Writing with Nothing to Say: Journal July 2, 2018

Today is the first day I’ve sat down to write without knowing what I would say. Obviously, I could have just not written, but if I ask students to write regularly, they are going to be in this same spot, and I want to try and do what I will ask them to do: write when they don’t feel like they have something to say.

Is it my job–as the writing teacher–to help students make words come? Last school year, I noticed that many of the students in the classes I taught had trouble making words come. According to something Greenwood High School called the Senior Capstone Project, the students had to write twelve 200-word reflective journal entries. Lots of students could only come up with a sentence or two. I worked with many of these during free time at lunch or after school. I found myself asking questions like this:

  • Before the year started, what did you think about the project? Did you have any idea what your topic would be? Did you know anyone who had worked on the project? What did they say about it?

Students would write something like this: I went to see my mentor. The meeting went well. He showed me a project proposal. 

writer's block, fluency, journal writing

facing the blank page

I thought I could get the students writing more toward their 200 words. I’d ask them where their mentor worked. I’d ask them where they met. I’d ask if they were nervous. I’d ask who talked first. I tried to get the students to just go into more detail and make what they were writing a story of the meeting. I would tell the students that the answers to my questions should be put into the writing.

I thought my questions should fire the catalyst to write 200 words, but I found that I had to keep asking questions until the student reached the minimum writing requirement. The students hadn’t had much practice making words come when they needed words to come. Is this something that matters?

7 min writing word count: 337

Maybe next time:

  • Vonnegut’s writing desk
  • Memorable or useful experiences in the writing classroom
  • Somewhere to Live.
  • Places I’ve Lived.
  • Gluten for Punishment.

To Create, Consume, and Be Consumed: #FridayReads

That phrase content consumed strikes me as on the crude side when it comes to reading a work of art created by a writer or watching a film that is the vision of a director. However, I’m going to share some of the content I’ve consumed and want to consume as the beginning of a conversation with you all about some of the good stuff you have watched, read, or listened to. My lists are below and I hope you’ll add some of what you have watched, listened to, or read in the comments section at the bottom of this page!

I hope to make this a regular Torg Stories post.

Torg Stories, podcast, writing, Bill Torgerson, This American Life, Longform, The Ringer, SI Media Podcast

the podcast app on my iPhone

Content I listened to, watched, or read…

  • “The Fix is In” on This American Life podcast. About price fixing.  It was the Matt Damon movie called The Informant. Didn’t see that one but thinking about watching it. Hard to fit movies in these days unless they are 8 and 10 year old girl appropriate.
  • Longform podcast “The Really Big One” podcast. About the imminent earthquake in the Northwest. After listening to this, I also read Kathryn Schulz’s New Yorker article of the same title. Click here to read that.
  • Graeme Simson’s novel The Rosie Project. A researcher who probably has a degree of Asperger’s Syndrome devises a grand plan to find a wife that involves passing out questionnaires to women at parties. Hilarity ensues!  I highly recommend and thanks to my friend Katie for sending it my way!
  • I’m reading The French Broad by Wilma Dykeman as I begin a writing and film project something along the lines of “On the French Broad.” If that’s too broad (pun intended) then maybe “Asheville on The French Broad”? I hope to take a look at who is on the river, how I might navigate it with my family, and the political and social issues that surround the water. While reading this book published in 1955, I have learned to think more complexly about where men fought during the Civil War in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee, AND I learned a really interesting story about how Dr. Mitchell lost his life on the mountain that now bears his name.

I want to read, listen to, or watch…

  • Kathryn Schulz’s book Being Wrong and maybe watch her accompanying TED Talk. Given the number of views the talk has, looks like I’ll be about the last one to see this one.
  • Rob Sheffield’s book On Bowie. I read the first 20 pages while my family browsed in the local bookstore. I skipped ahead and read the last ten, AND I’m still going to buy this book and read it all again. I really loved Sheffield’s book Love is a Mix Tape, and I liked Talking to Girls About Duran Duran and Turn Around Bright Eyes about singing karaoke. I like Rob Sheffield’s writing almost as much as I like Nick Hornby’s writing. I also often suggest the fill in the blank “On ________________” to students who can’t think of a title. For example “On Being a Father to Girls” or “Notes On My First Trip to Madison Square Garden.”
  • I can’t wait to watch Lorne Michaels on Jerry Seinfeld’s web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. One of my fantasies for myself is to be a sort of Lorne Michaels of Asheville in putting together a local version of SNL.

