Why Bullshitted Papers are Underrated

Why Bullshitted Papers are Underrated

By Sara Codair

It’s the last day of class before finals. While some students have their notebooks and netbooks open, ready to take notes, others are glancing at their phone, counting down the minutes until I give them permission to leave. They’re all exhausted. Most have been working all day, yet they still showed for this last class, hoping to learn something, or get the extra-credit for perfect attendance.

Phrases like “C’s get degrees” and “Night students just want to get their A’s and get home” float through my head as I try to focus on framing the wrap up discussion.

I don’t remember how it began, but the bookworm in the back row declared that every essay she ever wrote, from elementary school through my  English Composition II, class was completely bull-shitted.

I stared for a minute, mentally rereading her essays. She was one of the strongest writers in my class, and an avid reader. She’s someone who, if I met under different circumstances, that I could have been friends with, and I don’t say that about too many people. We could read and talk about books for hours if life didn’t make us do other things.

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Goose thinks writing is snack…

I smiled. “Isn’t all writing bullshitted?”

 

The class stared at me, probably thinking I had lost my mind.

“What’s a novel?” I asked. “Isn’t it just stuff people made up? Isn’t that bullshit?”

And she thought about, and tried to explain that novels are things people are passionate about. Yes, they are made up, but they are crafted and polished before they are sold to people who live for them.

I asked her about her last essay, one exploring and defining dystopian young adult novels. She admitted she actually liked that essay, so she spent more time writing it

I smiled again. “Well, writing is better when you care about your topic. I wish all essays were open topic, but unfortunately, that doesn’t happen.”

The debate went on, growing from the concept of “bulshitting” essays to the kind of writing we do in college and its usefulness, or lack thereof, in the “real world.” While no one won it, I hope that the students left with a few insights.

The students who claim they bull-shit their papers do not give themselves enough credit. They can sit down, and think, and make words appear on the page. They can generate four or five pages of half-decent prose a couple of hours. Believe it or not, that is a big deal.

 

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Writing might be easy for the students who are over 21…

The most challenging obstacle I often face when teaching writing is getting students to
actually write. Many will stare at the screen, agonizing over each word and sentence, afraid to make a mistake or just unsure how to convey their ideas.

 

I told my students that if they could bull-shit a paper, then they had taken the first step to becoming a good writer. In order to write, first, people need to be able to dump what they are thinking onto the page. Second, they need to shape into some kind of genre or convention. In the case of the students, they need to revise their ideas into an introduction, thesis, body paragraphs and conclusion. Third, they need to edit it and make sure it follows the format their teacher wants.

They are generating ideas inside and putting them outside.

While I didn’t go into any gross details in class, I often compare writing to bodily functions. When I say writing is shit from bulls, I take the metaphor quite seriously.

 

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Horses are good at eating and shitting too.

We consume information like bulls consume grass. We digest it, just like they digest grass. We break it down and use it up. We excrete what is left in the form of words.

 

In a more advanced class, one filled with people who were there because they wanted to be, not  because they were required to take the course, I might get into the nitty gritty details of crafting sentences and fine-tuning arguments. However, in a first year writing course, I am happy if my students leave with the ability to put ideas on the page in a coherent manner, and follow guidelines when they turn it in.

When students get an A’s on bullshitted papers, it’s not because they fooled their teachers. It’s because they weren’t censoring themselves like the students who agonize over every sentence. Getting words down on paper is the first step to developing as a writer. Being able to bull-shit a paper is a sign that  students are already halfway up the mountain.

I can’t make someone a master writer in one semester. What I can do is give them the tools to get words on the page, and empower them. I can help build a grain of confidence.

I can  plant seeds in their bullshit, and hope that one day, there is enough shit their to make the soil fertile so their ideas grow.

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©2017 Sara Codair

No Back to School Blues

For many childless adults, the idea of having summers off and going “back to school” in the fall is a distant memory. However, for those of us who haven’t spent much time working in the illusion known as the “real word,” summers off, or at least a off from our regular job, is a very real thing.

