Everything that I want to say today about my many and varied pedagogical reasons for asking my students to write 144 character tweets that summarize a work of literature is coming out preachy and pedantic. It has been a long and peculiar day, and frustration with our local public school system and my son’s teacher keeps creeping in there, and no one wants to read that. So never mind the theory, or why I think it is a good idea to combine creativity and skills practice, or any other mumbo jumbo. It’s all hooey anyway.
I ask my students to write tweets summarizing a novel because it is fun.
Playing with words is exciting.
The challenge of getting just the right information into that tiny number of characters is exhilarating.
So why not?
I wrote one, and then challenged my online students to do the same. I used it in a recorded lesson that they can watch, and I am issuing them an emailed extra credit challenge to write one of their own for a piece of literature they have read in their class. I hope they take me up on the challenge.
Here’s my sample, written about The Great Gatsby.
Mysterious, rich, notorious, single. Turns out, she’s just not that into him. Tom untouched, Daisy unmoved, Nick aghast, Jay dead. Gatsby’s dock light blinks over all.
The gauntlet has been thrown down. Here’s hoping they pick it up!
Everyone knows that parenting is full of questions. From that initial “They’re sending us home with a baby- by ourselves?!!?” to the more nuanced 3 a.m. existential self-doubt like “Am I doing the right thing? What if everything I have ever said or done to the child has been wrong?”, parents seek answers. (They are never going to find them, but that realization does not kick in for a couple of years. Plus, knowing that the answers are unknowable does not stop the late night soul-searching anyway. Not one little bit.)
It’s not all panic and nighttime philosophizing. Babies, in particular, are so baffling and mysterious, especially to first time parents, that there are also a ton of pragmatic questions.
“How exactly am I supposed to swaddle a baby?” (Answer: Give up trying to learn the fancy technique and just roll the baby up like a burrito. He or she is going to instantly wiggle out of the swaddle anyway. Or was it only my baby who had the infantile skills of Harry Houdini?)
“What do I do when the baby has a fever?” (Answer: Cry. Stay up all night. Worry. Listen to the pediatrician. Know it will pass.)
“Is that a rash, or some caked on oatmeal?” (Answer: Really? You cannot tell the difference? Clearly, you need more coffee.)
What no one prepares you for, when you are expecting a child, is the OTHER questions. The “Oh my God, I sound like my parents!” questions; even better, the ridiculous, never-thought-I-would-hear-myself-say-that, unanswerable questions. Sometimes I feel like I never utter anything other an interrogative. You know?
“Why are you standing naked on top of the dresser, looking in the fish tank?”
“How did you tear a hole in your new jacket?”
“Where IS your new jacket?”
“You know that it is not actually my job to pick up all of your LEGO, right?”
“Did you wash your hands? Really? With soap? Let me see. Go wash your hands!”
“Why are you out of bed again?”
“What did you THINK would happen?”
“Why is the shower drain blocked up with band-aids?”
“Why is the cat wearing your underwear?”
“Who left Hot Wheels in the middle of the kitchen?”
“How did you get a bruise THERE?”
“Why is there one dirty sock under the dining room table?”
“Oh my God, why are you peeing off of the front porch?”
“Where are your shoes?”
“Why are you not wearing your shoes?”
“Are you ready to go? Why aren’t you ready to go? Didn’t you hear me yell ‘It’s time to get ready to go!’ thirty times in the last ten minutes?”
My son was obsessed with Busytown Mysteries for a few years, and they have a little jingle that helps them solve the mysterious happenings in Busytown. When they want to find something out, Huckle Cat and his friends sing, “Who what when where why HOW” with a cute little conga line dance animated to it. I have this refrain running through my head all the time (dance and all). My life is now question based. It’s not that I do not know the answers to these questions. I only have one child, after all, so who flung the toys around or wrote on the wall in crayon or finger-painted the woodwork is really not open for debate. (Despite copious claims to the contrary, the cats do NOT have the fine motor skill required to hold crayons, and they never finger paint voluntarily.) It’s just that so many things are so frustrating, or so infuriating, or so downright mind-boggling that I just have to ask. Parenting is, as I said, question-based.
