Too much to do to blog much, essays in one class and essay exams in another. All autograded assignments and integrated software doesn’t do the real work of teaching composition–them writing, me assessing it, and communicating back to them where they can improve next time. That’s pretty much it.
And, by golly, it works. It’s difficult, painstaking work for them and me, but it works.
Just wanted to share some happy news before I get back to it. After almost two years of not publishing anything (I haven’t had much time to market my writing), I found out yesterday that I published a little flash piece with a relatively new online writing site, The Secret Attic: Where Writers Write.
A little background for the story. My sister Ronda died of cancer in 2011. For years she owned several beautiful Arabian horses and kept them on my grandmother’s property in rural Alabama, not too far from Auburn University. We grew up riding horses together. I miss her terribly, and this story is for her:
My work has kept me so busy that it took me a while to finish the latest choice for the Western Carolina University Alumni Book Club that I joined this summer.
The book is Just Mercy, written by the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama that has been instrumental in helping to overturn many wrongful convictions and reduce the harsh sentences of poor and disabled people in Alabama and around the country.
The end of book discussion included the following provocative prompt: “A critical theme throughout Stevenson’s book is that the fight for fair and equal treatment of all people under the law is a long and ongoing struggle. Setbacks are common and must be overcome, and even in the aftermath of great victories, there is still more progress to be made. For example, the Supreme Court originally upheld the use of the death penalty on convicted minors, but this was later successfully overturned in 2005; still, the fight for fair and humane treatment of minors in the criminal justice system continues. How does this understanding and approach lead to more effective organization and activism on behalf of marginalized people?”
Here is my response: Stevenson touches on the most powerful approach to effective activism for the sake of poor and disabled people in Chapter Fifteen, titled “Broken.” Stevenson recognizes his extreme brokenness after trying to comfort one of his clients on the night of his execution. On the verge of giving up in the face of overwhelming injustices, the author admits to himself that he is as broken as those he is trying to save, but remembering his own past failures, he finds the strength to go on.
He says, “You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it. We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent.”
There is such humility in recognizing that you are weak and will fail. We are too seldom willing to be humbled by what we cannot do and too often inflated by superficial accomplishments, even when “doing good.” We must ask ourselves if our altruism is born of deep empathy or shallow pity. I must ask myself if I am willing to continue fighting for liberty and justice, even in the face of defeat after defeat, even if I am never recognized for my efforts, or in some cases ridiculed for them. I hope I am, but I don’t know. Time will tell. I do know, however, that this book has inspired me to try.
The last book I finished before the craziness of teaching all online, synchronous and asynchronous, was a book my brother gave to me a while back, and I finally pushed through the stack to get to it.
I’m glad I did.
No one Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts is marketed to be a retelling of The Great Gatsby, and there are certainly echoes of Fitzgerald’s iconic novel here. The twists, however, make the novel rise above a simple re-telling. Jade Chang in her New York Times review describes the novel as a “skillful riff on ‘The Great Gatsby,’ which revolves around a contemporary black family in a declining North Carolina town,” an apt description of the novel.
Jay Gatsby is recast as JJ Ferguson, a young man who has left Pinewood, a small town in the Piedmont, to seek the American Dream. He returns a wealthy man, and begins to court Ava, our Daisy, who is now married to a weak man who is unfaithful to her.
Yes, some of the same themes are there, but the novel reveals the importance of setting in a novel. This is not a New York story. It is not one Nick Carraway could have told. It is not a story that any one person can tell, so we discover the hidden truths from multiple points of view, all circling around the most unlikely of Nick-type characters, Ava’s mother Sylvia, who is rooted in the soil of her Southern home.
Perhaps because I am about the same age as Sylvia, her perspective resonates the most with me. Her transformation is quiet and not earth-shattering– acceptance of herself, her past, and her place in life. Forgiveness. During the extraordinary days that have been the Summer of 2020, I have found myself learning these things, too.