For the past two years, my summers have been a taste of what life might be like as a full-time fiction writer. I’d wake around seven or either, check social media and do a little bit of writing while I was still partially in dream world. I’d spend a little time in my garden then go back to writing when the sun got too hot. I’d write for three or four hours, take a break to swim or walk, then go back to writing for another three of four hours.

I wrote at least two dozen short stories. I was sending out anywhere from one to seven submissions a day and as a result, getting an acceptance almost every week. My list of publication credits grew exponentially, and I even got paid for some of my stories.

DSC_0172.jpgNow that September has arrived, the weather is cooling and leaves are changing, I’ve rejoined the rest of the adult who get up in the morning and go to work. Thankfully, my job is one I love, and once I get used to being there, it hardly feels like work at all. Instead of spending the whole day lost in my words, I get to help developing writers find their voice.

My students generally are not aspiring to become best selling authors or prize winning essayist. Many of them want to be nurses, police officers, psychologists and pre-school teachers. They are not only trying to improve themselves, but find jobs that have meaning, jobs that will let them build their communities.

They need strong literacy skills to do this, no matter what field they choose. Whether it be in email, classes or writing grants, words are a tool for communicating, for learning and for bringing about change.

While I will miss spending my days writing fiction, I’m glad I’m back at work. I learned a lot about writing from my summer binge, and I’m eager to share with those whose words will have a more direct impact on the communities I live in and near.

Framed by Flash:Eliminate Fluff and Teach Transfer

As the summer rolls on, it gets closer to time when us teachers need to start thinking about the start of the next semester. Here are some thoughts on how to use Flash Fiction and Flash CNF in your classroom.

Framed by Flash: Eliminate Fluff and Teach Transfer

By Sara Codair

Flash fiction and micro essays can teach students to write tight prose where every word carries meaning, they can eliminate the presence of “fluff” or “bullshit,” and they teach students to be ruthless editors.

Last year, one of my colleagues showed me an assignment for having her students write 100-word essays. Thinking it would be a great way to lessen the onslaught of questions like “is my paper long enough?” or “How many words should it be?” I followed the outlined steps myself, promptly adapting and expanding it to better suit my courses and teaching styles.

Now, I frame my first-year composition courses with flash fiction.

We start the semester by reading a selection of essays and stories from 100wordstory.org. The students analyze the pieces both for meaning and structure, noting how they were put together and how the smaller pieces contribute to the meaning.

Next, they write their own 100-word essay or story. At first, they complain about having to hit exactly 100 words.

“Can’t it be like, 102?” they ask.

“Exactly 100,” I say with a smirk.

“I can’t even go one over?”

I shake my head.

Then they do it, revising, editing and incorporating feedback until they have a polished piece that is exactly 100 words. They write a reflection about the skills they used and the value of concise language, and then they move onto to longer, more traditional college essays.

They remember the process and strategies they used in their flash, and through both discussion and trial and error, they learn to apply them to longer essays. The result? Their essays are tight, concise, and contain minimal fluff. They also practice the art of transferring skills from one task to another.

That it isn’t the end of flash in my classroom. After they finish their long research paper, we return to flash. By now, they’ve gotten a good handle on their writing process, so we focus on analysis and editing.

I’ll give students a 500-word story from the Mash Stories Shortlist, usually one that has a strong message, and have them analyze it. I’ve used my own piece, “Above the Influence” and a 2nd place winner, “Playback” by Conor Yunits.

Students examine the language, structure, plot and imagery and use that to make an argument about the meaning of the piece. Next, they write their own piece.

It reinforces the skills they started with earlier in the semester and practiced throughout, but since it’s a shorter piece, they can more or less zoom in and really focus on skills. And since they have used and adapted the same methods for different genres of writing, they have practiced transferring a skill from one genre to the next, and hopefully, they will be able to continue this act of transfer as they progress through their college careers.

