“Hi, I’m Caitlin, and I’m a writer…”

This is your cue to chorus back, “Hi Caitlin.”

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David H. from strobist.blogspot.com, "Book Club"

Again, I am being facetious (and if you don’t know what that word means, you should go look it up). While this post is about support for you and your writing, I don’t really think that every writer should be part of a twelve step program. While Anton Chekhov said “If you can not write, don’t,” (well, it has been attributed to many different people, but I heard it was Checkov), I don’t really see it as something we need to recover from in that way.

What I am talking about is support for you so you can write. If you have to take care of a day job, a night job, full time schooling, children, parents, a spouse, a house, a roommate… or any  combination of these things, you probably find it difficult to find time to write. While we have all heard about the people who have all or most of those things and still manage to eke out the best novel of the year that wins a dozen awards before it’s even published, it is much easier to write if you have help with the rest of your life.

This occurs to me this week as I celebrate my wonderful family for many different reasons. My daughter turned one, my grandfather is turning 89, my brother is turning 34, my dog and cat are both turning two, and it’s mother’s day, so we’re just partying as often as humanly possible. I am planning or helping to facilitate many of these parties. I stole time away while I’m baking a birthday cake to write this (hooray mutlitasking).

Obviously every parent needs some sort of support just for life, and if you can use that support to help you write, then you don’t really need this post. If it’s never occurred to you to use that support to help you write, then maybe you should start there and figure out if maybe grandma and grandpa can take the little ones for a few hours every Tuesday and Thursday or something like that. I see it as a blessing and a necessity for every writer to have someone who supports and validates their work.

And to that end, I would say that if you don’t have a very supportive family, you should seek out other like minded individuals. When I was in college, I had a group of friends who were all English-ly inclined, and we decided that we were interested in reading each others’ work and getting feedback on our own in a less formal setting. We started Girl’s Write Out, and we had a great time getting together, reading and commenting, generally kibitzing, and drinking too much coffee. It is pretty likely that someone in your area already had this idea, and there is some sort of writer’s group around that you can investigate joining.

It is important to be careful about the writer’s group that you join because some groups are far too critical of everyone’s work and some far too little. You really need to sit in on a few sessions, maybe ask them a little bit about your own work, and feel out if they are a good fit. While it’s a huge benefit to be in a group that you work well with, a bad writer’s group is much worse than not having a writer’s group at all.

Writing can be too solitary an exercise, and a writer’s group can not only help you move out of your shell and improve your writing, but often it helps you network and meet people who can help you with editing, publishing, and maybe even some day, cover art.

A misery shared…

Just kidding. Writing isn’t a misery… most of the time.

image Porter and Menolly, working hard at the “Learning Farm”

What I am laughingly trying to say is that if you’re having a hard time writing, you might consider a different approach: collaboration. It is amazing how much I can get hashed out just talking to a trusted friend or loved one about a story, and if the person you’re talking to has a vested interest in what you are writing, as in it’s their writing too, so much the better.

One of the tenants of first year English at the college level is workshop and collaborative writing. It always gets mixed results, and there hasn’t been any project structure that can account for all of the potential problems with group projects, but when it works, it is one of the greatest learning and writing experiences that you can get.

Now, most students have had a very bad group experience in school, and very few have had great ones. There is often one person in the group that is a leader and does most of the work, one who is a follower and will basically do the least amount of work to get a decent grade, and one person in the group who simply doesn’t show up. There are ways for individuals in groups to try and keep the work load and participation balanced, but so few students know these tactics or how to employ them, so they just go through the project as quickly as they can and keep their head down hoping for a passing mark.

This, of course, is not why teachers assign group work. If nothing else, seeing how other people view your work and getting their feedback on it is one of the best things to happen to any writer. While you might be writing for yourself, if you ever intend to be published, you are writing for an audience, too. If you don’t have any idea what the audience thinks about your work, you don’t know how to give the audience what they want.

On the collaboration front, if you have more than one mind working on a project, you’re guaranteed to get something more creative and more interesting to more people. You simply can’t get away from the fact that someone else will look at your writing with another perspective and other ideas will come to them that wouldn’t have necessarily come to you. If you’re actively trying to put your individual spin on a piece, you’ll get something even better because your separate perspectives are focused in one direction.

There are a couple of different ways that you can collaborate that are advantageous, and I’m sure you can come up with new ways, as well. You can write the entire story together, each pick a character or a couple of characters, switch off chapters, even one of you come up with character development and another work on plot while a third is creating the world. There are all kinds of ways for writers and creative minds to inspire each other and come up with great work.

So you might groan when a teacher assigns you group work, but there are a lot of great reasons to complete it, not the least of which is that you will probably have to do group work in the ‘real’ world, as well. And you never know, maybe this will be the group that changes your mind about group work?

And yes, this post was inspired by watching two one-year-olds (see the picture!).

Back to the Basics

It’s a good idea to revisit what we already know to be true. One of the things that I have been blessed to do in the last two years is take another look at the building blocks of English writing in academia, mostly from a ‘how do I help these students understand what I mean’ perspective. I do think that this closer look at something that I feel like I have known forever has made me a better writer and student myself, and I was surprised to see how often these ideas and techniques came up in my graduate level classes, too.

But now I’ve graduated and have yet to find a teaching job, so what am I doing?

Going back to the basics.

