Podcast on The Craft of Writing Memoir: Derek Owens’ Memory’s Wake

The craft of writing memoir and the subject of recovered memories and post traumatic stress syndrome were among the topics as I visited with St. John’s University English Professor and Vice Provost Dr. Derek Owens. His latest book is entitled Memory’s Wake and tells the story of an abusive relationship between his grandmother and mother. The book is part memoir, part biography, and part research project. Owens is also the author of a book about the teaching of writing I really enjoyed called Composition and Sustainability: Teaching for a Threatened Generation.

You can listen to the podcast below or via iTunes by searching for Prof. Torg’s Read, Write, and Teach Digital Book Club. Also, you can help the podcast attract listeners if you’ll take the time to “rate it.”  Link to iTunes and the podcast page here.

Derek Owens Memory's Wake William Torgerson St. John's University writing memoir

So that you can get a sense of our discussion, I’m including my questions below:

  1. Memory’s Wake is your telling of the abuse relationship between your grandmother and your mother. You also include a lot of the history of upstate New York and research about memory and abuse. So it’s part memoir, part biography, and part research project. Is that a fair description? As to the question, what’s Memory’s Wake about, would you have anything to add?
  2. I’ve latched onto the phrase, “Every Story Has a Story.” By that, I mean for every story we hear or read, that story has it’s own history of how it was written.  This book tells a story that began before you were born. When did you start messing with it in a way that you thought you might write about it?
  3. I want to talk about the rules that govern the conventions of this text. I don’t mean rules I’d find in a grammar handbook. I mean that this book has it’s own rules for how it was written.  To mention a few examples, the sentences don’t start with capital letters, you don’t seem concerned about complete sentences, sometimes you attribute sources and sometimes you don’t, and there’s a lot of play with margins.  I’m guessing you tinkered with that a lot.  The book doesn’t have chapters. Some pages just have one little black and white picture.  There’s heavy use of italics in places. Can you tell me about how you arrived at the published form?
  4. At what points in writing this story did you think it wouldn’t get finished or published? How did you push through those points? What was driving you to get it done and out into publication?
  5. Can you talk to me about how research works in this book?  I’ll tell you what I think I’ve inferred and you can correct me and add to what I’ve said. I think I see excerpts from your mother’s journals, stories told to you by family members, books or articles you’ve read, and visits to places in upstate New York.  I’ll dig in on a couple of these after I hear your answer.
  6. What was the result of writing this book? To you? What do you know/understand that you didn’t understand before? Is your take on memoir different than it was before?  Did the writing of this cause you to remember anything new or see your own childhood in a different way?

The podcast was recorded with a Blue Snowball mic via Garage Band and a MacBook. You can read more about the book and its publisher, Spuyten Duyvil, here.  You can also listen to the podcast below or via iTunes by searching for Prof. Torg’s Read, Write, and Teach Digital Book Club. Please take time to “rate it.”  Link to iTunes and the podcast page here.

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Facebook and Blogs as Instruments for World Peace?

from Bruce Barrett founder of IWAGEPEACE.ORG

When I started to make the mental move from basketball coach to writer (not that a person couldn’t be both) the two writer/teachers I began to read were Donald Murray and Peter Elbow.   Many of the professors and teachers around me let me know that these two men were considered to be from the “expressive” school of composition and that if I followed their methods then my classroom would not be a place for political and social change.   In the years that have followed, I have not found the warnings about expressivism’s lack of political impact to be true.

In the writing classrooms I inhabit, my students write in what Murray called a daybook (think writer’s journal) and they use Peter Elbow’s guidelines for sharing their work with one another, and what happens after that often takes on political implications for the classroom and beyond.

What follows are my notes for the reading of a text I choose because I’m thinking about technology, multimodal texts, and how those terms relate to the act of writing.  The text did its work of giving me more to consider, but it also got me to thinking about the social and political change that occurs when people read and write together, whether this happens passing sheets of paper back and forth, posting on Facebook, or creating websites.  If you have any doubt about a blog’s ability to spread any sort of message, take a glance at the map that goes with this blog and check out the location of some of its readers.  Whoa.