 

 

Four Lessons About the Writing Process I Didn’t Believe Until I Started Teaching

“I’ve spent like, a total of 12 hours on this essay and my instructor wants me to revise it again! This is the third draft! It has to be good!”

-anonymous student

Four Lessons About the Writing Process I Didn’t Believe Until I Started Teaching

By Sara Codair

As a professional tutor working in a busy community college writing center, I often find myself repeating the same bits of advice to students over and over again. However, even as I am telling students “be specific” and “don’t procrastinate,” I am wondering if I follow my own advice when writing fiction.

After some careful, end of the semester reflection, I not only realized that the writing advice I doll is applicable to fiction writing, but also that many of those insights emerged from my experience working with students, not the workshops, MOOC’s and traditional classes I’ve been taking since middle school

13012832_10100946589234875_2760158947002530692_n1. You have to start somewhere

Many developing writers stare at blank screens for hours wondering how to begin. They type the first line, delete it, type it again, delete it, and repeat this process all night then show up to class the next day with nothing.

There is one student I worked with regularly throughout the fall semester. His process is something like this: Write a paragraph, ask the tutor if it is good. Write another paragraph, ask the tutor if it is good, repeat.

Others like to free write stream of consciousness style, make a few changes and turn their paper in, think it’s gold then turn it in.

The ones who get A’s are somewhere in the middle. The do the stream of conscious free write, then revise like crazy before letting someone else look at their essay. They get feedback from their peers and from a tutor, then turn the essay in.

Don’t let anxiety stop you from writing, but also make sure you revise before you let your friends and critique partners read it and revise more before you send anything out to publications.

2. Time is your friend. Procrastination is your enemy.

There are two common breeds of college student: the ones who wait until the night before (or morning before) the paper is due to start, and the ones who start it the minute it is assigned.While those who start early always write better than the procrastinators, starting early doesn’t guarantee an A, or in my case, publication.

My novel is on its 8th draft, and I’m still not happy with it.

I revised “Above the Influence” close ten times before submitting to Mash and getting shortlisted. Even then, my feedback report revealed the judges still found problems. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s terrible, just that I may have needed 11th or 12th draft in order to have a winning story.

Revision takes time. You have to write the story. You have to let it rest. You have to revise. Let it rest again. Repeat. If you put off starting the story, or wait until a few minutes before a deadline, then you are not going to get a good draft.And even if you do all this, it still might not be good enough. Or maybe it might be good to you and your critique group, but not so good to the slush goddesses, because after all, writing is subjective. What works for one person may not work so well for someone else.

3. Your story is yours. Don’t write what you think people want you to say. Write what you want to say

One mistake I have seen students make over and over again is just writing what they think the teacher wants to hear. I get it – they want a good grade – but it doesn’t work.

Fiction writers do this too. They wonder if their story is marketable, and make the mistake of writing what they think their readers want. Let’s face it, we all want to get published and make money, but if we just write what we think other’s want and don’t stay true to ourselves, our craft will turn into our crap, almost literally, if you really think about it: consume suggestions, digest them, excrete them.

Your story should be your baby, not your shit.

A story I wrote called Costume Connection got six rejections before getting accepted by Centum Press. Two of those rejections came with feedback. The first feedback report had some rather helpful suggestions that helped the piece grow into the version that got accepted. The second had some comments that just didn’t make sense to me. I decided that the piece just didn’t work for those people, and I wasn’t going to change it because of them. I’m glad I trusted my gut, and am looking forward to seeing a story of mine published in a tangible print book

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Stories need naps, just like kittens.

4. Let it rest, leave time to proof read, let it rest, cut clutter, let it rest.

Your draft is detailed and specific. You’ve revised several times. You are happy with the content and think you have caught most of the grammatical errors. Other people have read it, possibly more than once and most importantly, you are happy with  the result.

You are note done.

You are note done.

Put it away.

Hide the file.

Just don’t look at for at least 24 hours. Try to leave it alone for a week if you can.

