Are you a Super Hero?

I participated in my final regular season Forensics/Speech and Debate tournament as head coach this weekend, and last night at the awards, each of the coaches shared something they had learned from participating in this thing we call Speech and Debate.

One shared that he had learned that the effective use of language to manipulate, persuade, or change people’s thinking was a super power. I completely agree. If we think about all of the language we see, hear, and use each day that is shared in the name of persuading us to buy a product, behave in a specific way, or agree/disagree with a belief, it is difficult to disagree.

The coach ended his talk by saying that the responsibility of using this particular super power is huge, and like all super powers it must be used only for good.  We all envisioned Spiderman when he said that and the 100+ high school students cracked up, but he made a great point.

Though he was talking to a room full of speakers, I instantly thought of my writing.  When we write words that others will read, whether through a blog, novel, story, essay, article, or even website content, we have some sort of purpose. Generally those are to inform, persuade, or entertain, but in each case, we somehow influence our readers. That is power.

I’ve been thinking, am I using that power for good?   Are you?

(Image is Royalty Free clipart from Microsoft Office.)

How do you say a word without really saying it?

I had an interesting conversation with one of my students this past week.  He decided that since he has been suffering from a severe case of Senioritis since August, now that the Forensics season is almost over, he’d like to write a new expository speech.  Apparently, his apathy might be wearing off, but we’ll see if the speech actually gets written.  For those of you who don’t know, an expository speech is a ten minute informational speech using visual aids.  The kids make these elaborate “boards” that have interactive elements and pictures that go along with their speech.

“Okay,” I said.  “Any idea what you want to write it on?”

He grinned.  “Ya, bad words, like . . . the F-word.”  He paused, “Can I do that?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “Can you write a whole speech without ever saying your topic? Can you dance around it that much? Because you can’t swear in your speech.  I won’t let you compete if you swear.”

He smiled. “Yep, that’s the challenge. I think I can do it.”  We then proceeded to think of all the ways people have devised to refer to a swear word, or even swear, without ever really swearing.  Fudge is one example.  A more current one is “Frick.” People will actually say, “Oh fudge” and “what the frick?”  Really?

Here are the strategies we’ve come up with so far.

  1. Use a word that sounds similar to the offensive word but is oddly benign.  Fudge, for example.
  2. Use any word that has the same initial sound and final sound such as “frick” or “shoot.”  This is similar to #1.
  3. Or, just use the initials.  Texting has brought this one to the forefront.  WTF sounds for something other than Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday for example.
  4. Cut out the bad part and use the initial.  Everybody knows what an a-hole is, but technically, you haven’t said the “bad” part of the word.  If you don’t know what one is, it is not the hole that comes before the b-hole.
  5. Use a non-word.  I’m not sure how to type this as it is a totally verbal usage.  It would work in a speech though. Two examples that come to mind are from the film The Christmas Story, one of my all-time favorites.  Example #1 – when Ralphie loses all the nuts to the tire and his Father has a tirade, and Example #2 – when his mom calls his buddy’s mom to tell her that her son said “fudge,” and the mom begins beating her son while Ralphie’s mom listens. In both cases, you don’t hear a swear word, but you KNOW that’s what they are saying.
  6. Provide the entire history of a word, its etymology which is its origins in Old Latin or wherever it came from. For example, there is a word in our language that is derived from the Old English word, “scite” meaning dung.  I’m thinking you can figure out the word.
  7. Synonyms are useful.

Feel free to add to our list if you have any fabulous strategies; I think he could use the help, and maybe the motivation too.

Six Benefits of Writer’s Block

I’ve been suffering from writer’s block, that hideous stuck feeling when I sit down to write.  Yesterday morning, I finally broke through it, but during my week of being stuck, I spent some time thinking about the benefits of writer’s block. There must be some reason for it or my brain wouldn’t “block” itself in the first place.