Here are some “Golden Lines” and some of my thoughts related to Kathleen Blake Yancey’s “Made Not Only in Words:  Composition in a New Key.” 56:2  CCC. December 2004.

  • “Never before has the proliferation of writings outside the academy so counterpointed the compositions inside” (298).  My students write regularly on blogs and I have them form groups to investigate an issue within writing studies, write a collaborative research paper, and present it to the class via a multimodal text.  While those are activities within the courses I teach, I also talk daily about scholarly sources, signal phrases, parenthetical citations, and an MLA works cited page.  I was just walking to class and thinking about how few of my students will use these “skills” (what else to call them?) after college.  I was also thinking how rarely I use those skills in my writing. If I were a teacher and writer mostly publishing in scholarly journals, I would use these features of writing a lot, but I think of myself as a novelist, a short story writer, and an essayist.  Most of the reading I do does not contain parenthetical citations.  I hang onto to teaching that part of writing because my students are mostly just getting started at the university and I imagine that they will have to do this sort of writing to successfully navigate the university.  If the latter is true (that students will read scholarly sources and write research papers) then I think the quote from the Yancey article that begins this bullet is an observation worth consideration.
  • “How is it that what we teach and what we test can be so different from what our students know as writing?” (298).  I want to take my students beyond what they know as writing.  I want them to think critically about the texts that bombard them.  I want them to equate writing with thinking, to begin to see the phrases that ripple across their mind as revisable thoughts.
  • “At best, it could help foster a world peace never known before” (301).  We weren’t blogging in my courses yet, but this sentence reminds me of my own classroom, where the Jewish immigrant from Russia became best friends with the Muslim student from Pakistan.  These students wrote about the world was set up for them to hate one another but our classroom at St. John’s University became a space where they could work together and become friends.
  • “At this moment, we need to focus on three changes:  Develop a new curriculum; revisit and revise our writing-across-the-curriculum efforts; and develop a major in composition and rhetoric” (308).  Sentences such as this one cause me to wonder my place in Writing Studies, as a professor with an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English Education.  Writing Studies sounds like something to which I can belong while an Undergraduate Major in Composition sounds more like something within which I will always be slightly unqualified to teach, at least when it comes to my terminal degree.
  • “In composition, we need to learn how to read and write e-texts–synthesizing, questioning, evaluating, and importing from them–databases and catalogues, hyper-texts and archives, Web essays and portfolios” (318).    If you are already trying to teach students to be critical–to question information as it comes toward their thinking–then I don’t think this seems like such a big step, at least the first part.  Read and write online, perhaps watch various online video including documentaries, and apply Yancey’s “synthesizing, questioning….”  As I write this, I hear many of my students telling me how much they hate the “critical lens” assignment.  Many of my students are being asked to do something they despise in whatever they mean when they say “critical lens.”  I don’t think reading and writing have to be things to be dreaded.
  • With regards to technology, especially something such as a set of Power Point Slides, “If we continue to partition it off as just something technical, or outside the parameters governing composing, or limit it to the screen of the course management system, or think of it in terms of the bells and whistles and templates of the PowerPoint screen, students in our classes learn only to fill in those electric boxes–which, in their ability to invite intellectual work, are the moral equivalent of the dots on a multiple choice test” (320).  I think the E-Portfolio has the strong potential for becoming the new five paragraph essay, a prefabricated form which limits thinking.

Teaching Summer Composition: WordPress Blogs in the Writing/English Classroom

Worth reading: WordPress Blogs IN DEPTH by Bud Smith and Michael McCallister

If anyone has suggestions, I’d love to hear what you think about the following plan:  this summer, for the two sections of composition I’m teaching, I plan to start my own Prof. Torg WordPress blog and have each student writer create a blog of their own.  I’ll have a blog roll (or list of links/same thing?) running down the right edge of my webpage, and all the writers in the class will find each other’s work in that way.  It will be up to each individual student whether or not they want to make their blog public.  I’m leaning towards keeping mine private at first to be safe, but I’d prefer to have it public.

