Choices, Determination, Purpose, Writing

Treat Jar


The professor wears plaid clogs.  She strides into the conference room, bold black and gray swimming around feet sheathed in silver-threaded socks.  I tell her I like her style.  She tells me that every time she hits a professional milestone, she buys herself shoes.  She can stand in her closet and scan the trajectory of her career: her first publication shoes, her first edited volume shoes.  The plaid clogs?  Tenure-track shoes.

“What’s next?” I ask.

“Full professor, going up next year.”

“Have you scoped out the shoes?”

She shakes her head.  “Oh no, that would jinx it.”  Then she grins.  “Which is a total lie.  There are these boots,” she sort of moans.  “Boots and a whole new outfit to go with them.”

This concept mystifies me.  One friend picks out a fancy purse for every promotion or raise.  Coach, Kate Spade, Louis Vuitton.  Another takes herself on a cruise.  I clap along but something rankles.  We’re dogs now?  We get cookies for every well-timed wiggle?

Continue reading “Treat Jar”


Murder your Darlings

Last night’s writing meetup began with a lively critique of a zero draft. Building a frame from the pulpy beginning is the most entertaining part of the process. It’s a barn-raising. “Develop the scaffolding like this.” “It needs a 10-point list and then the explanation.” “You’ve got to figure out which of these two things you are doing, because right now you’re trying to do both and it’s not working.” The author, all grace and nods, filled three pages with notes. She knew she had brought us rubbish. Her excitement about taking the suggestions home was infectious and everyone was giggling by the end of the discussion.
It turns out proofreading for a government contracting journal can be more pleasant than a root canal.
The benefits of writing group participation are obvious to anyone who has been in one. We know anecdotally that the combination of camaraderie, accountability, and feedback keep us moving towards better work. If only my frazzled doctoral students would drink the kool-aid. They hear it from everyone then hear ten more times from me: Cobble a group together early. Like first-year early, well before you head off to the Balkans or Omaha or wherever your research strands you. Before you discover you must birth this monster all alone.
Curious about the scholarship out there on writing groups for graduate students and hoping to find a study correlating participation and degree completion (I didn’t), I dug around in the education literature. The piece I wrote on the topic, Writing Better Together, notes that the intuitive benefits of group participation are supported by the research. Students who participate in groups report improvements in output, skills, and confidence.
Surely, we hoi polloi can glean a thing or two from the findings. Here is one: Groups with diverse membership showed the greatest gains. The ideal setup is a mix of native and non-native English speakers with various levels of experience and a mix of research interests. Participants are forced into a greater awareness of the reader and more dexterous communication with a wide range of audiences.
Here is another: Some folks complain that groups are a time-suck and that energy is better spent attending to one’s own work. This doesn’t pan out. Collaboration and group participation contribute to productivity, even when the attention is on others’ material. Beyond the obvious improvement from receiving feedback, folks are often surprised at how much their own writing develops as a result of giving feedback. The reciprocal advantages of peer tutoring help explain why attending to the form style, and clarity of some other fella’s work can improve the writing of the one doing the critiquing.
Finally, a good writing group thwarts the doubt, insecurity, and fear of rejection gumming up the works. Regardless of variance in skill levels and topics, folks who stick by one another report being more productive, confident, and motivated to write.
We are lucky. Our first Tuesday meetup has a solid core surrounded by a porous outer layer. The folks who stick with it have come to depend on each other. Taking our work out of our private alcoves and placing it into rough, human hands makes it better. Or rather, it makes us better at making it. Signing on forces the choice: improve or keep hiding.
Last night near the end of the gathering, our own Sir Edmund Hillary led us into a heady conversation about criticism. “What was the best critique you ever received?” Around we went, re-living the mortification of having mentors and friends pierce our inflated egos. Here are some of the scars that make us marginally better today than we were yesterday:

  • Where’s the “so what”?
  • The first draft is always garbage.
  • Clear writing = clear thinking.
  • The reader doesn’t care about this subject unless you are in love with it.
  • Don’t be boring.
  • Be the reader’s surrogate.
  • Murder your darlings.

