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Book review: On Writing

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Hello friends,

I just finished listening to the audiobook of “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” by Stephen King.  I had read the book years ago and enjoyed it, and since I am going through a bit of a writing struggle, I thought it might be helpful to revisit it.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

I’ve never read any of King’s fiction, as I’m not fond of the horror genre, but I’m always willing to listen to the voice of experience.  In this book, King narrates the story of his life, interweaving memorable incidents with his writing adventures.  As a child, he was drawn to science fiction and scary stories, so those are the stories he set out to write.

I found the book meaningful and useful as he addressed the struggles of writing, especially with a full-time teaching job, and the inevitable rejections a writer must be willing to face.  I also appreciated his advice to read a lot – he contends that a successful writer needs to also be a voracious reader.

Upon finishing the book, I watched some YouTube interviews.  He’s an interesting man, and surprisingly endearing.  I felt a kinship with him when he stated something I’ve always believed – that anything we have in this world is “on loan.”  We enter this life without anything, and we leave it the same way.  The things and people we call “ours” we don’t get to keep, but to enjoy for the time we are here.

It’s a useful idea for keeping perspective.

Blessings,

Annette

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Wild Geese (Mary Oliver)

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You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Mary Oliver

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The case against passion

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Dear friends,

I was listening to a talk by author Elizabeth Gilbert where she made some important points about the saying “follow your passion.”  As educators, isn’t this the advice we often give to young people?

Elizabeth Gilbert Quote about Following Curiosity

How could such well-meaning advice ever be problematic?

As Gilbert has shared, she used to advise audiences to “follow your passion” – until one night, after a talk, she received a message from a woman who had been in attendance.  In a nutshell she said this: You made me feel worse about myself, not better.  I’m not passionate about anything, and your talk made me feel like I couldn’t find success until I felt like I was on fire about something – which I’m not.

This letter caused Gilbert to reflect on the “follow your passion” mantra.  She concluded that perhaps it’s more useful to say, “follow your curiosity.”

While some people are able to apply single-minded focus to one endeavor, others (like me) have a “hummingbird mind,” a mind that flits from one interest to another.  Instead of drinking deeply from any one flower, we take small sips from many.

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Our culture tells us this is wrong, while it feels completely authentic to those of us who live this way.

Gilbert also points out that “follow your curiosity” may lead to a passion – through experimenting with a variety of interests, you may find one that fascinates you, that inspires deep commitment for a long period of time.

I’ve been reflecting on this when I consider the advice we give to students who are undecided about majors, and future goals.  There’s so much pressure on young people to make these decisions early in life, but for many of us (me again), we arrive at our “calling” via a long and winding road.  We try, and discard, many roles before we land upon the right one.  And that’s ok.  No experience is wasted.

I encourage you to follow your curiosity and see where it leads.

Blessings,

Annette

 

 

Life update 8/1/18

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Hello friends, and happy August!

It’s been an incredibly busy summer, and I can’t believe it’s August already.  WMU is starting early this year, so school will be in session before the end of the month.

I’m still working on my book.  I didn’t meet the deadline for fall publication, so now we’re aiming for January.  There was an article going around on Facebook a couple of weeks ago on the topic “Do you have a book in you?”  The author’s answer was, basically, no – that it’s a myth to think everyone is capable of writing a book.  But the point was, writing a book takes a lot of time, mental energy, and perseverance, and not everyone has those qualities.  The author pointed out that most people think they could write a book if they only had the time, but NOBODY has the time – one MAKES the time, and this requires sacrifice (or at least, careful planning).  Most of us watch television, play video games, putz around in our various ways, and then claim we don’t have time.  The author’s contention was that if you TRULY want to write, you must carve out the time to do it, and then be steadfast with the task.

I’m finding that all to be true.

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I was listening to a talk by Anne Lamott (author of Bird by Bird), and she also said some things that resonated with me.  She pointed out that the joy and purpose of writing is in the writing itself – not in anticipating how it will sell, how it will be received, etc.  I’m realizing that a lot of my “writer’s block” is driven by fear of criticism, and the only way to get past it is to focus on the activity of writing, not the outcome.  It’s good advice that I’m trying to apply.

I’m fortunate to already have a contract with a publisher, so I don’t have to worry about “selling” a manuscript.  I just have to finish writing the darn thing.

And of course, I need to prep my four classes for fall term – which will start in just a few weeks.  It won’t be long before the students return and the chaos begins anew.

I’m excited for fall.  I love back-to-school, “hoodie weather,” college football, and all things autumnal.  It’s my favorite time of year.

What are your plans for August?

Blessings,

Annette

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Results you can’t see

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Dear friends,

I think it’s human nature to want to see results from our labors.  We sow, and we want to reap a harvest later.  For those of us who teach, we want to see evidence that our students have learned – and we want to see this evidence within the semester or marking period.  If we don’t feel as if we “got through” to a particular student in the allotted time, it’s tempting to count that as a loss.

And since we don’t “get through” to all of our students, it’s easy to become discouraged.

I’ve seen friends and colleagues become jaded and disenchanted with their jobs, and it saddens me.  But I know how easy it can be to slip into despair when we work so hard, care so much, and don’t feel as if we’re making a difference.

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These are the times when I remind myself: My job is to plant seeds.  My students are (for the most part) young people who are being exposed to new ideas for the first time.  Some of these ideas might go against things they’ve already been taught.  Some may be difficult to grasp.  Some might seem to upend the status quo where they find comfort.

