When I’m looking to give my friends who work 9-5 jobs a hard time, I send them texts like this one:
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.
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:
- Family time including coaching lots of girls basketball
- Build Asheville creative connections: writing, film, comedy, performance
- Write or edit film first thing each morning
- Professional development
- Experiments in building online conversations around this website and the Torg Stories podcast
Projects to Work On:
- Short documentary film about students who come to the United States to study
- Article based on interviews done with students who are studying abroad in the United States
- 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.
- Pitching films to friends that might involve juice cleanses and lawn mower races.
Items for the Daily Schedule:
- Write new stuff or edit film
- Work the girls out
- Teaching prep and reading student work (for summer)
- work out
- Write reflections on reading
- Podcast/blog work
- Professional development (Final Cut Pro X, sound mixing to start)
- look for publishing opportunities for written not published work
- Go out and about and meet people in Asheville
I mostly live in Asheville, North Carolina with my wife and two daughters, but for about thirty-two weeks a year, I spend quite a bit of time in New York City where I teach First Year Writing Courses at St. John’s University. In NYC, I rent a 400 square foot studio apartment in Kew Gardens in the borough of Queens. The place is just a bit bigger than most of the hotel rooms in which I’ve stayed.
People–and these are often people who have a lot of daily family obligations–want to know what I do with all the time I have to myself. Well, for example, here’s what I did last Saturday:
Work / Write
For almost a decade, I was nearly an everyday writer. I’d do an hour or two first thing each morning and that work allowed me to complete a book-length manuscript each year. After all, even with some missed mornings at the writing desk, a page a day allowed me to write over three hundred pages a year. There’s much more to finishing a book than enough pages, but that schedule gave me a manuscript to work with.
Lately, I have not been an everyday writer, but instead I have wrote in binges. Because I’m gone so much during academic semesters, I feel guilty about holing up in my home office to write. I’m also often flying twice a week. This involves catching morning trains or driving about ninety miles from Asheville to Charlotte, and so writing first thing in the morning is often not an option. For the last year, I’ve been writing essays. This lets me take some days off and then spend many hours for a few days in a row to pump out drafts of essays. If I’m writing novel, I need to write everyday to keep my head in it. When I’m doing essays, it’s not so hard to start from the beginning the next time I have a few days in a row to binge work.
On this particular Saturday I’m telling you about, I spent the morning sending out essays (and one story) for consideration of publication.
At home in Asheville, I get up to see everyone off to school. Indy the dog needs walked. She needs to be told to be quiet when she barks at everyone who ever walks by our house. There are dishes in the washer to put away. Dry cleaning needs to be picked up. One of the cars needs an oil change. The grass needs cut. I think I’ll paint lines on the basketball court. I’ve got plans for a green-screen wall in the garage. You get the idea. You probably know what its like. There’s a lot that asks to be done everyday.
In New York, I often wake up with no obligations other than to answer email and read student work. The small studio is clean. I already washed the one dish and glass I used the night before. All that awaits are long hours at the writing desk, something every writer says they crave. I’ve learned that I can’t do much more than three hours straight at the desk. I can do more than one three hour stretch a day, but I need a break and usually my breaks are working out.
I run and lift weights. There’s a little gym in the basement of my building. I often go down there twice a day, once to lift and a second time to walk on the treadmill or ride the exercise bike and watch sports. I figure riding the bike and watching sports beats (at least long-term) drinking a beer and eating nachos in my studio while watching sports. You might be surprised what a great place Queens can be to run.
Stand Up Comedy
I like comedy, and I think that’s because of the writing. I’m interested in what makes a story funny and the creative process that takes an idea and evolves it into something that a comedian performs. My favorite places for comedy are the Comedy Cellar and both locations of the Upright Citizens Brigade.
On this night, I took in a comedic double header. First, I saw Mike Birbiglia perform his “Thank God For Jokes” at the Lynn Redgrave Theater in the East Village. Mike’s act is heavily informed by his Catholic education. He says something like, “I did the program,” by which he means Catholic high school and college. Here’s a memorable line from Mike’s show:
Jesus was the original Bernie Sanders.
-Mike Birbiglia in “Thank God For Jokes”
Mike notes that Jesus, like Bernie, was a Jewish Socialist. Before this performance, my favorite stuff from Birbiglia was his film (available on Netflix at the time of this writing) Sleepwalk With Me. I thought the performance I saw was Mike’s best work yet, and I highly recommend the show.
To get to Manhattan, I took the Long Island Railroad to Penn Station. From there, I walked the two miles from the station to the East Village and the theater.
Comedy Part II
The back half of my night of comedy was at the improv at the Upright Citizen Brigade’s East Village location. I saw a show called “What I Did For Love.” The troupe brings up an audience member for an interview on stage about their love life. Then the performance is based on information derived in the interview. The whole thing felt like a relative to my novel Love on the Big Screen and my enthusiasm for the decade of the eighties.
I feel at home with the people who attend shows at UCB. They feel like people who like to talk about making stuff, and they enjoy attending a performance where people make stuff on the fly. I’m especially interested in the structure that informs improv. I recently obtained The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual. I think this summer will probably bring some improv exercises for the whole family in the living room.
The Saturday night I’ve described above is a bit uncommon for all of its late-night activity. On most days in New York, (sorry to disappoint) I meet my teaching obligations, write, workout, write some more, workout again, and then I read or watch movies in the evening.
The not-so-great part about going into the city is either waiting for the train to take me back out to Queens or the long ride back on the subway that can take up to an hour. So I figured that while I was making the trip into Manhattan, I take in two of my favorite things about being in New York.
Thanks so much for checking in on the site and reading my post. It’s fun to make stuff, but it’s also fun to have a few readers. I appreciate you!
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:
- We write regularly for an audience we interact with.
- We read what other writers have to say about writing.
- We write to learn by situating our thoughts and reflections about writing within what other writers have written about writing.
- 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
April 14th, 2015 Torg Stories Podcast: The Film Birdman, Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and his essay “On Writing.” Also, Coach Steve Lavin’s departure from St. John’s University and the new hire of Chris Mullin.