When you just can’t stay away from the thing any longer, that means it is time to edit and revise. Catch all those grammatical errors. Make sure you are showing, not telling. Restructure your sentences so you have minimal glue(words that don’t carry meaning). Replace as many adverb/verb pairs as you can with specific verbs . You don’t have to get rid of them all, but just remember a strong verb kicks ass.

Leave it alone for a few days. AGAIN.

Read it with a fresh eye. Make any changes you think of whether they are on the sentence level or the story level. Let it rest again. Revise again.

Whenever I talk to teachers who aren’t writers or English teachers, they seem to be under the impression that college students can’t write. This isn’t because the students can’t compose good essays. It’s because they don’t have time to let the draft rest. When they get a paper back they haven’t seen in a week, they could revise without seeing half of the instructor’s comments.

Even a night of rest would have made the difference between an B and A. There have been plenty of times when I have sat down in the writing center with a more who printed the paper out at night, and brought it to me in the morning, a couple hours before it is due. As we are reading through the paper, the student see’s all the sentence level errors she missed when she did her 2 a.m. proof read.

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While different genres of writing follow different rules and styles, the process is more or less the same whether you are writing a college research paper, an article or a short story. Once you understand the style and structure of your genre(s), you can continue to improve your writing by studying and improving your process. Be mindful of what you do. Practice metacognition. Journal about your process. Read what other writers have written about heir process and compare it to what you have written about your own. Revise the process accordingly. Write on!

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Flying Mouse-Squirrel-Bird Thing

When I decide to write a flash story after spending the day grading papers, I end up writing stories inspired by cat toys. “Flying mouse-squirrel-bird Thing” is one of those. My cat has this crinkly, furry toy that is flattened like a flying squirrel but with the face and coloring of a mouse.  It has strings dangling of off its arms with bird feathers. Combine that with a Cracked Flash prompt and you get something like this*:

Flying Mouse-Squirrel-Bird Thing
by Sara Codair

“The princess claims it was the dumbest assassin she’d ever seen, but I find it quite brilliant,” said Marcy.

Her face was like a stone with a small frown etched into it. She glowered at the corpse of a flattened gray rodent, which was covered with both fur and feathers. It had the body of a flying squirrel but the head of the mouse.I had no clue how she had managed to look so serious. When I saw the flying mouse-squirrel-bird thing dive bomb the princess, I just double over laughing so hard I pissed my pants.

“And you are the dumbest bodyguard,” she continued. “It may have looked ridiculous, but its claws were sharp enough to pierce through skin and puncture an artery. Thankfully, it was dumber than you.”

I wanted to respond with something witty, but I could hardly breathe, let alone speak. Of course, Marcy hadn’t even cracked a smile. While I was laughing, she gallantly tacked the princess out of the thing’s way and crushed the doomed creature under her black combat boot.

“Gather your wits. We have an investigation to conduct!”

When I failed to gather my wits, Marcy’s steel-toed boot slammed into my gut. Now I had a more serious reason to gasp for air. She glared while I forced my oxygen deprived body into standing position.

“Alright, I admit it, I screwed up.” I finally managed a few steady breaths. “It’s pretty obvious who is behind this. The Gene Guild was furious when the Princess refused to remove the ban on cloning.”

“But we can’t prosecute a whole organization. It could have been one member acting alone.” Marcy’s eyebrows twitched on her outcrop of a forehead, eventually meeting over her nose.

I stared at the now flattened genetic mashup. “That really was the dumbest assassin. He left his name on the murder weapon.”

“Indeed, it appears he did.” A true smile cracked across Marcy’s boulder-like face as she stared at the initials branded onto the creatures ruptured gut. “I guess we’ll be paying Dr. Horrible a visit.”

Grimacing, I prayed I didn’t die laughing in the mad scientist’s lab.

Marcy rolled her eyes and walked towards our steeds while I chucked in her wake. This certainly was the most interesting case I’d work on in my three month stint in the princess’ secret service.

The End…or To be continued?

This seems to end a scene, not a whole story. Perhaps I will return it it one day soon.