And feeling good about it.
Here is a passage that captures Sylvia’s self-deprecating mood at the beginning of the novel, one of the passages that drew me into this amazing woman’s story:
“None of that hoping and believing girl was left in Sylvia now or at least she couldn’t be found. The woman she was now didn’t yearn for sophistication, and as far as she could tell she’d stopped yearning for much at all. The woman she’d become was fat and weighed down, but not just fat, dumb too, and always in the process of adjusting, like there was two of everything, the real thing and the shimmering copy that her brain had to work with focus and concentration to integrate. Her brain in slow-mo or she felt slow–same difference. The result was the girl she’d been had evaporated from her body like an emancipated soul.”
What I like is that Sylvia makes an honest appraisal of herself here. She is not eliciting pity–simply telling the truth.
I find that refreshing.
That is why I liked No One Is Coming to Save Us. Although it first seemed to focus on the deprivation of a black community in the South, I quickly saw it isn’t only about the African-American South or even about poverty in the contemporary South. It is about the American Dream and how these people, in this special place and time, define it, how they lose it or make it come true.
My next book review will be about the next Western Carolina University Book Club read, Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. I have seen the movie version of the book, too, so maybe it will be a book/movie comparison. Spoiler alert: the book is better than the movie, but the movie is very good.
Also, I will soon be unveiling the 2020 fall/winter edition of Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal, slated to appear October 1.
So don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. Okay, enough with the Fleetwood Mac allusions. I’m getting a little bit punchy. It’s been a whirlwind start after a quiet summer without the usual activities. Sad? Yes, in some ways. I miss being with my friends and extended family but also very healing–a time to focus on exercising, cooking, reading, and writing–for myself!!!
I did work a great deal on my classes, taking my knowledge of new technologies and integrating them into my already strong online classes. (No brag, just fact) Our distance learning staff has been doing a lot of course redesign training, and I am trying to put their ideas into practice. So far, students seem to be responding well to the changes.
Speaking of students, I need to get to it, but I will leave you with a link to a great article from Inside Higher Education about the positive side of remote learning and the incredible job some inspired faculty with a passion for education, like the people I am blessed to work with, are doing.
This summer continues to be a time of renewal for my spirit, but it hasn’t been easy. My reading adventures, working on this crazy satirical novel , and being alone so much have led me to confront many uncomfortable realities about myself–I have lacked resilience and settled for mediocrity much of my life. I’m often petty, self-absorbed and self-righteous, easily angered, hypocritical, thoughtless, vain, jealous, etc., etc.
Oh, don’t worry, I continue to love myself. That’s kind of the problem. I think of myself more highly than I ought, methinks.
Many of the books I’ve chosen to read this summer have helped me to see some of my many weaknesses, and also, thankfully, validated some of my strengths. As always, the two are inextricably bound to one another. But the book I just finished has not only convicted but also bolstered my spirit and renewed my resolve.
The book is Real Christianity, a paraphrase (by Bob Beltz) of William Wilberforce’s A Practical view of the prevailing religious system of Professed Christians, in the higher and middle classes in this country, contrasted with real Christianity written in 1797. The title alone explains why I read the paraphrase, but someday I will read the original.
William Wilberforce was an abolitionist and member of parliament who helped to end slavery in England. His book, however, never explicitly mentions the battle to abolish slavery, and it addresses, as the original title suggests, the middle and upper classes of the British Empire.
But it didn’t take long at all for me to see myself and my country in the pages of this modern paraphrase, written in 2006 by the man who was one of the producers of the very good biopic Amazing Grace, that tells the story of Wilberforce’s twenty-year fight. More about the movie later.
For example, here is a quote from early in the book:
“We must remember that almost any ideology can be distorted and misused to bring misery to multitudes or justification to the most bizarre behavior. Nothing is more dangerous. That which is intended to motivate goodness and restrain evil actually can become the instrument of that which it intended to restrain. History is full of examples of how virtues such as liberty or patriotism become twisted when separated from a healthy and authentic faith. Twisted men in every generation and occupation have twisted whatever they must twist to get what they want. Why should we expect that some within the Church would not be guilty of the same actions?” (46).
