Confessions of a Fraud

Giant FDear reader:

I am a failure…a fraud. I claim to be a writer, but I did not finish my sabbatical project. I did write…not every day, but I wrote. Does that make it a success?

I tell my students that all they need to do is try. “Write something,” I say. Even if it’s awful, you can fix it later. I give them chance after chance to get it right. Some students take all of those chances, and they eventually get it right…or at least close enough. Some students stop trying, and that’s OK, too. They’ll find a time, hopefully, to try again.

Yet, I’m not as kind to myself. I only give myself one chance to get it right. I didn’t finish my 250-page memoir, and I’ve been beating myself up over it for nearly a year. So, it’s now time to come clean.

WritesomethingI didn’t finish my 250-page memoir, but I did start it.

I didn’t finish my 250-page memoir, but I did revitalize a 20-year-old novel I had been ignoring despite its loud voice in my head. I must finish it whether it’s publishable or not.

I didn’t finish my 250-page memoir, but I created a few teaching exercises used by hundreds, maybe even thousands, of students nationwide.

I didn’t finish my 250-page memoir, but I hiked miles and miles and took hundreds of photographs.

I didn’t finish my 250-page memoir, but I took a course on computer coding and remembered how hard it is to be a student.

I didn’t finish my 250-page memoir, but I learned that sometimes what you intend to write just doesn’t come out the way you want, but what does come out is what’s intended. So, I ask you: did I really fail?

I try to be open to lessons, but this particular failure has been hard to face. I’ve been waiting to be punished…to be confronted for this failure, but I’m afraid it isn’t this failure that will ultimately be my demise. Instead, it will be my failure to face failure that might just be my undoing.

Wish me luck, dear reader.

~ K

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Write On

wpid-20140911_141009.jpgAs most of you know, I am on sabbatical writing a creative non-fiction narrative (a.k.a. memoir). From the start, I have struggled. I’ve read countless articles on writing a memoir, getting past procrastination, getting past writer’s block, and many more.

Much of the advice is the same: schedule your writing time, write in an environment conducive to writing, and no matter what, just write…even if you don’t feel like it.

Although the advice might be similar, everyone is different, and just like weight loss, you have to find what works for you. So far, these points work for me:

  1. Get out of the house.
    • It seems that I do better out of the house first. If I have somewhere to go, getting out of bed is easier. So, I go to a restaurant or coffee shop, get my caffeine, and start writing. The energy of the strangers surrounding me helps feed my creativity. After an hour or so, I’m ready to go home and write more in silence.
  2. Be comfortable.
    • Some articles advise writers to get up and dress as if you’re ready for work. This hasn’t really worked for me. I need to be comfortable. Maybe because I’m doing personal writing, and perhaps once I’m in the editing stages, I’ll need to change this behavior, but for now, I seem to do better in my comfortable clothes like my sweats.
  3. Write in short bursts.
    • What writer hasn’t heard of freewriting? Well, it works! (Not just for writing, as Fly Lady will attest to.) I start with 15 minutes…that’s it. I don’t pressure myself into thinking I have to write for 8 hours straight. That’s too overwhelming. I start with 15 minutes, and pretty soon, I’m engrossed in what I’m doing, and several hours have passed. At times, those 15 minutes seem to drag. When that happens, I’ll take a break and then come back to it a little later. Even when I come back, I tell myself that I’ll write for 15 minutes. Those 15 minutes gets me started and keeps me from feeling overwhelmed.
  4. Turn off the critic.
    • This is the hardest part for me. Stephen King calls it “writing with the door closed.” It’s hard to do. I ran into some friends of mine at Starbucks the other day, and all I could talk about was how much crap I was producing. “Yes, I’m writing every day, but it’s crap. It’s all crap,” I said. Ugh! That might be true, but I’m nowhere near ready to make that judgment. If I keep thinking it’s all crap, then I won’t finish. I just have to keep writing and worry about the quality later. By far, this lesson is the hardest to learn, and obviously, I have a ways to go.
  5. Finally, find your own rhythm.
    • Similar to the backpacking lessons, I have learned that I don’t have to follow in anyone’s footsteps. I can use their advice, but ultimately, it’s up to me how much I write, when I write, where I write, and what I write. As long as I’m writing, it doesn’t matter if it’s in the morning, the afternoon, or late at night. It just has to get done. Joseph Finder says it best, “Just write the damn book already.”

So, these are the lessons that I have learned and am still working on adapting in my life. No matter what you have to write: a research paper, a letter to your mother, a book… I hope these lessons help you get started.

~ K

Are You Small Town or Big City?