*I will note that I made some revisions to this based on the comments I received from one of the Cracked Flash judges, Si.

End Elitist Information, Democratize Academia

End Elitist Information, Democratize Academia

By Sara Codair

 

Diamond is a slightly better average reader in her twenties. She reads novels when she has time, but a majority of reading happens on her smart phone: buzzfeed type articles, blogs and flash fiction. She finds herself drinking a lot of green tea and decides to research it. Google gives her millions of results, and most of the ones on the first page are lists of things about tea, like this: https://authoritynutrition.com/top-10-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-green-tea/ or http://www.nutritionsecrets.com/health-benefits-green-tea/.

They are short, written in clear, concise language and full of pretty pictures to keep the reader engaged. They are also laden with advertisements about diets that flaunt images of skinny, clear skinned woman drinking tea that is practically glowing.

It’s only been a few years since Diamond had to suffer through First Year Writing courses at the community college she studied at, so she hasn’t forgotten her English teacher’s warnings about internet sources. The advertisements mean that the site is out to make money. The author isn’t a scientist or doctor, in fact, he only has two more years of college than Diamond does. It leaves her skeptical, so she heads down to her alma mater’s library to try and find more credible sources.

The librarians don’t look as friendly as she hoped, so after a few minutes wandering in the stacks, she finds herself on the computer, skimming through databases. The first article that “Green tea and health benefits” gives her is “Emerging evidence for tea benefits.” The title seems to be exactly what she was looking for, so she clicks on it and downloads the article. The first two sentences seem to be written in plain English, but then she comes to this: “The mechanism may relate to bioactive compounds found in tea, which exert anti-arteriosclerotic, anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory effects.” She is persistent, reads it a few times, looks up “arteriosclerotic” and presses on. Sentences like “For weight management, modest, positive effects were found for green tea when ingested by overweight/obese adults, possibly related to thermogenic effects,” make sense, mostly, but she doesn’t know what to do with things like “As shown in Figure 1, green and white teas are not oxidised, thus contain large amounts of polyphenols, also known as catechins, which include (–)–epicatechin (E), (–)–epigallocatechin (EGC), (–)–epicatechin- 3-gallate (ECG) and (–)–epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG). A typical cup of green tea (2 g leaves and 200 ml water) contains 240–320 mg catechins, with EGCG providing 30–50% of that amount (Grove & Lambert 2009; Oliveira et al. 2013),” and “In terms of mechanisms of action, animal studies indicate that green tea extract (at doses of 50 mg/kg) may reverse endothelial dysfunction (Minatti et al. 2012) with the catechin EGCG being associated with reduced hyperplasia in the intima region of the carotid artery (Orozco-Sevilla et al. 2013).”

She skims the article enough to know that researchers did find evidence of at least some of the things mentioned in the internet articles. However, if she read carefully, she would see that scholars are reviewing studies are done by other people. There are a lot of words like “indicate” and “may” in the article, showing that while the studies are promising, they are not exactly definitive. They are starting to come together, but haven’t fully proven the benefits to the scientific community. On the other hand, the list articles are more definitive, proclaiming the health benefits as undisputed truth. She files that away in her head, and applies a little more skepticism the next time she reads online health articles.

The problem is, not everyone has a college education, and a good portion of the ones that do forget everything they learned about reading and writing classes as soon as they get that degree in hand. A less dedicated reader might have lost interest at the third sentence of the academic article if he or she even found it at all. A less dedicated reader would have just read things published on websites like Buzz Feed, or for a more credible source, the New York Times.

However, even publications known for their journalistic integrity are not the best sources for scientific information. They are business, after all, and they need to make money, which is especially hard when they are competing with the masses of free content available online. As a result, the public gets filtered and watered down versions from money making news outlets like the Atlantic or New York Times who spin the information to attract readers. We don’t need big brother telling us what we can or cannot read. Researchers and scholars do that for him by coveting their status and keeping the masses out of their smart people club.