Here are the six benefits I came up with:

  1. Your desk will stay clean.  In my life, that’s a small miracle.
  2. You can spend time with family without any guilty feelings that you should be writing.  I spent the weekend as a bona fide soccer mom, traveling to my daughter’s tournament on the other side of the state, visiting with family, baking cookies for my son and not feeling even a little bit guilty for not writing since I still had no words coming to me.
  3. You can catch up on fun stuff like ironing.  All my laundry and ironing is done and no longer clutters up my quilting space, another small miracle.
  4. You can devote some time to alternative creative endeavors. I have a whole appliqué block designed and ready to add to my scrappy quilt top, and I made 25 12” blocks out of extra material from my man quilt.
  5. You have some extra time to get caught up on your reading.  I can’t write unless I read, so I took advantage of it and did just that.
  6. You can start a new different writing project that does strike you.  I began to sketch out a YA novel idea that has been brewing in the back of my mind but hadn’t got to because of my devotion to my work in progress.

I’ve decided to think of writer’s block not as my nemesis, but more as a brain break.  All the activities that I did instead of write somehow fed my creativity in that I didn’t really have to think too much while I did them, leaving some part of my gray matter free to solve my dilemmas in plot and character that had me stopped in the first place.  I enjoyed myself.  I tried not to feel guilty or bad about not getting any writing done, and for the most part I succeeded.

When I sat down to write yesterday and the words started to flow, I couldn’t stop.  I had to force myself away from desk, which already has a nice little pile of messy papers, so I could get to work before the tardy bell.

I’m happy the words are back, but next time I find that I can’t write, I’ll take full, guilt-free, advantage of it, knowing that the words will return.

First Day of School Nightmares

I’ve been attending the first day of school either as a student or a teacher for well over half of my life (at 41 that’s a lot of first days of school), yet I still get nightmares about them.

They always follow the same sort of pattern:  I enter my classroom completely unprepared without a single lesson plan written or syllabus copied.  Sometimes the administration has moved me to a different classroom without telling me, another teacher has absconded with all my stuff, and my new class is full of boxes and stacked desks.

I even dream of natural disasters like lightning or floods hitting, and I have to rescue a whole group of kids I don’t know.  In every scenario, I have absolutely no control over anything; I flounder, panicked, trying to survive, as I sometimes do in my actual classroom.

I had another first day of school this past Monday, and in some ways, the nightmares aren’t so far off.  I have classes of up to 33 teenagers and see well over 150 total students.

I have students who read at a fifth grade level sitting next to students who read at a college level; kids who read classics for fun next to fifteen year-olds who have never completed a single novel; students who have traveled the world next to students who have never left this corner of rural Nevada; semi-homeless kids who bounce around from one parent, to another parent, a grandparent, or to a friend’s house sitting next to kids who have two supportive parents at home with high expectations for their success; kids who want to learn next to kids who don’t care, whose families don’t see the value in getting an education; kids who can write beautifully next to kids who struggle to write a single complete sentence.

Last week as I prepared, and during the past few days as I started to learn names and read through the first pieces of writing they submitted, I’ve been pondering if it’s at all possible to prepare enough to teach or even reach every kid that walks into my room?  The honest (and depressing) answer I’ve come up with is no, though I will try, even though it will give me more gray hair, but at least then I get a quiet moment at the hair dresser while she covers it all up.

On the bright side, I also know that I’ll teach some of them something.  There will be great days, and that is what I look forward to as a teacher.  I’ll do my best to teach each of them the power of words, to help them find and share their own voices through writing and speaking.  Some kids will discover their voice, or they’ll discover books and finish reading their first novel ever or maybe they’ll even write one.  (I actually had three students do that last year.)  I teach for those “aha” moments kids get when they understand they have a voice, they have a story, and it matters.  That is my passion; it is why I teach.  It is also why I write, to find and share my own voice.

So far, the past three days have gone well.  I haven’t had a nightmare since last weekend, and thankfully, my classroom hasn’t been struck by lightning yet either.  We’re off to a good start.