 

And finally, what I’m working on…

  • I’m 9,000 words into an essay about my experience participating in what is called The 48 Hour Film Project for the third straight year in Asheville.
  • I’m planning to reshoot a few scenes, hopefully in the next week, to clean up the Torg Stories short film, “Captain Ice Cream.”
  • I’ve scheduled an interview with a representative of MountainTrue and a man who is the French Broad Riverkeeper about issues that surround the river in Asheville. This is the beginning of work that I hope will lead to a writing and film project about The French Broad and the people who use
  • I taped an interview for an upcoming Torg Stories podcast with Peter Gregutt. I met Peter when he worked with me as an editor on a piece published in Asheville’s Mountain Xpress titled “How Christopher Mello Sows Peace and Community in his West Asheville Garden.”  When I learned Peter had climbed volcanoes in Guatemala, trekked the Himalayas, and spontaneously took a boat to Africa, I wanted to get him on the podcast. I was interested in his time in New York City studying English at Colombia, that he’d spent decades as an editor, and grabbed hold of the phrase Armpit Traveller as a title for a travel themed collection he’d written.

 

In the comments section below, let me know what you’ve read, watched, or listened to that I should take a look at. Thanks for joining the conversation!

 

 

Home Till January: Plans for Research Leave

When I’m looking to give my friends who work 9-5 jobs a hard time, I send them texts like this one:

WorkText

Before texting my buddy, the plan for this post was to go on to explain that even though I technically don’t have to be back on campus for another 238 days, there’s actually a lot of work to be done. That thought was inspired by those who say to my wife, “Since Bill’s not working…”

There is an online course to teach this summer that involves a lot of preparation before it begins, and once it starts a lot of reading and responding to online texts and emails. I always say I like to read student writing, but sometimes there is just too much of it. However, nothing like a glimpse into my friend’s Office Space work life to spur me on to try and make the most of this opportunity I have to be away from campus.

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one of my fav scenes from 1999 film Office Space

At St. John’s University where I teach, we faculty are fortunate enough that we still have the opportunity to be granted research leave. I was granted leave for the fall semester, and I’m feeling pressure to get myself organized to make sure I don’t misuse my opportunity. I know that I can be productive, but I want to be the right kind of productive. Below are some of the lists I’ve been working on so far.

Three Big Points of Emphasis:

  1. Family time including coaching lots of girls basketball
  2. Build Asheville creative connections: writing, film, comedy, performance
  3. Write or edit film first thing each morning
  4. Professional development
  5. Experiments in building online conversations around this website and the Torg Stories podcast

Projects to Work On:

  1. Short documentary film about students who come to the United States to study
  2. Article based on interviews done with students who are studying abroad in the United States
  3. Essays for a collection perhaps titled A Yankee in the South: Tales of a Native Hoosier… I don’t know what the end of that title is. When I first started dating my wife Megan, her mother used to tell people her daughter was “dating a Yankee.”  I’ve since learned that if you’re from places like Alabama, then the folks in Tennessee might be thought of as Northerners.
  4. Pitching films to friends that might involve juice cleanses and lawn mower races.

Items for the Daily Schedule:

  1. Write new stuff or edit film
  2. Work the girls out
  3. Teaching prep and reading student work (for summer)
  4. work out
  5. Read
  6. Write reflections on reading
  7. Podcast/blog work
  8. Professional development (Final Cut Pro X, sound mixing to start)
  9. look for publishing opportunities for written not published work
  10. Go out and about and meet people in Asheville
FullSizeRender (1)

the master plan for research leave is still evolving

 

 

 

 

The Video Essay

Anxiety and Relationship Goals in the Video Essay

I teach First Year Writing courses at St. John’s University, and for the first time this semester, I assigned what we called a video essay. I’ve previously asked students to create short documentary films before, but I decided to make the video essay an option after the work I saw on the website StoryCenter.

When writing incorporates some combination of text, images, links, sound, and video, it is called multimodal writing. I ask my students to do digital multimodal writing because of the degree to which their reading, writing, and thinking happens in conjunction with the screens of their devices. I think the less students read and publish in digital spaces, the more they are likely to be manipulated by them.

relationships, anxiety, video essay, college writing

screenshot from Jessica’s video essay

If you’d like to see the directions I gave the class for the video essay, you can click here.