Scholarly academic writing is often boring, needlessly complex and inaccessible to the average person. Maybe those who are not part of academia don’t care about knowing the details every study ever done. That is okay. However, one should be able to get the results and implications in a clear and accurate manner. Perhaps if academics wrote more engaging prose, more people would be willing to be read them, resulting in a more educated public.

The first hurdle faced by a person who his unaffiliated with an academic institution is access. Scholarly articles are not free online. Academic journals are more expensive than popular publications. So you either have to pay astronomical subscription fees or be affiliated with an intuition that pays those fees if you want to even see the article. Now, as a writer and adjunct, I can understand why the articles aren’t free. However, $75 is a steep subscription fee for a journal that only publishes three times a year. That’s what it would cost for someone who is not a student or NCTE member to subscribe to CCC or a similar publication. Science journals, which might be more relevant to the average person than articles about teaching writing, can cost even more. It isn’t easy to get information directly from the source, and that is a problem.

Do you remember playing telephone in elementary school? Did the sentence ever stay the same as it moved through the classroom? It never did in my experience. I find it terrifying when I realize that scientist and the media are playing a game of virtual telephone with information. In 2012, neuroscientist Molly Crocket gave a ted talk about how science in her field is misrepresented by the media. “Beware the Neurobunk” documents the journey of information as it transforms from facts to headlines.

What started out as study involving a nasty tasting drink containing a chemical called “tryptophan” morphed into headlines about how cheese and chocolate make people smarter, simply because they also contain that chemical. She gave several other examples of studies that have been misinterpret by the media. I could summarize more if it, but if you are interested, you should really just go watch the ted talk.

Essentially, it proves the public isn’t as educated or informed as they could be. Why? Why do academics need to love in a little elitist bubble? Yes, they do need to publish the professional lab reports for the peers, but why can’t they also publish a shorter version themselves that boils down the methods and limitations and focuses more on discussing the results and implications?

When journalist and bloggers act as middlemen, the integrity of the work is diminished. If the short versions were written by the scientist themselves, instead of a network of people playing telephone, the information is sure to me accurate, and less manipulated. And perhaps if researchers made more of their findings accessible to the public, they would get more support for the research. Imagine being able to get funding directly from the people – supplementing hard to come by grants from the government and corporations with money with crowd funding? Researcher wouldn’t be led by the whims corporations, the government and members of the 1% who seek to control what we know; it would be controlled by the people. It would make academia and the good work its people do more democratic.

Please feel free to continue the conversation in the comments. I’d love to hear what you think about this issue one way or another. Feel free to challenge me if you think I am wrong.

 

Finals Week and Chicken Soup

As the semester comes to an end, it can be hard to remember to eat at all, let alone eat healthy. This was true for me when I was a student, and still is true now that I am a teacher. Since women cannot survive on chocolate alone (though we often want to), I believe it is critical to make sure that I do not let the stress get to me.

No matter how chaotic it gets, I need to eat and I need to take time to make sure I don’t burn out. Writing, cooking and taking pictures are often therapeutic for me, so before I dive into the grading this morning, I am taking some time to make food and a blog post.

Friday night, I was too tired to do much cooking, so my husband picked up a rotisserie chicken from a local grocery story, and I boiled some Jasmin rice.  We barely ate half the chicken, so I decided to save to rest for soup.

I started with vegetables:  Half a large onion, a quarter of a bell pepper, one large carrot and one stick of celery. I cut them up and sautéed them with olive oil, thyme and parsley.

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Next, I added the left over Rotisserie Chicken.

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More dedicated and experienced cooks would use the whole thing to make stock, but I have a very limited amount of time allowed for writing and cooking this morning, so I just ripped off some white meat and threw it in the pan. I didn’t use all the leftover meat, so I put it back in the fridge in case my husband (who is a much better cook than me) wants to use it for something.

We did have some jasmine rice left over from Friday, maybe a 1/3 cup, so I added that to the pan next.

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I stirred it, letting it all simmer for a few a minutes, then added a box of organic chicken stock.