And that’s okay.

Venturing outside of our comfort zones is challenging under the best of circumstances – when we really want to, when we’re eager to learn, when we’re feeling brave.  But some of our students may not be ready.  Some may not really want to be here.  Some may not be willing to consider new ideas and ways of being in the world.

That readiness, that willingness, may come much later.  Perhaps years from now.  If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we were slow to understand some life lessons, and weren’t able to grasp them until we had a few more years on us, a bit more experience.  We had an “aha” moment where an idea or story resonated with us, sometimes years later.

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Teaching is an act of faith.  I remind myself of this when I start feeling discouraged.  This is not the kind of profession where I’m going to see immediate results (at least most of the time), but I have to keep believing in the value of what I do.

So I keep planting seeds.  They won’t all germinate, but that’s no reason to stop.  Maybe it’s a reason to plant even more.

Blessings,

Annette

Define yourself

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Dear friends,

“Don’t let anyone else define you – define yourself.”

I came across this quote today, and bumped up against it.  On the surface it sounds great, right?  Our individualistic culture conditions us to believe that we have complete control over our lives, and deciding our “identity” is completely within our hands.

Except it doesn’t work that way.

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Communication scholars (and other social scientists) will tell you that our sense of identity is formed in relationship with others.  We live in community, and our sense of self is partly (some would say, largely) dependent on how others react to us.  I may define myself as friendly, but if others find me cold and aloof, they’re not going to be drawn into friendship with me.  If I am self-aware, I will notice the reactions of others, and I can make appropriate adjustments.

We all know people who have a distorted sense of how they are seen by others.  Your friend might believe he’s charming to women, but others laugh at his awkwardness.  Your sister might think she’s a great singer, but her vocals cause others to cringe.

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Don’t get me wrong – confidence is a great thing, and “fake it till you make it” often works.  We can decide how we want to enter the world, but we can’t control how others react to us.  So that quote about not letting others define you, but defining yourself, is too simplistic, too reductive.  I define myself, you define me, and these definitions will clash and combine and influence each other.

We understand ourselves more clearly in relationship with others.

Blessings,

Annette

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Reading is a collaborative act

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“Reading is a collaborative act between text and reader, so no text is read ‘objectively,’ and none gives up pure meaning.  We bring ourselves to everything we read – including the people around us, the most complicated texts of all.  We perceive patterns and connections; we foreground some things and subordinate others; some details we fail to see altogether.  The best we can do is to try diligently, continually to expand our vision.  This is where imagination collaborates with fact, taking us toward some kind of truth.”           – Gail Griffin

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Book review: The Light We lost

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Dear friends,

I’m not sure whether to classify this one as romance or “chick lit.”  The tone of it borders on “young adult” (at least for me), so I was not surprised to learn that the author – up until now – has primarily been known as a YA author.

The story centers around Gabe and Lucy, two college seniors at Columbia University who meet on 9/11/2001.  They share a deep and instant connection.  In the subsequent years they both move forward with their lives and careers, while staying in touch and never losing their profound emotional bond with one another.

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The conflict in the story revolves around how their bond affects their other relationships and their careers, as they deal with jealousy (their own and others’), the long-distance nature of their friendship, and their regrets about the “path not taken.”

It’s a story of how our hearts can long for someone we can’t have, and how emotional connections can last despite separation and loss.  The chapters are short and it’s a page-turner, so it’s a quick read.  In some of the blurbs it’s been described as a tear-jerker (I’m not one to cry over books), and it’s been compared to The Notebook (which I haven’t read).  I would recommend it as a quick summer read, but I didn’t find it as profoundly moving as others have.  But it’s a sweet story and worth reading.

Blessings,

Annette

You can find more of my book reviews on goodreads.com

Frustration, despair, ideals, and tenacity

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Dear friends,

“Yearning for the seemingly impossible is the path to human progress.” 

– Bryant H. McGill

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I’m hearing a lot of discouragement lately, particularly about how we’re not living up to our potential as a culture.  We want our country to be a safe place filled with fairness and opportunities to prosper, while the news is filled with stories of danger and inequality.

I hear the cries: We’re supposed to be a culture of freedom, and equal rights, and opportunity.  We’re supposed to be able to speak our minds, to debate big ideas, to elect our government without interference or corruption.

Every day, I see people giving up.  They throw up their hands and say: It’s no use.  I have no agency in this situation.  We’re all going to hell in a handbasket.

But wait …

Free speech is an ideal, and we haven’t fully achieved it yet.  Equality is an ideal.  “The shining city on the hill” is an ideal.  Comfort, and safety, and living in community with others are all ideals we aspire to, and it’s frustrating when we collectively fall short.  But despair is not the answer.

Tenacity is.

We act as though we’ve attained those ideals, and now are backsliding, but that was never the case.  The “founding fathers” created a list of aspirational freedoms to guide themselves and future generations toward (what was then thought to be) an ideal society.  We’ve changed and amended those goals over time, but the fact remains: they are goals.  We’re not there yet, and perhaps we never will be, but we must be guided by principles that are instructive toward building the best community possible.

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And to those who complain about “kids these days” – you must not know the same kids that I do.  My students at Western Michigan University are some of the most optimistic, ambitious, and determined young people you would ever want to meet, and they are going to accomplish great things.  They care, and they’re not giving up anytime soon.

I think they’re going to succeed where previous generations have failed, and I can’t wait for the future they’re going to build.

Blessings,

Annette