When a Voice is All You Have

So, I haven’t touched this blog in about 5 years. It just no longer appealed to me to share my life, my struggles, my thoughts. These past five years have been a time for me to focus on parenting, dealing with a major faith shift, and learning to live with a chronic illness. It was also a time that I stepped away from writing altogether. I didn’t even write for myself. 

It wasn’t until this past November when I participated in NaNoWriMo that I realized what a large part of my life was missing, that writing is actually life-giving for me. I wrote a strange mash-up of a fun middle-grade novel centering around a scavenger hunt that was also a fairly depressing meditation on death. Needless to say, no other eyes than mine will ever read it, but it was the act of writing itself that was more important to me than what I accomplished. 

I had been so fearful, for so long that my voice didn’t matter. I was fearful that people would read what I wrote and find it wrong-headed or stupid and at once afraid that no one would ever read it at all. I’m passionate about reading books by people of color, so I was hesitant to even start writing a novel that would put a privileged white girl’s perspective out there. Don’t we have enough of those?  

Maybe. But I need to recognize that my white, privileged, cisgendered voice can either stay silent to what is going on around me or speak out injustices that I see. And sometimes I’m still hesitant to use my voice because I am afraid that deep down I just want people to see me as a good white person. But I feel like I just need to stand up and say no to separating families. Say no to treating people who come to this country illegally like they are criminals.  Say no to a country that is more concerned with the rights of unborn children than with the living, breathing black and brown men, women and children who live in fear of the people who are meant to protect them. Say no to being cynical and apathetic. 

I want to say yes to seeing immigrants who come to this country as humans, as people who don’t want to leave the only home they have ever known but know that they have no future if they stay. Say yes that black lives matter. Say yes to writing my congressmen (even though I don’t feel like it does much good) because if everyone feels apathetic and does nothing, how can we tell the people in power what is true and good?

I think I also write this with a fair amount of guilt. Guilt for not doing more, for not going to protests, for not having many friends of color. Because I have chronic migraines, most days I am just hoping to keep me and my kids alive and relatively sane for another day. In some ways that gives me a great excuse to do nothing. But I’m tired of doing nothing. So on days when I only have a voice, I think I’ll use it.  

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A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers

I have a Masters in English Literature, so I should really be teaching a class on my favorite books in African-American or Southwestern Lit.  But I don’t teach classes in literature; I teach developmental writing — two very different subjects of study.

So, I am in the process of learning how to teach writing in the most effective way (it’s harder than you think).  This is why I’ve just finished A Rhetoric for Writing Teachers by Erika Lindemann.

This book covers theory (creating a paradigm for how and why to teach writing); practical methods for teaching every aspect of writing; and a history of rhetoric, linguistics, cognition, and the “composition” class, which was extremely illuminating.  Did you know that the ubiquitous (and in my opinion limiting) five-paragraph essay comes from a strange transformation of Aristotle’s four and Cicero’s six views on how to structure on argument?

I learned much from this book — mostly that I’m not structuring my class in the best way.  I focus too much on errors and not enough on improving an individual writer’s strengths.

I only teach one class in addition to my full-time job, so I, fortunately, can afford to experiment.  Next semester, I will try to implement some of what I’ve learned, especially the idea of writing more in class, structuring assignments step-by-step, focusing less on errors and more on different and effective ways to create sentences. I might not even use a textbook — simply show the students writing from professionals in magazines and books and also previous student writing in my class.

As a new-to-teaching-writing instructor, I’d recommend this book to anyone who teaches writing, particularly at the college level, but also to experienced teachers who have always taught in one way (grammar drills – which research has shown to be an ineffective way of teaching students how to use grammar correctly in writing).  Perhaps it’s time for a change.

Wish me luck as I design a new course for next semester!

I’m hoping to read Errors and Expectations by Mina Shaughnessy next, but I have to wait to buy new books in April.  I already used up my book budget this month!

Do any of you writing teachers have recommendations for other books I could read to make me a better writing teacher?

My Creative Writers

I’m sorry that my prolificness (yes, I just made up that word) has waned.  Spring Break afforded me lots of time to write, but this week — not so much.  Now that I’m writing again, I thought I would present you with some thoughts about the writers I work with everyday.

I teach the most basic writing course our community college offers.  These students, most of them, have been out of school for twenty years, or just graduated high school and didn’t learn how to write the first time around.

For some reason, in college, if a student can’t write it means they are stupid (not what I think, but what I unfortunately hear frequently).  If a student can’t write in grade school, it is the failure of the teacher.  I think the truth lies somewhere between the two, but the problem my students have is that they believe both explanations whole-heartedly.  They think they are stupid and that no one cares enough to really show them how to write.

I do my best to disabuse my students of both these ideas.  One thing I do is offer a journal assignment where they can write whatever they want.  Some of my students tell me things in their journals that they won’t tell anyone else, or perhaps have no one else to tell.  Some take this opportunity to write a poem or think through a problem.  My students are not stupid; they are writers, struggling to find a voice in a world that tries to shut them up.

Here’s a gem from a recent journal:

“Writing is about telling a story that has not been told.  Writing is about treasures found like Diamonds, Rubies, and Gold.  Writing is the recording of great events.  Writing is of a night spent.  Writing is of the Nobel Prize.  Writing is excitement to the readers eyes.  Writing is the tale of foe and fame, and if you are good writing will give you a name.” – By one of my awesome developmental writing students

I hope what they learn in my class is that writing is not about rules, but about freeing the words and ideas that have gone unspoken until now.

Rewriting the Bible

A while back, my Bible class started using something called the 3 Column Bible Study as a tool to better understand scripture.  Here’s how it works: You pick a small passage, copy the scripture in your own hand, rewrite the scripture in your own words, and then create an “I will” statement based on what you learned.

I’ve really enjoyed doing this in the past, always discovering something new about a passage each time I do it, gaining a better understand of who God is and how I can best be His servant.

This week in my devotional, I came across a short passage about anxiety (Philipians 4: 6-7) that I decided to rewrite.

Here’s the actual scripture from the NIV:

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Now here is my rewrite (I always seem to be more long-winded than the authors of the Bible):

“Do not worry about anything — not about your job, not whether your children are safe, not whether your loved one might die.  But in all these circumstances, pray to God.  Show him you are thankful for what he has given you.  Give this worry to God.  He might not change your circumstances, but he will send you the gift of peace.  He will help you change your attitude about whatever you are going through.  This peace that he sends you will work on you in a mysterious way.  Suddenly your world seems blessed instead of down-trodden, suddenly the center of the universe is not your concerns but God’s concerns.”

Honestly, I’m not brave enough to put down an “I will” statement yet.  “I will’s” are a commitment.  I don’t know if I’m honestly ready to give up my anxiety.  Sometimes it forms a security blanket around me because it is all I know, and I trust it.  I would rather trust God, but He is a mysterious character.  I don’t know him as well as I know my anxiety.  Perhaps if I did, my anxiety would be transformed into peace.