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I’ll let it all simmer while I grade. At noon, when I need  a break, I’ll have a bowl of soup, giving my body some veggies, protein and grain to help it power through the next round of papers. I’ll put the left overs in the fridge and take them to work for lunch on Monday and Tuesday, guaranteeing that I will have something healthier than cookies to eat between my classes.

©2016 Sara Codair

The Magic of Tuesday Acceptance Letters

Tuesdays are the best and worst day of my week. I leave the house at 8:30 a.m. and don’t get home until 9:30 p.m. I tutor all day and teach at night, ending the day with my favorite group of students. By the time I get home, I’m exhausted, hungry, and off-the-wall hyper.

This Tuesday, I got home, made myself a cup of chamomile tea and curled up on the couch to watch This Old House. After watching a foundation poured and inspected, my husband and I found ourselves in a classic millennial situation: sitting out the couch with Mac Books on our laps, focused more on screens than each other. I would have rather had the cat on my lap than my computer, but he was unwilling to grace me with his presence.

I looked up from my screen, watching the cat bat his noisy ball around the living room. Glancing over at my husband, I said, “You know, for the past two Tuesdays, I’ve gotten good writing news.”

“Thats good,” he said lifting his eyes away from Facebook Messenger.

“Two weeks ago, I found out I was a finalist for that contest. Last week, I got a story accepted for an anthology. I didn’t get any rejections today, but there wasn’t any good news either.”

He shrugged. “No rejections is still pretty good.”

Our attention shifted back to our screens. An email notification popped up on mine, informing me I had a new message from Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.

“Crap,” I muttered as I opened the message, expecting a rejection.

Then I jumped out of my seat. “Wait, I just got an acceptance!”

“You spoke to soon,” he said closing his lap top.

After a doing a proper happy dance and playing the the cat, I took my laptop to the kitchen table to withdraw the story from the other places I had sent it, update my bio and find a decent photo of myself. I only accomplished two of those three things before I went to bed, but I was happy and confident that there was a point to my obsession with submissions. It was worth all the hard work. I had found a home for another one of my stray stories.

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Write What You Know (or not).

“Write what you know” is a saying I have heard from many different people. I don’t usually agree with it, and find I prefer to use writing as a tool for exploring what I don’t know. The internet and library data bases can tell me almost anything I want to know about any subject. Writing about the unknown is the best way to motivate myself to do research and come to understand the research by writing about it, whether I am incorporating it into a novel, blogging, or writing academic prose.

As much as I like to think of writing as a tool for inquiry, I will not deny that it is easier to write about things I am familiar with. This month, I was reminded of just how big an impact knowledge and confidence can have on a person’s ability to write coherent prose.

There is one student who has been coming into the writing center on and off for a couple years. Lately, I have been tutoring him at least once a week. I’ll call him Bob for the purpose of this post.

Bob is a very good writer, lacking more in confidence than skill. Last week, I was working with him on a beautifully organized essay about business etiquette in his home country. Since English isn’t his first language, he needed help with the grammar, but little else. The essay had a strong voice, specific purpose and clear organization.

Today, he brought me an essay his instructor asked him to revise. To be honest, this essay seemed like a different student wrote it. The ideas were all over the place and some sentences were very difficult to decipher. If I hadn’t been working with him for so long, I might have suspected that the previous essay had been plagiarized.

As our session went on, I came to understand that he knew almost nothing about the topic prior to starting his research. He had been thorough with his research, but his lack of knowledge was having a major impact on his writing. He was disorganized, jumping from one topic to the next before he was done explaining it. There were missing sentences, missing words, and errors with tense and punctuation that I knew he had mastered last year. He was so focused on making sure he got his facts straight in both the writing and revising process, that he failed to organize the paper in a coherent manner and missed dozens of grammatical errors. His level of knowledge really effected what he was capable of.

While its fine for an experience writer to throw rules like “Write what you know” out the window and use writing as a tool for research and discovery, beginning or developing writers do much better when they are familiar with their subject.