Wow! See what I mean? And it was written in the 18th Century! Wilberforce himself struggled with the same issues he writes about. He is remembered for being a force for good, for valid reasons, but, of course, he struggled and failed miserably at times, especially in allowing slave labor, thinly veiled by the concept of “apprentices,” to continue in the abolitionist colony of Sierra Leone. See this interesting article on the subject in The Guardian.
See what I mean? Conviction and renewal. Convicted by Wilberforce’s words and renewed by the knowledge that his failure was, and mine is, inevitable. Renewed? How does being reminded of failure possibly revive my soul? Another paradox of my faith, I suppose. I see that the answer is not abandoning my faith or ceasing to struggle to do good, but knowing that I can ask for and WILL receive forgiveness, I can continue striving to do some good in the world.
Not a bad lesson to pass on to my students, is it?
Here’s another one:
“Money and ambition have become idols in our time, especially for individuals in the business and professional worlds. Disguised as common business practice, these forces are allowed to gather great momentum in our lives. Arguments about being diligent at what we do, becoming successful in our profession or providing for our families seduce us so that we no longer have a clear sense of judgment about these issues. Our work consumes us” (73).
It is important to keep in mind that he is addressing Christians here, not people who do not claim to be believers. Knowing that, these words strike me to the core. I have let my work consume me. I have become as data-driven as the rest of the world. What is my retention rate? How many students passed that essay with a C or better? Let me check how many hours I spent working on the LMS. Look at those FTE’s, will you?
I am convicted, but I am renewed because, since March, I have been working from home, so thankful that I have been forced to concentrate my efforts on the people who need me–my family, my friends, and, my students.
It’s about time.
If you want to know more about Wilberforce and the battle to end slavery in the British Empire, I highly recommend the film Amazing Grace. Strong performances, especially Benedict Cumberbatch as England’s youngest ever prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, who was a great friend of Wilberforce’s.
Wilberforce, William. Real Christianity. Revised and edited by Bob Beltz, Regal, 2006.
After November’s National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO), I had about 26,000 usable (rough draft usable) words of my new satirical novel about higher education in the South called CAMPUS: The Novel That Wants to Be a Musical.
I am happy to announce that since May 19, I have written 38, 173 more words! I know to some of you out there this is no big deal at all, but to me this is major as I have never before been able to adjust to a daily writing schedule (I do take one floating day off a week, which has helped greatly). I have exceeded my quota each day, which more than makes up for the days off.
I have also participated in craft lectures (via Zoom) by the North Carolina Writers’ Network and the Dramatists Guild of America. All have been useful, but this past weekend I was able to join 11 other writers for an extended workshop with Bryn Chancellor, author of Sycamore, which is now on my reading list. It was the first online Squires Writing Workshop, a program of the North Carolina Writers’ Network.
The emphasis was on the opening of a story or novel. We looked at just the first 1,200 words of the project. To begin with we looked at and shared examples of strong openings. Then, we did some writing exercises and shared. The next session we did another exercise and then had a fascinating and informative lecture about openings. The final three sessions were inspiring and helpful. We had all received each other’s work ahead of time, and all were faithful to read and comment on each person’s manuscript. I got so much out of the critiques, even when my work was not being discussed. It was a wonderful four days, and well worth it.