Here’s a list of the main reasons I’m doing this:

  • Each writer has quite a bit of ability in WordPress to customize their own page.
  • Each writer can “tag” or “categorize” their posts.
  • Writers can be referred to other blogs of similar tags or categories.
  • Students will have an authentic audience of each other and if they so choose, an even broader one online.

Page Customization:

There are 99 or so various themes that a person can choose when they set up a WordPress blog.  This seems fun to me, sort of like setting up my office, maybe thinking about the sort of clothes that will define my style, or customizing my character when I play Wii Rock Band.  Last semester, I used NING in conjunction with my course, and there was some capability for each student to make the page look like they wanted it to.  I didn’t even realize this possibility as I started the semester of teaching, but many of my students found their way to this option and did it all on their own.  This seems in tune with what drives people to set up their phones or choose something different for the background on their computers, and exactly the opposite of how many classrooms are set up.  They are set up vanilla; the WordPress blog can be Rocky Road.

I haven’t set down all my philosophical reasons for this, but we all write better, or at least class and the reading we do is more interesting, when we get to know one another.  Some people are great at getting to know people face to face.  Some people can rise up out of a classroom like a whale jumping from the ocean and get noticed.  Others are more quiet, practically invisible, but online they can show their stuff, create a presence on a webpage they don’t create in face-to-face classroom situations.

There’s more to page customization, and I’m just learning about all the possibilities:  various widgets, customized headers, and ways to link to Facebook and Twitter.  When I earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Georgia College and State University, I used to have this professor, Dr. Dan Bauer, who was always asking us how we knew we were smart or how our students were becoming smarter.  He was very proud that one of his students who was teaching composition answered his question by saying that her students were smart because they realized that writers make choices and they were becoming more aware of all the choices they could make.   I think customizing a WordPress blog has a lot in common with thinking about how one might open a piece of writing.  There are lots of choices and one of the first steps to gaining an audience is to realize that these choices exist.  Otherwise you’re stuck with that typical opening:  In this world today, there are many problems…

Tags and Categories

On WordPress, the blogger has the option to tag their post, which means they are asked to choose keywords that relate to what they’ve just written.  This is good for at least two things.  First, it’s helpful for the writer to think about the key points that they think they are going to write about.  Perhaps the “tag” is a descendant of the topic sentence or the thesis statement.  It’s also sort of psychologically interesting to review one’s tags, to see that when you have the choice to write about anything, what is it that you choose.  There’s also this widget called “Tag Cloud” which will display your key words and make the ones you use the most the largest.  It’s a bit disturbing to me to see that “colonoscopy” still looms large in my tag cloud.

The tags work another way too, perhaps my favorite way.  They give the writers in my class practice at thinking about search words.  Even more than that, I hope that each time my students come to class, the notion of search words is raised in their consciousness.  I watch students all the time try and search a database or even Google, only to give up quickly because they can’t “find any good information.”  What they can’t see, is all the times I’ve tried to search in a database only to have to start over using different keywords.  The less I know about what I’m researching, the more I stink at knowing what words to put in.  That’s when I have to do some reading, so I can learn some important words within the field, so that I can return to the search windows with better words to plug in there.  As my students move from writing and tagging their own posts, to doing research, I hope that this tagging experience will help them move more confidently into using the same kinds of words to find other writers who write about their burgeoning intellectual interests.