It is good to let students write about things they are familiar with and gradually move them into using writing for inquiry.

When writers are taking their first adventures into fiction, they might want to start out by writing stories set in places they’ve been with characters doing things they know a lot about. Once they get a good handle on the craft (organization, detail, plot, structure, character, dialogue and grammatical control), then they can branch out to the unfamiliar.

I love to use writing to explore “what if” scenarios. If I am curious about what it is like to be exist as a hispanic teenager, an overweight man or a trans woman, I read, I watch, and then I write. When I get bored with my world and cease to appreciate it, I make up a new world that is far less comfortable than my own. Through writing, I experience thing that make me appreciate the privileges and comfort of my own life.

I used to just write what I understood. Now, I go out of my way to write what I don’t.

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©2016 Sara Codair

A Fun Run for the Developing Writer’s Brain

Creative Writing exercises are my favorite thing to do in class. However, I used to think there wasn’t room for them in a first year writing class. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Teaching any kind of writing without creative exercises is like a coach who doesn’t encourage his or her athletes to run or weight train.

Whether you are training to improve you skills at soccer, crew, or baseball, running is one way to progress. Or, if like me, you are not a fan or competitive sports, you can run to make your body stronger and healthier. I run because it eases my anxiety and keeps the copious amounts of cookies I consume from sticking to my hips. One could say the same thing for pushups, crunches and weight training. They improve your body so you can use it more effectively.DSC_0394

Creative Writing exercises are like running or doing push ups. They strengthen the brain and its ability to translate thoughts into words. It doesn’t matter if a person’s goal is to write copy for a website, a lab report, a short story or a persuasive essay. Doing writing exercises on a regular bases will strengthen the parts of his or her brain that translate ideas into sentences and paragraphs.

This is a realization four years in the making for me. When I first started teaching English Composition or College Writing, I thought that since my goal was to teach academic writing, I had to use traditional academic methods. At the time, I believed that mean brief lectures about essay structure followed by discussions on nonfiction texts.

There is nothing wrong with having students read and discuss texts that follow a similar style to the ones they plan to write. However, a college writing class can be much more than that. Boredom, Breadloaf and a slew of academic articles have convinced me that I can and should teach creative writing in a class where the end goal is an academic research paper.

It shows the students that writing can be fun while enhancing their ability to efficiently translate their thoughts to the written word, it facilitates skill transfer proves to the students that they have something to say and that it doesn’t take too long for the first draft of that idea to be born on the page.

One of my favorite creative exercises to do with my students is the never-ending story. Here are the directions I give my students:

  • Take out a blank piece of paper.
  • In a few minutes, I am going to play a song. When the music starts, you are going to start a story. The story can start with a character, a description, action or some combination of all three as long as it is inspired by the music.
  • When the music stops, pass you paper to the right.
  • Read what is on the paper that was passed to you.
  • When a new song plays, continue that story. However, you should let the music inspire how you continue it.
  • We will repeat this process eight times.

I play a variety of songs, ranging from Lindsey Sterling’s Crystalize to Drake’s Hotline Bling. A large variety in genre and style will wield hilarious stories and an interesting discussion about what kind of music facilitates writing and what kind interferes with it down.

The reflection and discussion that follows can’t be skipped. This is where students realize the activity was more than just a way to destress at the end of the semester. If you can get them to name the skills or strategies they used when composing on the spot, they can put those aside as tools for when they get stuck on an assignment. If the students get can make a connection between the kind thinking they did during this process to the  kind of thinking they did when doing other kinds of writing, they will begin to understand that skills do transfer from one genre to the other (something some academics think doesn’t happen in first year writing classes).

On the surface, the never ending story and other creative writing exercises may just seem like “fun” ways to fill time in class. However, they are actually valuable strategies for encouraging metacognition, skill transfer and team work.  They encourage students to think quick, reflect on how music or sounds affect their writing and asks them to participate in a non-verbal collaboration. They focus more on the process than the end product. Most importantly, the have fun while they are learning something.