Look into the North Carolina Writers’ Network–a valuable organization for any North Carolina writer. We have members outside of North Carolina, too, so check it out!! ncwriters.org
And my reading continues–
Here are the goodreads reviews of the latest three:
MOO by Jane Smiley, 1995
***Spoiler Alert*** Perfect timing for me to read this satire about higher education as I work on my own novel with a similar theme. Full disclosure: I participated in a writing residency at Brevard College, studying under Jane Smiley, and she was a fabulous instructor, so I am partial to her work since that time. One of the things I like about her work is its variety. I also love her ability to portray the inner life of animals so that we can relate to them yet still see, smell, feel their animal nature. In this book she gifts us with the tragic character of the hog, Earl Butz, whose “job” it is to stuff himself. Oh, my, what a wonderful and compelling character. The most sympathetic of them all, which, I think, is Smiley’s intent.
Smiley seems to have a bucket list approach to writing, wanting to challenge herself, not wanting to repeat the same style. This is certainly a very different book than her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres, and hasn’t been as critically acclaimed, but in some ways I like it better, probably because of the satiric wit, and her ability to meld the tragic with the comic, which is my favorite kind of writing.
Ultimately, the book is comic (the last section begins with a chapter entitled “Deus ex machina”), and ends with a wedding. Ah, I see, I guess I’m a little slow–A Thousand Acres (King Lear)–Shakespearean tragedy; Moo (Ends with a wedding)–Shakespearean comedy.
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover (2018)
This interesting memoir reads like fiction and at times the story is so bizarre and inconsistent that I think maybe it is fiction. However, I know that memory is a tricky thing, especially if you are the victim of childhood abuse, and I am convinced that Tara Westover certainly was.
I see why Westover named her book Educated, but I think it is more about Emancipation than it is Education, and I found myself wishing that she had spent less time with her highly dysfunctional family and more time with the way her education helped her break away.
I also think she absorbed a great deal more knowledge while she was being homeschooled than she gives herself or her parents for, but I certainly understand the omission.
Satyricon by Petronius (1st Century)
** spoiler alert ** Yes, it is considered to be the first novel. Yes, it gives valuable information about language and culture during the end times of the Roman Empire. Yes, it is satire, but it is also quite depraved. Basically Roman porn. I skipped through much of it because I couldn’t stomach it.
I primarily read it because I heard it was the first time the phrase “silent majority” was used, referring to the dead. I found that reference in Book 2 and skimmed Books 3 and 4 but unfortunately did see references to rape, including child rape (in book one), orgies, and cannibalism among other perversions. Call it classic if you want to. I just say Yuck!
Thanks to the pandemic, this has been a unique summer for me and almost everybody else, but not all bad. My reading continues, I have attended several interesting online seminars, and the work on my novel progresses. I am also making plans for the upcoming semester of teaching.
The big difference is not traveling, which I do greatly miss. I have family and friends in Alabama, Colorado, Virginia, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Germany and elsewhere. I like traveling to visit them, and I also like to explore within my own state, attending meetings for the North Carolina Writers Network and the Dramatists’ Guild of America as well as “adventuring” with my daughter Hannah.
This summer I am at home almost always–weird.
I have developed routines, which is actually a novelty for me–I tend to improvise, but I am doing more of the things that are good for me, including exercising, reading, and writing more than I usually do.
I have been posting about my reading, which I have really ramped up this summer. My friend Joe Perrone, Jr. (check out his blog) asked me to read and review his wife’s debut middle-grade novel, Wolfie: A Cat Beyond Time, which I was glad to do; Becky is my friend, too. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and if you have YA readers in your life, I highly recommend that you purchase it for them, especially if they like cats as much as I do.
Here is the review I posted on Goodreads:
History is best learned through storytelling, and that is why this middle- grade novel would be a good addition to any middle school classroom bookshelf or young readers’ collection. It is part historical fiction, part adventure story, and part fantasy, a compelling combination that balances fact with fiction. The two young protagonists are charming, and Wolfie, the big cat that serves as a catalyst to their adventure, well, he is magnificent. One of the aspects that I like best is the balance the book brings to the history of the Old West. We get to see the good, the bad, and the ugly, but infused with enough humor and positivity to be appropriate for the targeted age group. An enjoyable and educational read for any youngster.