NewYorkCityOn July 31st, at 2:00 AM, I sat in a 24-hour deli having breakfast in downtown Manhattan.

Some people would consider this unwise, but I was amazed at how safe I felt. In fact, after finishing my coffee and yogurt, I walked to Times Square with my mother’s voice repeating in my head, “Nice girls aren’t out after 10.”

I have always been a night person, but I rarely go outside that late because of the supposed dangers lurking in the shadows. I have also always considered myself a small-town girl, and I never thought I would feel comfortable in a city like Manhattan. I expected to be intimidated, self conscious, and hurried. Instead, I was energized, fearless, and confident.

As I sat in the deli, I realized that I could get used to the city life. I could imagine living there writing, walking at night, and loving the fast-paced lifestyle during the day. The other side of me–the side that loves the solitude of the wilderness, fishing, hiking, and just listening to the birds–wonders how long it would take before I would need to escape the city environment.

Despite the fact that I live in a small town, I’m not exactly a hick. I have lived in and visited urban neighborhoods before. In fact, I had been to New York before. I have also lived in Tucson, Arizona, a city of 520,000+, for over 6 years. I also lived in Lincoln, NE, not quite as big as Tucson, but still bigger than Sheridan, Wyoming. I’ve also visited Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Stockholm, London, and Paris. In Paris, my traveling companion refused to be outside after dark. Maybe that’s good practice, but I longed to see the Eiffel Tower lit up after dark. I wasn’t brave enough then to venture out on my own.

This trip to New York was my first experience in a large metropolis alone, so I was completely shocked with how comfortable I felt as I walked down 7th Avenue towards Times Square. Several people were around…men and women dressed in various styles. There were police officers, city workers, and even some homeless people out and about. I did get some strange looks…it was probably completely obvious that I was not a New Yorker…but for the most part, people left me alone, and I felt completely comfortable.

I didn’t have much time once I got to Times Square. I had to catch the airport shuttle at 3:30AM, and I still needed to check out, so I hustled back to the hotel completely energized and not really wanting to go home.

Today, back in Sheridan, I feel out of place. I tried walking at midnight in my neighborhood, but I was uncomfortable and frightened. Without really understanding why, I rushed back to the comfort of home. (It’s possible I realized internally what this study found.)

I don’t really know what to do with myself now. I suppose I’ll settle back into my “normal” life in Sheridan, and New York will be a distant memory. Until then, I have realized that no matter how much I think I know myself, I should remain open to new experiences and new places…because who knows, I may find that I’m a city girl after all.

~K

Spring Fever

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Melting snow in the Big Horns

It’s spring, and despite the snow and cold wind, I can taste summer. I can hear the birds’ arrival, and I can see signs of spring in the baby bunnies outside my office window, fawns grazing at the side of the road, and green-tinged tree buds scratching at the glass as the wind blows. I feel a deep restlessness in me as well. I don’t want to wear my jacket or long sleeve shirts. I’m tired of wearing tights and thick pants. I want to go play. I want to be outside hiking, biking, breathing the mountain air. I don’t want to grade papers or discussion posts. I don’t want to answer student emails. I want to be done with the semester already. But despite these feelings, a sense of duty drags me out of bed, gets me to work, and helps me complete my to do list.

On top of having spring fever, next semester I will be on sabbatical working on a writing project, so I’m having an extra hard time getting anything done. I describe it to my colleagues as having senoritis: that feeling of new adventures beginning and old ones ending and the feeling that “now” doesn’t matter much. My fingers itch to write, and my brain is consumed by other projects unrelated to grading and teaching English.

I know I’m not alone in this feeling. It’s this time in the semester when my students stop turning in work, or they turn in sloppy work. It’s also that time of year when we’re all weary…weary of winter and weary of routine. Often, some students will disappear. They may resurface at the end of April suddenly aware that they have to pass the class. Hopefully it won’t be too many, and hopefully it won’t be too late. I remember having these feelings as a college student. I would resist them when I could, but sometimes I skipped class to spend time outside or to simply sleep.

As an instructor, it’s more difficult to skip class. I could take a personal day here and there, but often, they’re accompanied with guilt, and there are still emails to answer and grading nagging in the back of my mind. That carefree irresponsibility I felt as a student no longer exists. Perhaps I’ll experience some of that on sabbatical, but I really don’t know.

I’m not sure what to expect on sabbatical. I’ll have a project to complete, so I’ll keep a schedule, but there won’t be anyone around to make sure I’m producing my self-assigned number of pages. It will be a different type of work…a different focus for me, and I’m excited. I’m also a little bit worried–especially with how I feel right now. What if I just don’t do it? What if I can’t do it? What if all this time I have been working hard to convince others to pay me to write, and then I just can’t produce?