We go home and hammer away at our projects. Someone who knows we are capable of better and more will be asking us about it in four weeks’ time.
Commitment is a cruel mistress. She cracks the whip.
Now, how to get my students to enlist?

Children, Happy Days, Parenting

Happy 100 Days: 38

When I picked Tee and Bug up from the airport on Friday night, the kiddo was on the brink of tears. In the car, I finally pried it out of him. “I don’t want to go to school tomorrow,” he sobbed.
“Oh, buddy,” I smiled. “It’s Friday today. Do you know what that means?”
“No.” He was rubbing his eyes. The flight was five hours from Seattle.
“It means the whole weekend is still ahead of us. You were just away for a week of Thanksgiving vacation, and we have two more days before school.”
And so it was that this morning, Bug crawled into my bed at 5:54 and told me he had been awake “for hours.” I told him my bed was only available to sleepy people. Funny how quickly he gave in.
These little dawn cuddles usually don’t last more than 20 minutes. This morning’s lasted for nearly three hours. We snored there together, right on past sunrise, right on past the honking geese and the snoofling dog. We had the yummiest, snooziest lie-in we have had in all of the six years Bug has been on this planet. When we finally roused ourselves, we stayed put, smooshing and talking about dreams and such for the other half of the morning.
It was a day of firsts, apparently. The sleep-in kicked off one of the most therapeutic home-bound Sundays on record. I didn’t even have weekends like this before Bug was born. We did watercolors and coloring books, made soft pretzels from scratch, built a railroad station out of legos complete with a border guard and a city park. We both enjoyed completely unplanned sleep-where-you-fall naps sometime around mid-day. We stayed in our pajamas until nearly 3:00pm, and we only dressed then so we would be warm enough to romp around the playground in the afternoon sun.
We never got in the car. We didn’t spend a penny. We only argued once, and it was finished in minutes with a hug and dinner.
Somewhere in there, I finally got around to creating a homework nook where Bug can plop down when we arrive home from school. This has been one of those lingering tasks I have deftly avoided for two months. I knew it would be helpful for his focus but I could not summon the energy to take it on. It is not easy to find a place on the first floor that isn’t crowded with stuff. Today, high on rest and vacation ease, tackling this project was a breeze. Bug now has a corner of the dining room complete with a bin of school supplies, two chairs, and a clear spot at our underused table. As soon as it was unveiled, Bug sat right down and went to work, covering four loose-leaf pages in pencil drawings.
Just before bath time, we took out a big piece of construction paper and some markers. We wrote “Bug’s Homework Station.” Bug decided it should be decorated with “all bright colors,” so we covered it with polka dots and lollipops. He took great care in taping the sign to the side of the plastic drawers on the table where his crayons and glue sticks now live.
While Bug was simmering in bubbles up to his chin, I sat on a stool at the side of the tub and watched. A little playmobile girl was fighting through the “gloop,” trapped and choking under the surface. His right hand was a giant sea-creature that would rise up through the froth and swoop down on her, “Chomp! Oh, bonk, argh my head!” Trying and trying again to catch her, the hand-monster was foiled every time.
It has been years since a day this good. It has also been years since I have seen my son so clearly. For this extended moment, I was quiet enough in my own head that I could look at Bug and imagine the world as it is to him. What a tilt of the glass! It is like stopping on the busy sidewalk where you walk every day, lying down, and looking up through the buildings and trees. The purpose of every angle, even the ticking of the clock and the throbbing of the human traffic, all shift into new alignment. Sometimes it takes an intentional pause to see things as they really are. In fact, such a pause may be the only thing that clears the gaze.
As he soaked, I felt myself peel open and marvel at the singular experience of the boy inside Bug’s skin and mind.
He looked up from his bath battle and stared back at me a beat longer than usual.
“What?” he asked. “Why do you look like that?”
I smiled. “Because I lo-o-o-ve you.”
He shrugged. “So?”
“And you’re my beautiful boy.”
Arhh!” Another splash. The hand monster was about to break the surface again. The playmobile girl tried to swim away. “The gloop is around my throat and I can’t breathe!”
Neither could I.
For one fleeting moment, I understood the magnitude of my luck. It feels like waking up.