions of literary writing. The difficulty is not just that it drives me crazy; it is also that in order to be taken seriously, students must use accepted conventions.  Familiarity, whether it’s the use of an author’s first name, or over- use of the first person (as in “I think Emily is a genius”) demonstrates a writer’s ignorance and ineptitude faster than anything else I know.  I want my students to leave my classes better writers, writers who will be taken seriously whenever they write something. To do that, they need to understand the conventions of  whatever form they are using. Learning that Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson and William Shakespeare should not be referred to their first names is a place to start.


Confessions of a New Blogger Part 2: The Reluctant Mommy Blogger

Spring in the Bighorn Mountains

Spring in the Bighorn Mountains

This time of the year I get to leave my office before it gets dark.  Most days I’m on my way out by 4:30, headed to my other job: soccer mom.  I ride my red bike two miles to the soccer field and stand on the sidelines with all of the other parents.  Some of the other soccer moms show up in their work clothes too.  Some come with three or four other kids in tow.  Some arrive with grandparents and spouses.  Some coach or bring snacks.  The dads always look intent and knowledgeable.  I usually roll up fifteen minutes late with my cell phone stuck to my ear and half-graded papers falling out of my bag.  I forget my snack day and my kids never have their water bottles.   I grade papers during second grade practice and send myself Outlook invitations so I won’t forget about the kindergarten round robin.  This working mom juggle is so cliché that I cringe at my own reflection in the mini-van parking lot.

My students know I have children – my boys are still young enough that I cannot always separate their antics from my personality.  And parenting is often a point of connection.  So many of the faces in my classrooms are also tired and worn by hours spent caring for young children.  We all live a sort of crazy half-life:  we bounce between a hopeful cerebral world and the mundane constants of parenting.  My students make time to study in those brief in-between spaces that parents cultivate.  Our brains are fragmented out of necessity – we must toggle between tasks and divide our attention.  It’s exhausting.

I find myself apologizing for divided loyalties.  I’m late to soccer games and distracted by emails.  I don’t always make after-hours work events and I wonder about missed networking opportunities when I’m at basketball practice.  But maybe it is the very fragmentation of parenting that allows me to teach.  I know that I’m a happier, more tolerant mom when I’m working.  The few months that I spent “staying at home” were disastrous (I blame an idle mind for a very crazy 2004). But it also seems possible that I’m a better instructor because I parent.  My boys have taught me to slow down and chill out.  They have shown me how to approach repetitive tasks with enthusiasm and creativity.  I get near constant second chances from my eight year-old.  My youngest son tells grand stories and reminds me that I should always listen.  At the very least, my kids have taught me to be patient with people who are learning new skills.

My boys and I walked downtown in the rain today.  We wore our rubber Wellies and splashed in every puddle for blocks.  We walked to the book store to hear one of my colleagues read from her newest collection of poetry.  The boys were restless.  We were shushed once as I pulled my littlest on to my lap to keep him still. But they sat for half an hour, content to listen to my friend’s voice.  I was proud of their intent stares and curious questions.  They are learning to appreciate my world of words and stories.  My two worlds often collide and it is becoming more apparent that I cannot write an assignment or teach a sonnet without my mommy brain.  It also seems like I can’t be a soccer mom without poetry and classrooms.

– S

Yellow Legal Pads and # 2 Pencils

I hate it when someone asks me if I write every day, if I have a special desk, pencil, pen, or whatever. I hate it partly because I don’t.  I don’t write every day, unless one includes Facebook posts, grocery lists or e-mails. I don’t really care about where I am or what pencil or pen I am using. I don’t get excited by the idea that Hemingway used yellow legal pads and number 2 pencils. I am not really a big believer in writing rituals.

However, if I have to answer this question, I usually mumble something about the fact that poems exist everywhere, (which they do), and we just have to be open to letting them find us. This kind of “writing mysticism” does not satisfy the most literal of my questioners, but it generally gets me off the hook, and I can go talk about something more interesting, like the book I am reading at the moment, or the extraordinary moment with a student.

It’s not that I don’t think about process. I do, but I think that in the end one can have all the great rituals one wants and still not produce anything noteworthy. Rituals can also be used as an excuse. “I couldn’t find my special pen” or “something came up during my writing time” or whatever. Those comments are exactly what they sound like, excuses.

Writing is hard work. Writing something sustained like a novel is even harder work. Raymond Carver once said that he wrote short stories because he didn’t have the long stretches of sustained time that he needed to write a novel. I have often said the same thing about why I wrote only poetry for so long. I could get a poem down, maybe only a beginning of a poem down, between picking up the kids and making dinner and grading papers. There’s no way that I could have written a novel during those years when I had children at home. I remember once, after I had driven to Havre, Montana, and back for an educational conference, I knew I would write poem about the way that the road dips down to each river on that drive. I wrote the names of the rivers on a napkin, and it floated around my kitchen for several weeks before I actually got the poem written. My daughter, then about 10, said, “I wondered what that list of rivers was for.”

In the last three weeks, I have written two poems. I don’t even remember now the circumstances for the first one, but the inspiration for the second came from a conversation with a colleague at the end of a long Friday afternoon meeting.  Even now, when my kids are grown and off in their own lives, if I insisted on all the writing rituals, I would never write anything. I teach full-time. I often feel like I am either  grading papers, attending committee meetings or preparing for class. If I depended on ritual, I would never write at all. I write in and among all the rest. I have still managed to get two books published, two novels and many essays written. But they get written on scraps of paper, on different computers, at different desks.

I will concede that there are moments when I am “obsessed.”  A few years ago, I sat down at the computer one evening, typed a paragraph, read it to a friend, and then kept going. I didn’t even know the narrator’s name for about the first 10 pages. I finished that novel in six weeks. I was compelled to spend every spare minute on it. I woke up one Saturday morning and pulled my computer into my lap and told my husband that I was working. He said, “You are obsessed” and I answered, “Yes” and kept writing.   I taught a night class that semester, and, one evening, I had left my main characters in a very cold river when I had to leave home to go to the college in the evening. I was freezing all night and finally told my class I had to get home to get those kids out of the river.  I think that’s a little obsessive and odd. I know it sounded odd to some of my students. Luckily, they were forgiving.

But those obsessive moments are rare. For me, writing happens in the odd spaces. It happens on a Saturday morning. It happens at my desk at school, or at the kitchen table at home, I don’t need rituals.  I know that the moment when a poem finds me will happen without any tricks or rituals I might create.  The poem will find me, rather than the other way around.