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.

Journal Entry June 29, 2018

I am thinking about having students in my writing courses write for seven minutes each class session. I could give them the choice of writing in a journal or in a digital document. I wondered how many words I would write in seven minutes. Here I go.

Of course writing is more than about word count but if there isn’t a minimum word count then there will be a few students that will write something like 17 words, call it a day, and then check their phone or head off to the bathroom. So there needs to be a minimum that they can finish up on their own time.

I feel torn about the WAC class I am to teach. On the one hand, I like thinking of writing studies as a field that can be studied like an Introduction to Psychology class. There is much to be learned for sure. It makes the course more rigorous. Will any of the info stay with the students in the years to come? Will I be able to get the students to engage with texts about how writing works?

Rapid change of topic: can I figure out a way to give the students reading check quizzes online? What platform should I choose that will integrate with Digication, the platform I will use for the students’ to build their ePorts? I haven’t given reading quizzes for years, but I need to use some leverage to get the students to read, right?

On the side opposite the idea for a writing studies class is more of a digital genres kind of class where I can bring in some of my enthusiasm for podcasts, documentaries and working with images and video. There is a more straightforward path I can see to the students enjoying the content and the experience being more memorable for the years to come.

7 minutes is up. Word Count: 312

Welcome to Torg Stories!

Torg Stories is a place for me to write about what tugs at my attention. I spend a lot of my time thinking about writing and the teaching of writing, content creation, and coaching basketball. Over the years, I’ve directed four films, had three books of fiction published, and won several screenplay awards. I’ve organized some of the topics I write about into the following categories:

  1. Youth Basketball Workouts and Player Development
  2. My family’s French Broad River Adventure
  3. The Craft of Writing and Teaching Writing

Like Holden Caulfield says in The Catcher in the Rye, “The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses. It’s more interesting and all.” Rather than chastise myself about too many digressions or what could be seen as a scatterbrained approach to my work, I’ll say my writing here embraces an interdisciplinary way of thinking that allows for more of life to come in from the outside and get onto the screen. A big hope for this space is that it might allow us to learn from each other and share a good story or two. Like this one time, me and my family–having never rafted on our own in our entire lives–rafted 149 miles of the French Broad River…

On the French Broad River Torgerson French Broad River Paddle Trail Asheville Rosman MountainTrue RiverLink

Charlotte, Bill, Izzy and Megan Torgerson with Hot Springs, NC in the Background

A bit more about me: I’m a native Midwesterner who was born in Logansport, Indiana and a person who moved to Illinois to go to college, back to Indiana to teach and coach, to North Carolina for graduate school, to Georgia for more graduate school, to New York City to teach at St. John’s University, to Connecticut to escape the crowds, back to New York City to escape the commute, back to North Carolina for the mountains, back to Indiana to coach, and now we Torgs are getting ready for another move back to North Carolina. Next fall I will begin a lecturer position teaching composition at Appalachian State University in Boone. A few things I learned the past year:

  1. I found it impossible to meet my expectations for the kind of English teacher, basketball coach, husband, and dad I wanted to be balancing all of those responsibilities.
  2. I want to be free in the late afternoons to spend time with my wife and daughters, whether it’s playing hoops, working out, doing homework, creating content, or going on family adventures.
  3. We Torgs feel at home in the mountains of North Carolina.

Below, you’ll see a bit of what I’ve been up to over the years:

Books

Click here for Torg books for sale on Amazon

Indiana, basketball, love, divorce, winamac, Indiana, Pat Conroy, book club

Pat Conroy called The Coach’s Wife“One of the best books about basketball and coaching I have ever read with a love story so complicated and wonderful it will have book groups talking about it for years.”

Thanks to Pat. I learned a lot about writing from reading his work, and I’m thankful to be able to keep hearing from him via his books.

***

MIdwestern Gothic, novel in stories, Winamac, Indiana, basketball, Flannery O'Connor, William Torgerson

Horseshoe is Midwestern Gothic collection of stories with themes about love, sin, guilt, and redemption.

romantic comedy, eighties, John Hughes, Say Anything, Olivet Nazarene University, basketball, college writing, winamac, Indiana, book club

In Love on the Big Screen, Zuke is a college freshman whose understanding of love has been shaped by late-80’s romantic comedies.

Films

morel mushrooms, hunting, Indiana, France Park, Bill William Torgerson, Martin Torgerson

The Mushroom Hunter is about my father and his buddies’ passion for hunting morel mushrooms.

Click here to watch “The Mushroom Hunter” free online.

More Torg Stories films: Christopher’s Garden and For the Love of Books

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

Introductory Letter to Online Writing Students

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Dear Writers Enrolled in Online Composition With Professor Torgerson,

Welcome to the class! I use a metaphor gifted to me by a former professor named Sam to think about my writing and teaching life. It goes, “Writing Floats on a Sea of Conversation.” I didn’t know what the heck Sam was talking about back when he first spoke those words to me, but the phrase has held my interest for the past fifteen years.

Sam and Anne

Sam on the left, who said, “Writing Floats on a Sea of Conversation.”