Basics in almost every way. In career ways, I am on a job search like I haven’t done since I was first in the job market. I do have more experience and I have more skills, but the availible jobs don’t seem to have changed much.

Also back to basics in the things I am doing to keep busy and maybe make some money in the meantime. At least basics for me. I am going back to my original idea that if I am going to make money in a creative way, I’d better have more than one creative endeavor. I’m revisiting my novel, for instance, and digging out the notes that I’ve gotten back on it. It’s time for that fourth draft (watch this space)!

I’m crafting again: beadwork, knitting, and crocheting. These were originally taken on as a hobby, but it made sense to try to add that to the list of things I could do to make money. Shameless plug #2: Check out my Etsy page!

We’re planning on doing music again, as well. The summer reading program is about science, which isn’t exactly spot on with our stuff, but we certainly don’t dislike science-y songs, we just need to learn some. And we can get back into songwriting in the schools, as well, with a little more official paper to back us up (as in, my MA, of course).

And then there’s the basics in my personal life: my family. I changed my verbiage just a couple weeks ago. Instead of “I’m unemployed since I graduated.” I switched to, “I’m a stay-at-home mom since I graduated.” I remembered that we were expecting me to have a little bit of a wait before a job opened up for me, and the complete gift that I am getting from this is getting to stay home with my daughter who is almost a year old. Anyone who is a parent says, “Enjoy it, this won’t last!” and I am very grateful to have the time with her while she is small.

And you want to talk about basics, there is nothing more basic than helping a child grow and learn. How do you help the child learn to talk if you aren’t sure how many words the child understands? Can you start a child learning to read before they can talk? How can you help them learn more than one language at once? I expect to get many great ideas and stories for my classroom from this kid.

So for now, I’m focused close to home and working out my building blocks for the next step. But don’t worry, I’ll still have stuff to say here, so you won’t miss out!

(not like you’ve been missing out for the last year while I was busy finishing my degree and having a baby.)

Nose to the Grindstone

I’m still at the point in semester (as in before semester starts) that I’m just nervous. I know there’s excitement in there somewhere, but right now, I’m sure that I won’t get anything done, and I’ll get to the first day of class and have forgotten to put on my metaphorical pants that morning.

‘Course, it doesn’t help that I was in denial about the beginning of the school year until about a week ago. Summer lasts forever, and this summer has been long in comparison. “Endless horizon, time hurrying by,” as a great songwriter I know once wrote, and that’s particularly true when you start getting eighty-degree weather in May. We joke that summer is the day we play baseball, then we plan a whole year’s worth of stuff to put in that day.

So now is the time to knuckle down and get myself ready for the school semester. Due to updates, I can’t work on the online portion of my class (which is a lot of fun… like putting together a puzzle!), so I’m working on my syllabus.

The syllabus is a lot of scheduling, a lot of policy writing, and a lot of careful reading (now, I did put that assignment after the introduction, right?). I feel like a lot of it is unnecessary, but I know it’s not. I know that I don’t want to get into that situation and not  have the policy. I know I want to avoid the embarrassment of having the wrong assignment in the wrong place. I want to have everything in clear black and white so there aren’t any possible questions, and we’re all on the same page, literally.

I do know that the Syllabus is really only looked at the first day, and occasionally after that when someone can’t remember what’s due. The only important  thing to the student is the schedule. I also know that most of my students will lose their copy the first day of class and rely on the online copy that I post.

This is okay, especially if I have to change the schedule, something I did a LOT last year. And as long as I have given them a copy, I know that I will be okay whatever I have to enforce. Also, the syllabus is more like a guideline if there are issues… you can’t teach all 25 students exactly the same, and the policy may need to be stretched every now and then.

Really, I just need to take a deep breath, close Jewel Quest, and get to work. It’s nearly painless, and once it’s done, I’ll be far happier about the whole semester. I’ll know that I’ll have something to talk about on the first day, anyway.

But I’m writing a blog post instead…

Thank you!

I had my student conferences this week, and I’d just like to say I am the luckiest new TA in the history of TAing.

A little background. I am teaching 24 students Freshmen Composition, one of two requited English courses that everyone has to take.   I’ll be teaching the other one in two different sections next year. But at least the second one has sections. This one, everyone has to take the exact same class with the same number of papers and written words and covering the same ground. Ground that many of them covered in high school.

Granted, every teacher is different, and many of us have chosen some ideas that aren’t quite the norm. Some of us have presentations in our classes and some decided that the students will get enough of that in other classes. Some chose an argument paper, and some didn’t. Some have daily journals, and some don’t.

That said, this is pretty much exactly the class that you’d expect everyone to take their freshman year of college. The biggest focus is making sure that everyone learns MLA/APA/Chicago/something about in-text citations so that they don’t get accused of plagiarism later in their college careers. Other than that, it’s refresher for those of us who didn’t go straight from high school into college.

I have the best students. They weren’t sure about me at first, but once they realized that I want to have as much fun with this as possible, they really opened up to some possibilities. They’re creative, they’re intelligent, and they have great things to say. Their writing quality was already good before they ever set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) in room 229. I. Am. Blessed.

That’s not to say that I haven’t had my struggles. They are a VERY quiet class. Today might have been the first semblance of a real discussion, and that was because I had a student at the front of the class. But besides being in the afternoon nap time, I have really enjoyed teaching these people.

*raises a glass* So here’s to EN 111, Section 23! And here’s hoping that I get as many classes this awesome as I can!

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