“Whenever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.” Heindrich Heine

27962-the-burning-of-books[1]A couple of weeks ago, my colleague and fellow-blogger, Sarah, wrote about how the North Dakota State University at Fargo froze a government research grant that would have developed a pilot project to provide sex-education to at-risk young women ages 14 to 19. (see https://writesomewhatnot.com/2013/01/29/that-old-story ) The reason for the freeze was that the partner in this research was Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood in North Dakota provides no abortion services, but is only an educational organizational. However, the name Planned Parenthood is enough to enflame some ultra-conservatives. The unspoken message is that providing knowledge for young women will empower them in ways that ultra-conservatives find threatening.

I have been reading Salman Rushdie’s book Joseph Anton, his memoir about his years in hiding after the Ayatollahs of Iran had issued the fatwa (death contract) because they considered Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses blasphemous.  Rushdie went into hiding, spending 9 years protected by the British Secret Service, and using the pseudonym Joseph Anton, the first names of two of Rushdie’s favorite authors.  Over the years, the bounty offered by Iran increased. The contract stipulated that the amount would be greater if someone killed Rushdie outside of Iran. The ultra-conservatives Muslims in Britain were, often, the most vocal in calling for Rushdie’s death. Young Muslims men firebombed bookstores.  Crowds demonstrated calling for the death of a blasphemer. People burned copies of the book.  Of course, many of the people involved in these activities had not read the book, but took on faith what their authoritarian leaders told them.

The connection between these incidents, it seems to me, is fear of freedom of thought, fear of freedom expression and fear of education. Blind obedience to authoritarian leaders is only possible if people are not educated, and are not able to access multiple kinds of information. Blind obedience to authority is only possible if the fear of what those leaders can do is greater than the human drive for knowledge.

Rushdie had difficulty getting anything else published while he was in hiding, including a book of children’s story that he had written for his son.  Many publishers shied away from being associated with him, worried about the possible repercussions because the zealots had burned business and had killed a few people who were associated with Rushdie.   Although Rushdie was not  killed, the Ayatollahs won, at least for a time, because they instilled fear in a great many people, not just Rushdie, but publishers, editors, readers, friends and family members.

Many years ago, I taught children’s literature at the small college where I still teach. During one class period, I raised the question of how we guide our children’s reading.  One student (a mid-thirties mother) said, “It’s easy. You just burn the books you don’t want them to read.”  I was speechless. It turned out that this woman had done just that. When her teen-aged daughter had returned from babysitting job with a book her employer had lent her. The mother deemed the book unfit for her daughter to read and had burned it. The woman gave no thought to the fact that the book was not hers to burn, but that it belonged to someone else. She did not discuss whatever concerns she had about with her daughter, or with the book’s owner. She did not even offer to buy a new copy of the book for the original owner. She felt completely justified in burning a book she herself had not even read.  Although impact of this act is certainly smaller than Iran’s, it still rippled out to the people who lent the book to the teen-ager, to the teen-ager herself and to any of us who might lend books to teen-agers.

No one burned anything in North Dakota , but the suppression of the research has much the same effect, and is perhaps more insidious. A book burning is public. It is a visible sign of repression, but in North Dakota, the researchers will know why they cannot conduct their research, but most other people will not, and a group of high-risk teenaged girls will lose a chance for education that might change their lives.  While these young women will not be physically burned, their lives may well be poorer economically, intellectually and emotionally than they might have been because they are being denied education.

We like to believe that the United States is an enlightened, free country that values education, freedom of expression, freedom of thought and freedom of speech.  But every year, the forces of censorship and fear gain power. Parents call for librarians to remove books from library shelves. Parents pull students out of school because they are afraid of the truths that science teaches. Students come to class with the idea that just because they believe something is true, that their belief is as accurate and valid as documented science.  Our actions need to demonstrate that we will stand up for the values of education and the free exchange of ideas.  Our institutions of higher learning must not be intimidated by ultra-right wing zealots who fear education, who fear free thought and who fear educated women. They must not be intimidated by those who would repress the free exchange of ideas.  Democracy is a farce if those who would shut down free thought and education have the power to do what they wish.


Take Joy



It’s December 20, and I should have posted something four days ago.  It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about it. I have. I have written one piece that I called “Blog post…Maybe” that I sent off to my two fellow bloggers for comment. They both agreed with me that I was working with a big idea, but I wasn’t quite there. I decided to go back and work on it, but what I realized is that the “Maybe” post won’t be finished in time, since I am already days late. The “Maybe” post can wait. I’ll finish it eventually, and post it eventually. But now is not the time.