I have also been writing. Boy, have I been writing–30,000 words since May 19. I have never written almost every single day, but this summer I have. The two secrets for me have been determining how many words a day, approximately, I need to write to have a rough draft of my novel completed by the time school starts in August and then meeting or exceeding my quota each day. So far I have written six days a week and exceeded my goal most days, so I am ahead of the game. I should mention that I started out with 26, 000 words already written from November’s National Novel Writing Month. ( I wrote 50,000 but only half were usable.)
Of course, a first rough draft is a long way from finished novel, but I feel encouraged because I have wanted to finish a novel for four summers now but haven’t met my goal. I am determined to this year.
I am also busy attending webinars, submitting short stories to journals, and preparing for my classes in the fall, but I will save thoughts about those activities for future posts.
So come back and check them out!!!!
Are you writing this summer, too? Do you have a poem, essay, flash fiction, short story, or short drama you would like to share? Why not submit to Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal?
It was gratifying to read Meagan Lucas’ debut novel Songbirds and Stray Dogs because Ms. Lucas contributed her story “Daisy Mae Returns” to the Spring 2018 edition of Teach. Write (43-45). Something special about that for me as an English teacher, especially since Ms. Lucas is one as well.
Taking place in the early ’80’s, the novel tells the story of Jolene, who finds herself, pregnant, alone, and abandoned in a small coastal town. She makes her way to the mountains of Western North Carolina, where she encounters more loneliness and hostility until she meets someone as lonely and broken as she and learns to trust, love, and hope again.
I liked the way the story develops with the distinctive alternating perspectives of a woman and a man. Ms. Lucas effectively captures the struggle of how two ordinary people find a way despite loneliness and despair. Our world needs more of their spirited perseverance.
The book is published by Main Street Rag. Hope you will buy it and support a promising new voice in Southern fiction.
A very different book I finally finished is an extraordinary biography of Johann Sebastian Bach by German musicologist Christoph Wolff.
I started reading this book quite a while ago, but it is difficult reading for me because I am not that knowledgeable about music, and the book goes into great technical detail about Bach’s compositional style.
I am, however, knowledgeable about scholarly research and can recognize the incredible achievement this book is, giving readers a detailed look at Bach as performer, composer, scholar, theologian, husband, and father. Also, even though I didn’t understand it all, I was fascinated when Wolff explains Bach’s music in detail.
Well worth the time.
At the end of the last chapter, Wolff quotes from another Bach biography, the New Bach Reader, relating an anecdote about Mozart upon his first hearing of the motet Singet dem Herrn, ein neues Lied:
“Mozart knew this master more by hearsay than by his works, which had become quite rare; at least his motets, which had never been printed, were completely unknown to him. Hardly had the choir sung a few measures when Mozart sat up, startled; a few measures more and he called out ‘What is this?’ And now his whole soul seemed to be in his ears. When the singing was finished he cried out, full of joy: ‘Now there is something one can learn from!'”
And I did!
The text, in translation, of the aria:
God, take us to Yourself from now on! For without You we can accomplish nothing with all of our belongings. Therefore be our protection and light, and if our hope does not deceive us, You will make it happen in the future. Happy is the person who strictly and firmly abandons himself to You and Your mercy!
Now listen, dear reader, to Vocalconsort Berlin singing Sing to the Lord a New Song:
NOTE: Scroll to the end to see additions to this review. CAUTION: SPOILERS
I joined an online book club for Western Carolina University alumni, and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg is the first book we are reading. The book has given me some food for thought and its simple formula for changing habit (cue, routine, reward) has been actually working for me. I have completed short yoga routines for 80 days in a row and am regularly meeting my quota of 600 words a day towards completion of my novel, writing six of seven days a week for the past three weeks, just to name two examples.
One of the main themes of the book is not trying to suppress bad habits but to replace bad habits with positive ones through changing the routine. Duhigg explains and gives examples of the idea that habits are born of cues that trigger the behavior and lead to some kind of reward. He calls it The Golden Rule of Habit Change: “You can’t extinguish an old habit. You can only change it.”