The only thing I never question is how much I love my little boy.
I was nervous about this challenge when my sister asked me to do it with her, but, not being one to pass up a good challenge, I gave it a try anyway. I had always been interested in writing, though I knew I would never be “A Writer.” Authors always say that they write because they cannot not write; that the words and characters and plots must be expressed, and if they were locked in an empty room, they would have to find a way to write on the walls, with blood or something. (Maybe I only go to readings by very intense authors?) I enjoy writing, and always have, but I have never felt that way about it. I feel that way about reading, without which I definitely would not survive. But writing? Not so much.
I wrote a lot, for a long time. Poetry, some short stories, pieces of novels. (Don’t all English teachers have secret novel writing projects somewhere?) Just for me, as a way of expressing myself, and with my students, so we could all write together.
I screwed up my nerve one fall and took a short story writing class through the local writing project. I had worked with the Oregon Writing Project before, and had taken and enjoyed classes on memoirs and poetry, and wanted to explore writing short fiction. The teacher was a published author, and we had to submit some of our work and an application in order to be accepted. I was accepted into the class. The other students were much more experienced than I was. Several of them had had short fiction published already, and all of them were working on pieces that they were going to submit for publication in a variety of literary magazines. One was writing a book. I was a little intimidated, but stuck with it. We had guidelines, and writing conferences were to be supportive and not critical. I had ideas I wanted to explore, and concepts I thought might make interesting stories. I read and admired the work of the other students and our teacher, made supportive comments and asked questions about areas that seemed to need work, and made suggestions or comments in response to specific requests from the authors. It was interesting reading the stories of the others, even though they were sometimes in genres or styles that I don’t much care for. They were talented and interesting people, and so they wrote interesting stories. Then it was my turn.
I was eviscerated.
Truly. I would not have allowed my students to make the kinds of cutting, non-supportive, and, frankly, unhelpful, comments that were made to me. Every one of my classmates and the teacher hated everything about my work. Genre? Trite. Also, I was doing it wrong. Diction? Trite – that is, when it was not simply cliche. Voice? Unconvincing and undefined. Plot? What exactly was the point?
I endured this for the first piece, and submitted a second, and endured it again. The second time, the comments were as barbed, but a good deal more perfunctory, as the others seemed to have decided that my work really was not worth the time needed to read and think about responses, or even to discuss it. I refused to submit the third piece, failing the class (which was quite expensive) rather than putting myself through that process again. I came to agree with their last stinging question: What was the point?
I closed my notebook. After a lifetime of writing, I did not write again. For years and years.
So going into this project, I had baggage. I was nervous about finding things to say, and about strangers reading my work, and about being judged. Especially since I am not in a traditional classroom every day, and did not feel that slices of my life could meaningfully contribute to discussions on teaching practice. I have read some very good slices this month that do exactly that. In many ways, my posts are trivial compared to those who are able to reflect and dissect their big issues on a daily basis.
Something happened in the course of the month, however. Some of you found my blog and really liked it. I have some followers, who are not related to me and thus obliged to read my writing! You wrote comments of encouragement. You let me know when you enjoyed my writing. You told me I was funny.
You gave me back my voice.
I enjoyed every minute of slicing this month. I enjoyed reading other people’s ideas and trying out new concepts. I enjoyed finding different methods of recording bits of my day, and different aspects of life that might, in some way, resonate with others. I enjoyed thinking outside the box for ways to be “not boring” – for myself, writing every day, and for anyone else who might be reading. I rarely had trouble finding a topic.
Thank you for the challenge. Thank you for a supportive group of people struggling to create a new writing habit and make time in frenzied lives for even just a few lines every day. Thank you for a place to share my writing, and yours, and for the peeks into your lives.
Thank you for my voice.
You can bet that I’ll be back!