Two of my students gave me permission to share their essays. I think you’ll really enjoy them!

Here is Jessica’s essay about relationship goals:

And here is Jisan’s about anxiety:

Thanks for taking the time to check out some of what we were up to this semester!

Assignment Overview: A Writer on Writing

For an upcoming meeting at St. John’s University where I teach First Year Writing Courses, I was asked to speak about some aspect of my teaching. I decided to share an assignment I’ve been giving the past few years I call “A Writer on Writing.”

Some ways we learn about writing in our course:

  1. We write regularly for an audience we interact with.
  2. We read what other writers have to say about writing.
  3. We write to learn by situating our thoughts and reflections about writing within what other writers have written about writing.
  4. We learn to read like a writer by paying attention to choices writers make in their creation of texts.

Here are some examples of the kinds of texts students take a look at: 

  • Zadie Smith’s “That Crafty Feeling”
  • Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts”
  • Keith Richards’ excerpt from Life about songwriting
  • Stephen King excerpt from On Writing
  • Alice Walker interview “Writing to Save My Life”
  • Mark Doty’s “Souls on Ice”
  • Amy Tan’s “Mother Tongue”
  • Do you have favorite texts about writing to recommend?

My introduction to this assignment from the course I taught this summer:

At least in this class, you have been a writer writing with other writers. I want you to claim this identity of being a writer for at least the purpose of this paper. You are the writer saying something about writing in this paper. My impulse to give you this assignment was that you would tell us about your experiences writing in this class while integrating the thoughts of writers you have been reading.

I do want to give you the space to do something different with this assignment if you’d like. Some students in the past have decided to focus on their learning of English, their dislike of writing, their wish to write screenplays, that they do slam poetry, that they speak five languages, or to think about the writing they publish on Twitter or other social media platforms. It’s a wide-open assignment as long as you focus in some way on writing and/or the use of language. Write at least 1,500 words and quote from at least three of the Writer on Writing texts (Peter Elbow counts as one if you want). You’ll use signal phrases, direct quotes, parenthetical citations, and do an MLA works cited page.

Some titles and “Golden Lines” from papers written by students the past few semesters:

  • I Dare You: I hate what they’ve done to me. They’ve made me into a robot. They’ve made my writing into a Mad Lib. Insert noun here, adjective there, quote here, citation there.” -Tatiana Castellanos
  • Writing for Me: In high school, we were assigned a paper and whenever it was due we would just hand it in to the teacher hoping to get a high grade. Having classmates listen along as you read your paper was something I’d never done before. Something I realized while writing papers in this class was that I was afraid. In “The Teacherless Writing Class” by Peter Elbow, he claims, “You have to keep from making apologies or giving explanations. For example, ‘I just wrote this last night, I didn’t have much time and didn’t revise it at all’” (101). Even though I felt self-conscious and uncomfortable reading my paper to people who were then strangers to me, I stopped myself from making excuses about my writing and waited for their criticism. What surprised me was the amount of positive feedback they had to say about my paper. -Sharin Chowdury
  • Learning to Write an Essay: Have you ever been afraid of doing something? For example, have you ever been afraid of talking to people? Or have you ever been scared of opening your mouth and saying something in your head? I have. I am a student from China still trying to learn English. -Xinxin He
  • Writing Does Not Have to Be a Burden: I remember that my classmate Farzana Haniff wrote in her process essay about how she kept erasing and rewriting her essay about her trip to Guyana because she thought it wasn’t good enough. Then she wrote about how she was able to get over her writer’s block which I think serves as great piece of advice. She wrote, “I decided to just go with my gut and to just continue writing whatever came to my mind. So I completely ignored the ‘delete’ button on my laptop and I just kept typing without even fixing spelling errors.” I thought about what Farzana wrote whenever I encounter the same problem of erasing and rewriting and it has helped me over think less about my writing choices. -Sammie Li
  • The Little Big Things: The writing process was tricky for me. I wanted to avoid being cliché and dull but when trying to write about something of this content, it can be difficult. During this process the reading from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott reminded me that no matter how successful a writer is they often feel like they are “pulling teeth, even those writers whose prose ends up being the most natural and fluid” (22). This told me that it was okay that I was having a difficult writing process; I simply had to feel it out and roll with the punches. -Sarah Khan