He shows how this works by using a multitude of examples. In the first part of the book he shows how mainly positive examples, including Tony Dungy, coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who changed the team’s habits to eventually lead them to the Super Bowl and Bob Wilson, the founder of AA, how the program’s success for so many people comes in part from establishing new habits.
But in both cases, Duhigg talks about belief, not necessarily a spiritual belief, but some sort of faith must be present to successfully form good habits and this faith is normally found by being part of a group.
The chapter that will be most useful to me as a teacher is “Chapter 5: Starbucks and the Habit of Success.” This chapter talks about how Starbucks had become a powerhouse coffeehouse chain by, simply put, teaching willpower. At the same time, Starbucks has found that giving employees a voice is one of the ways to help develop the self-discipline and willpower needed to train and retain productive employees.
The implications for teaching are obvious–our students need to have more power over what they are learning. If they feel they have choice, they will be more likely to exhibit the self-control necessary to complete their studies
One of the most relevant parts of the book for today is “Chapter 6: The Power of a Crisis.” Duhigg gives an example of a Rhode Island hospital that made radical changes for the better by changing institutional habits following the senseless death of one of their patients.
Following the example, Duhigg states:
“But sometimes, even destructive habits can be transformed by leaders who know how to seize the right opportunities. Sometimes, in the heat of a crisis, the right habits emerge.”
Updated June 16, 2020
In response to a question posed by our book club leader, I wrote the following about the chapter in the book I appreciate in some ways but took exception to in others:
Overall, I have a positive reaction to the book and its author, but my perspective changed quite a bit towards both as I was reading Chapter 7, especially the Target example. The author seemed to treat this example in a positive light at first–as if intrusion into a woman’s reproductive privacy is no big deal. It is only when the marketing team and the data researcher finally question whether his intrusive data collection would actually make money or not that they apparently begin to question how pregnant women might feel.
Interesting also that the author gives an example of an angry father to make his point about negative reactions from the public. I found myself wondering what was happening to the poor young woman who was the daughter of that angry father. How did she feel about the father talking to a manager at Target about her pregnancy? Did the father kick her out of the house because she got pregnant? Did father and daughter reconcile? Is he forcing her to keep the child or marry, or not marry, the father of her child against her wishes? How does the young woman’s mother feel about all of this? But none of this matters to the data collectors or the author of the book, it seems. Maybe it does, but not enough to find out and give examples of how any individual woman feels about this kind of marketing strategy, I guess.
Perhaps the author being a male and the subject of his example being a male was my cue to go to the routine of rolling my eyes at this obtuse behavior. The reward is another great example for my students of sexism and manipulative advertising tactics.
After reading this chapter I was reminded how important it is to continue teaching my students about the power of persuasive techniques that are legal but border on, or are downright, unethical but widely accepted as the norm because they make a lot of money. It is up to my students as consumers to use critical thinking when viewing advertising and recognize the incredible powers of data-driven marketing. It is up to me as their instructor to provide proof of these questionable tactics and for that, I am grateful to the author and his book.
One final question: Why did the author not comment on the initial question the marketers asked the mathematician to solve?
Here’s the question: “Can your computers figure out which customers are pregnant, even if they don’t want us to know?” (182). (Emphasis mine).
That’s okay? I guess so because “Figuring out whose pregnant…could make Target millions of dollars” (184), and this little gem “So for companies, pregnant women are goldmines” (192). Oh, I get it. Priorities.
I think if there is a new edition, Duhigg should consider leaving out Chapter 7. It was the reason I gave the book four stars instead of five. At the very least, he should spend some time trying to get at least one pregnant woman’s view of this kind of advertising.
I know I have harped on the bad, but there is much good to be gleaned from the book as well, so I am glad I read it and have taken part in the discussion.