Vacation – “The Process of Becoming Empty”

Last week I took a vacation – a complete vacation from any type of work.  For seven whole days, I didn’t write blog posts, character sketches, or scenes; I didn’t work on getting ready for the fall semester; I didn’t read any books on improving my writing craft; I didn’t even sew a single stitch.  I did, however, feel a little bit guilty.

Well, I felt guilt for about . . . two days.  And then, I made the decision to let that go too.

I love words, so when I got home I looked up the etymology of the word “vacation.”  What I found alarmed me a bit.  The root word “vac” means empty, as in vacuous, vacuum, vacant.  The suffix -tion means the quality or state of, or the suffix -ation means the process of the kind indicated by the root.  Accordingly, a vacation would mean the “state of being empty” or “the process of becoming or being empty.”

Without our work are we somehow “empty”? Vacant? Vacuous?

Yuck – I certainly hope not!  I didn’t feel empty on my vacation. I pretty much felt the opposite.

I decided to look a little further.  According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, The word comes from the Old French “vacation” and from the Latin “vacationem” and means “leisure, a being free from duty” or “empty, free, or at leisure.” This is better, but the word “empty” still appeared.  I find it fascinating that since the first recorded usages of this word in the late 14th century, the idea of not having work leaves one empty or even free.  Is work so often so awful?

I hadn’t planned on writing about this in my blog because I wasn’t sure what to say.  It is a bit of a conundrum because, sadly, more often than not, it is work that creates feelings of  emptiness, not our vacation from it.  We need our vacation to re-fill, recharge which is exactly what my vacation did for me.  It was not empty or vacuous.

This morning, just before I began writing in my journal, I opened up the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu.  It’s a book of mystical poetry written in China over 2000 years ago. The poem I opened to, completely randomly, #16, began with this:

“Attain to utmost Emptiness.

Cling single-heartedly to interior peace.”

Oh.

Wow.

According to the Tao, emptiness is not a vacuous lonely space.  It is peace, and we should strive to achieve it.  That’s what my vacation brought me.  I didn’t feel empty, or even, really at leisure at times.  I was busy, but I was . . . at peace.  Thank you Lao Tsu.  I needed that thought today.  In that sense, vacation means “the process of finding peace” or “the state of being at peace” – much better!

Now I’m back to work writing, feeling recharged, and peaceful.

Reading About (and not doing any) Writing

I hit the 20,000 word mark on my novel this past week.  This seems like a big milestone to me.  I’m not sure why, but it does.  To celebrate both this milestone and our country’s birthday, I took the last three days off from writing.  Actually, I didn’t have much of a choice.  We were camping on this holiday weekend with no cell service, no electricity, no computer . . . you get the picture.

I did actually bring a clipboard with some paper, but all I managed to write on it was the beginning of a character sketch and a list of stuff I needed to get to restock the camper.

Instead of focusing on writing, I played with my family.  And I read.

I finished Jeannette Walls’ lovely memoir The Glass Castle.  I also spent time in my lounge chair with some of my writing craft books.  As I began writing fiction in earnest at the beginning of this year, I read and read and read craft books, but I finally got to the point that I needed to actually practice what I was reading.  I needed to write my stories.

Now that I’ve made a bit of progress, I’m finding that as I read the craft books I’m thinking about and approaching the information in a more practical way.  I have characters and plots to think about which has given me a different perspective on the information.

The first time I read the writing books, they gave me the confidence and knowledge to start writing fiction.  Now, I feel like they’re giving me the information and confidence to keep going.  In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott says “the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts” (22).  Mine is now well under way, and I’ve decided that its okay if its crap.   Writing is hard, I’ve figured out that much.  But I’ve also figured out that I love it, and I’ll stick with it.

I just need to keep going, keep plugging away, even when life is busy and crazy and I decide every single one of my ideas is lame and the whole story sucks.  The only way to get this book done and this story out is one (possibly shitty) word at a time.  The great part is, as the writer, I have the freedom to go back and change it all if I need to.  Perhaps that’s the best part of writing.

Next stop . . .  completed character sketches and 50,000 words.