Finals week is a week of extreme emotion for me and for my students. I read work that is stunning, and I wonder what I did to help students write so well, and I read work where it’s clear that student has learned little, and I wonder about that, too.  While it’s always a relief to be done with grades, part of me mourns the end of the semester. Some students I know I will see again in January, but some I won’t. I worry about some because they are fragile, and their lives could tip quickly into disaster. I have those who will remain always tucked in my heart.  I know that teaching brings me deep and painful joy.

So, I sit watching the December sun rise outside my bedroom window, see the black branches of the elms against the sky that slowly turns several different shades of pink, moving from cerise to lavender, and I come back to the works of an early 16th  Century monk. He says it better than anything I could write.    I offer his words to you.


Fra Giovanni’s Christmas Prayer

I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much that, while I cannot give, you can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today.

Take Heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in the present moment.

 Take Peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet within our reach is joy. Take Joy!

And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you, with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.




“I don’t need time, I need a deadline”

a good bribe

“I don’t need time, I need a deadline.” – Duke Ellington

I had a professor in college who did not require that every student meet the same writing deadlines.  His office looked just like I imagined his brain – loose papers covered his desk, books were stacked on every surface and covered most of the floor.  When I went to his corner office to turn in a paper, I could see only his unkempt hair sticking up behind the stacks of textbooks near the small window.  I’d thought the paper was due in class that morning, but he hadn’t collected our work and I was a paranoid freshman – worried about points and grades and syllabi. He smiled as he took my paper. “Well,” he said, “Some people need deadlines.”

I give students deadlines all the time.  Read this by Wednesday; write this in the next two weeks; be ready to answer this question in ten minutes.  I’m not sure how the classroom would run without deadlines big and small.  Students seem to need an endpoint or a train bearing down on their laptopped lives that forces them off the social networking couch and back in to my classroom. Even my pseudo deadlines – draft and outline workshops – rarely produce the same kind of participation that a don’t-miss-it-or-you-will-have-a-zero deadline does.  I have also taught self-paced freshman comp classes.  Most of those writers never made it beyond paper number two and those that earned the credit, created self-imposed deadlines.  It seems like human nature – we don’t get writing done unless we must.

So most writers find deadlines.  I’m grateful for the occasional free-lance assignment that includes an editor imposed deadline.  I rely on the peer pressure of colleagues to meet blogging deadlines and the registrar’s office to demand my grades.   But mostly I bribe myself.  I sit in my favorite bakery and promise myself another cup of coffee for thirty more minutes of writing.  I reward myself with a cold beer or a long run when I meet word count.  It’s a silly, self-imposed game, but I have learned – I need deadlines.  This week I have the NaNoWriMo countdown clock up on my desktop.  I have 8 days 17 hours and 15 seconds to commit to writing a novel in a month.  It’s a crazy endeavor and a nearly impossible goal for a full-time instructor and a mother of two, but I like the idea because there is an endpoint, a train bearing down on me.

I cannot conceive of a classroom or a creative pursuit without deadlines.  But my college prof must have – I had friends who turned in all of their papers at the end of the term.  I watched one guy push a thick manila folder under our prof’s office door just two days before grades were due.  We both graduated – eventually.  I’m still not sure about the intent of our professor’s unorthodox assessment methods.  I turned in all my work when he “suggested” I should.  I often worked in the early morning hours to get the writing done before class, but he truly did not care that I met some arbitrary deadline.  Maybe he hoped we’d learn to find our own motivation outside of grades or timelines, but it’s more likely that he just wanted us to write and hone our own process.

For some reason, when I write, I picture myself walking to that messy office to hand in a final draft.   Along the way I meet the writer who doesn’t need deadlines and she explains how she makes it work.  I nod politely as she describes her Zen state of mind and her organic writing process.  But as I shove my papers under the door, I’m smug.  I met my deadline.  Now I can eat a chocolate croissant and go for a bike ride.


To Type or Not to Type


About a month ago, Sarah and I decided to organize a writing group on our campus. Several students had shyly asked me to read work that they had written outside of class, and several others had indicated that they liked to write, so we set a time and made some posters. We really had no idea what to expect.  On Thursday afternoon at the appointed time, 5 students showed up. Four of them were young men, two of whom are my students, two were students neither Sarah nor I knew, one was an older woman who takes classes often. Then there was Sarah and me and one of our librarians who showed up to bring National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO) flyers for everyone. ( This could be plug for NANOWRIMO. It’s a great challenge to write a 50,000 word story in a month!)  It seemed like a lively and interesting group, and I suspect more students will join. What was unusual, however, was that after all the introductions and the organizational stuff, when we decided to do a writing exercise, Sarah and I opened our computers but none of the students did.