Are these fears that my students experience? Is this perhaps why they don’t do the work or the reason they procrastinate? I suspect this is part of it. I also suspect there are other mitigating circumstances that I’ll never know or perhaps understand. This is why I get so upset with Complete College America. I want my students to succeed, but I also want them to work hard at it. A degree should be earned, not given. I want students to complete college, and I believe our society is better off if our citizens have an education. But what bothers me most is that legislators wants to tie our funding to how many students finish a degree. This puts the responsibility of learning squarely on teachers’ shoulders, not on the students’. This is the problem.

I can give my students every opportunity to learn: provide them resources, spend hours responding to their essays, spend time talking them through the assignments, and provide feedback on every missed quiz question or misleading discussion post. However, if the students do not do the reading, don’t show up for class, don’t access the resources, or don’t do the work, they will never learn. And this is what the completion agenda does not address.

I can only do so much to motivate my students. In the end, they have to drag themselves out of bed when they have spring fever. They have to talk themselves into doing the work even when they don’t feel like it. They have to decide to make education a priority in their lives, and they have to decide to stick to it and to do everything they can to learn. I can’t do it for them.

So, dear students, I know how you feel, but together, we need to hang on and get it done because come summer, we can either have a sense of accomplishment or disappointment. The choice is yours.

~ K

What?! I have to Cite it?


This weekend I traded in my writing instructor hat for a student hat. My assignment was to write a short essay on Richard Wright’s novel Native Son. “No problem,” I thought. I had read the book, taken notes, participated in the discussion, and had an idea of what I would write.

Friday night I started on it and banged out the basics in under an hour. All I had left to do was add some quotes, connect my ideas, create a Works Cited page, and then, BAM!…I’d be done.

Any time I mention to my non-writing-loving friends that I have to write a paper for a class, they roll their eyes and lament, “I hate writing papers.” I smile to myself knowing that I don’t, and I’m usually pretty good at it. Granted, I’ve had a lot of practice. I’ve also been teaching essay writing for more years than I care to admit. So, writing this essay would be a snap.

Or so I thought…

One difficult part of this assignment was the length. It had to be between 550-750 words. No more. No less. For me, this is daunting because it’s fairly short, especially when doing a literary analysis on a 396-page novel. But still, since I had written a brief summary of my points on Friday, I figured I was golden.

Sunday night, after a day of grading and then a movie break with my husband, I sat down to finish my paper.

FOUR HOURS LATER . . .

I submitted my essay.

It wasn’t so much the content that gave me the problem…it was the citations. Goodness! The last essay I wrote that required citations was in 2009 and it was for an education class. We used the American Psychology Association (APA) style manual, and I’m used to working in the Modern Language Association (MLA) style. We were only allowed to use peer-reviewed sources. This meant only reputable library databases would be accepted.

For that essay, I spent at least three weeks on it. I wasn’t taking any chances. Even working on it on and off for three weeks, I submitted it at the last minute, spending most of the time reviewing the references and APA style. It didn’t seem so bad. Most of my citations were from a library database, so once I figured it out for one document, it was the same for the rest. (Yes, I earned an A, by the way.)

So what was the problem with this short, 3-page essay, requiring MLA formatting?

Citations!

Here’s my dilemma: I use a Kindle. I love to read, but with my Kindle, I devour books, reading two or three at the same time, depending on my mood, and getting through two per week. I never did this with printed books, but I love my Kindle. Reading in bed is so much more comfortable, and with my handy-dandy case with a built-in book light, I can read without disturbing my snoring husband.

The Kindle is particularly handy for books I read for my graduate class: words are easy to look up, I can make notes & highlight passages without a pencil, and I can make the letters larger for my tired eyes. I don’t know how I lived without this before!

Reading on my Kindle is excellent, but then mid-essay I was struck with a particular problem. How do I cite my Kindle book? There aren’t page numbers–only an obscure location and a percentage number.

I had the print book as well (yes, having both versions is a bit silly…), but finding one spot in a 396-page novel with only three chapters is particularly tricky.

I searched my go-to documentation resource, Diana Hacker’s Resource and Documentation site, but the only listing close to a Kindle is an e-book. Perhaps Kindle is an e-book, but that just didn’t make sense to me.

So, I did what any modern-day college student would do: I Googled it!

I typed in “cite Kindle book,” and I found this site by Booksprung (a blog about ebooks) containing a tool to convert Kindle locations to book pages. Thank goodness for people who not only know how to do this, but who also want to do it!

Overall, then, I managed to turn in my essay with citations and learn something new! Go figure!

K