Conversation Among Bloggers

There’s something in WordPress called “Tag Surfer.”  For example, I’ve got this novel coming out next January tightly connected to eighties romantic comedies, and I could type in “Cusack” and “Say Anything,” and be presented with a bunch of recent blog posts related to those to tag words.  If I’ve got something to say about Cusack or a John Hughes’s movie, I’m not the only person in the world who has thoughts on the subject.  WordPress can in no time give a literal example of what I find very difficult to teach my students.  If someone is writing about moving from Korea to Queens, NY, they are not the only one writing on this topic, and the databases are even full of scholarly articles related to the subject.  It’s not as easy for me to show this in a database as it is to show it on WordPress.  Also it’s probably not as initially interesting to my students.  On WordPress, the students can quickly experience the conversation that surrounds whatever it is that they’re interested in and then we can all take that experience into the databases when it comes time to do our work in there.  When I ask the writers in my classes who else is writing about their topic, or who the major voices in their field of study are, we can all look back to our WordPress blogging experiences as a foundation for which to understand our scholarly research.  Our use of WordPress can help our understanding of the meaning of a phrase such as “professional conversation.”


Audience is a quick teacher.  It’s that magic weight-loss pill that so many people seem to be looking for.  My students’ writing instantly changes once they realize that their texts are going to–at the least–be read by a writing group in class and not just me.  It’s easy to flip me, the professor, a last-second text and not care if it’s any good or not.  This is not so easy for the students to do to one another.  In general, they don’t want to bore each other.  I am not trying to embarrass anyone; I am trying to put them in conversation with one another.  Students generally think they stink at writing (something they have been taught by teachers I call “-5 sentence fragment” teachers) and so they are at first scared to share, but then also happy to see that nobody else’s writing (especially mine) is perfect.  I don’t even address anyone’s fears about sharing in a group.  I ask students to read their work; I give them the option of somebody else reading their work if they don’t’ want to, and the writing gets read and heard.

Just last night, my wife was compiling her first ever post for her new blog Vegan Mom.  She was deep in concentration, probably irritated that I wouldn’t shut up, and suddenly remarked, “I don’t think I have this in the right order.”  I’d never heard her say anything like this.  My wife certainly does not think of herself as a writer, but she’s written lots of papers for her masters in reading ,and there all of the sudden,  she was making an observation that doesn’t come up very naturally in the classes I teach.  She was making an observation about structure.  What does my reader need to know when?  Not long after her first comment, she said, “This is boring.  I need to put some personality in there.”  Her teacher, if that’s the right word, was that she had an audience, the one she knew waited for her when she hit the WordPress “publish” button.

I first started to think hard about audience when I realized how much I learned from reading the work of my students.  I let them write about whatever they want and so they often to choose to write about where they are from or a topic within their academic major.  Since my students come from all over the world and they’re in the pharmacy program, the physician’s assistant program,  a history major, or business management, they teach me a lot about their interests.  One of the criteria I push students towards, one I have not always stuck to very tightly in my blogging life, is that a reader ought to learn something each time they turn the page.  My students often execute this very well, and so I know a lot more after I finish reading a stack of student writing than I did before I started.  It used to be that I was the only one who benefited from this.  Now my students are part of each others’ education.  Before, they just shared space.  My classroom has become a place where students might make friends.


Perhaps I don’t need to start a new Prof. Torg blog and there is a way that I could manage my summer classes with this one.  Possibly WordPress doesn’t appreciate me having twenty-five or so students putting up blogs, blogs that might die along with the end of the course.   Surely this happens all the time?  I anticipate others having objections related to making someone blog, to abuse the genre in that way.  I guess I’ll find out.  It’s here that I trust conversation, and this time, in a new way within the blogging world and in Facebook and Twitter where these words go first.  I know that I could spend a long time researching all this, but so far, if I can keep from embarrassing myself to much, I like to speak into the world I’m trying to become familiar with.  So here I am now, explaining a plan for my summer teaching, pretty sure that I’m going to hear back from people with various niches of expertise.

Bill Torgerson, Assistant Professor, Institute For Writing Studies, St. John’s University, torgersw@stjohns.edu