This idea of conversation works in all sorts of ways. To start off, we are all going to write each other letters in the spirit of what you are reading here. (or in a spirit you prefer) We will do a lot of letter writing in this class because I hope the form will allow you to be yourself. Somehow, many students end up writing in college in some boring voice they consider academic.

Please view the syllabus as a part of the opening to our conversation. I hope you will read  this letter and the syllabus carefully, think over what I’ve said, and say something back to all of us based on what you’ve heard and who you are. Soon, there will be twenty-six voices all in conversation with one another. We’ll do much of this through the use of Google documents. There is something in education called an Electronic Portfolio. Lots of people call these ePorts for short. These ePorts are personal websites on which you will post your writing. Everyone in this class will sign up for Google GMAIL, write in something called Google Documents, and post work on their ePortfolios. I will help you do this. There are lots of tutorials posted online. You can come see me in my office for extra help if you need it. If you have any trouble, I want to help you. Don’t be afraid to email me and ask me questions: torgersw@stjohns.edu

Conversation in the class will continue through your reading of texts written by writers about writing. I’ll ask you to write letters of response. These letters will be the raw materials for the papers you will write. Your assigned papers will be a way to take your letters of response, gather your thoughts, and share them with us in an essay about writing.

When I ask you to read something, keep in mind someone like you and me wrote the text and that writer has a message for us.  Say something back to the writer and to your fellow writers in the class. Try and remember that everything you read and everything you write is a part of a conversation we are all having together about reading, writing, and thinking. The word literacy can cover are work in the areas of reading, writing, and thinking. I hope to empower you to develop your 21st Century Literacy skills.  When we read and write online in conjunction with the screens of our devices, there is a lot at stake: votes are won and lost, money changes bank accounts, and voices are heard and suppressed. Social media and writing on the web allow more ordinary people like us to have voices that must be listened to by big business or government. Writing is a tool that can be used for social change.

Students often tell me this composition course is easy and that it’s hard. (A paradox! How can that be true?) It’s easy because if you read the instructions carefully, do the work, post it on time, and use some of the feedback you receive to plan a revision, you’ll most surely get an “A” or “B.” On the other hand, the class can be hard because you have to be responsible enough to take care of your business. Two times a week you have to read, write, and leave comments on the writing of your classmates. This isn’t the kind of class you can blow off for twelve weeks and then buckle down for a couple of exams and get by with a decent grade. You’ll either be responsible, problem solve, and keep up with the work, or you won’t pass. One of the keys to doing well is staying in touch with me. Be sure to read your emails, work a few days ahead of when assignments are due, and write to me when you have problems. torgersw@stjohns.edu

The technology aspect of this class can be challenging. Mostly we are using Google’s “Drive” and “docs” along with Digication’s ePortfolio platform to do our work and communicate with each other. I will be on the Queens campus at least on Mondays and Thursdays and it might be good to get off to a good start and come in for help setting up Google Documents and the ePortfolio. I’d love to reserve the conference room in the writing center so that we could get together and do this if you need help. There are lots of tutorials online you could also Google. Try something such as “writing in Google docs” on YouTube and be sure to watch more recent videos in case something has changed.

A little about me: I first became an English major as in incoming freshman in 1990 because I was afraid of flunking out. I went to college because I wanted to play basketball, and I wanted to become a basketball coach. Both of my parents were English teachers, and so I figured if I needed help, I could make the two-hour drive home and get some tutoring. (we didn’t have a tutoring center and writing center like St. John’s!) I was so scared of flunking out as a freshman, that I went to the library every night after dinner. Much to my surprise, I made the Dean’s List the first semester. I learned that when I studied every day that I could do well.

SONY DSC

my dad Martin, me, and my mom Sue

I did coach basketball and teach high school English for ten years in Indiana and North Carolina. The more I worked at being a teacher reading and writing, the more I began to enjoy quiet time in the mornings more than my time in the gym after school. I decided to quit coaching, go to graduate school, and try and become a writer and a professor. Over the years, I’ve published three novels with one more coming out next year, and I’ve directed two documentary films. It seems like the students I work with are writing more than ever, especially in conjunction with the screens of devices. My wife Megan and I have two daughters ages five and eight. We rent an old farmhouse in Connecticut out in the country and even have a barn and (non-working) outhouse on the property. How an outhouse doesn’t work is a story for another time. After almost ten years of not coaching basketball, I’m back in the gym two days a week helping to coach my daughter’s 2nd grade girls team. It’s wonderful fun!

SONY DSC

with the girls in Maine

I make time almost everyday for reading and writing. I enjoy working out, and at forty-three years of age, I still play in a basketball league at our local YMCA. I love to teach because I enjoy learning from the writers I work with, and I thrive on the energy that is created as we all work enthusiastically on projects of our choosing. I believe everyone can learn to write more effectively, and it’s important to do this because I believe writing can be a form of thinking. If this is a thinking class, then it can benefit everyone. If we don’t work to become more powerfully literate thinkers, there are lots of people (especially in digital spaces) who will try to manipulate our thoughts and bank accounts. I look forward to all of the conversations we will have this semester!

Best,

Bill Torgerson ncte composition college writing online teaching
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