After everyone had gone but Sarah and me, we commented on how odd that was. The younger generation is supposed to be more tied to computers than us “older” folks, and yet, here were these kids with notebooks and pens.  It has been so long since I have written anything serious on paper that it hardly feels natural anymore.  I began composing prose on the computer when I was working on my PhD in the 90’s, and by the early 2000’s, I was composing poetry directly on a computer.

I do not miss my notebooks.  I used to treasure them. I had lovely journals. People who knew me often gave me blank books as gifts.  I preferred the unlined ones. Those sweet Moleskeins. I went through a stage where I ordered plain-covered notebooks that had unlined roughish brownish paper. I spend hours creating elaborate covers. Several summers ago, I looked at the two shelves on one of book cases and realized that I had not opened any of the notebooks for years. I knew what was in most of them. They mostly contained the beginning scraps of poems. If someone knew what they were looking for, they could find the evolution of a poem in these notebooks, but I had not looked at them for years.  I decided to toss them all. I did go through them and save a few pages here and there, but about thirty notebooks went into my trash

I know I wrote a blog some months ago about writers’ rituals, and how I don’t have them. What I have developed instead, I think, is a more direct connection to the words. When I see words scrawled in my cursive writing that is, frankly, getting harder and harder to read, I feel that there’s a layer of translation that has to happen before I can get to what the piece will really look like. When I see the words on the screen, they appear like “real text.”

Mark Twain was the first American author to submit a typewritten manuscript to an editor. Now, not only do we submit typewritten manuscripts, but we send them by e-mail.  Change is inevitable. I think I am a better writer because I don’t write in long hand. It feels to me that there is a more direct connection between my thoughts and my words when I see the  typed text,  but see copies of all the hand-written drafts, of, for example, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “One Art,” I wonder if I am shortchanging both myself and future readers.

Murky Waters

In graduate school, I learned the perfect phrase for the writing process: “wallowing in complexity.” The term comes from the Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing and the authors define it as pursuing “questions and intellectual problems with persistent diligence.” Whenever I hear the word “wallow,” my mind goes directly to Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web as he delightfully rolls in the mud. I suppose this image is a bit misleading, because unlike the pig, writing is not so delightful, but it is messy. And messy describes exactly my mental process when trying to write something for an audience.

It begins with an idea, usually something trending toward the grandiose with the potential to change the world. I’m ecstatic about my idea and how much fun it’s going to be to write! But then, reality hits like a whip. In the middle of it, I scrap my original idea in a sea of self-doubt and anxiety. I go through a series of self-deprecating talking points that follow something like this:

  • I can’t do this!!
  • I’m an awful writer!
  • What was I thinking?
  • This is terrible.
  • I quit. I’m going to just say “no!”
  • Haven’t I written about this already?
  • I have nothing new to say!

Inevitably, that negative self-talk turns into a pep-talk, much like what my mother gave me when I was struggling with a school assignment:

  • You can do this!
  • You’re too hard on yourself.
  • You’re a good writer!
  • Get over it!
  • Don’t give up!

These phrases have metastasized into what I now recite to my students. One of my favorite textbooks opens with a chapter on “Writing Myths,” and one myth is “Good writers are born, not made” (Reid 4). This is a myth because writing is a skill that everyone learns, and like any skill, we improve when we work at it. But this is a myth that is difficult to dispel, especially when all we see is the finished product.

Many of my students look at a piece of writing and they see the polished analogies, complex sentences, and logical organization. They think that someone simply sat down one day and wrote it out from beginning to end. They focus on the happy pig rather than the mud. Perhaps my students understand that there were some changes from the first version (spelling, grammar, etc.), but for the most part, students seem to think that professional writers do not “wallow” in their own writing. With this myth firmly in mind, students set out to write an essay in one sitting, working for perfection right out of the gate.

Wouldn’t that be nice? I would love that to happen, but sadly, it does not for most writers. I would also argue that people who do write like that are either geniuses or creating bad writing. As for me, I write, question, delete, write some more, question, quit, come back to it, start over, write some more, get feedback, make changes, and then, eventually, I turn it in. No, it’s not finished. It’s never finished. It’s simply good enough.

This blog post is the perfect example. For two weeks, now, I’ve been talking about two potential topics…talking about how “awesome” my post will be. Well, I’m on my third post, and this was not one of those “awesome” ideas. Because, let’s face it, some writing never gets out of the mud puddle. They need more time for wallowing. Those “awesome” ideas will come out eventually, but for right now, this is what you get.

~ K