Creative writing tip: Find your Inklings

There’s a lot of talk these days about finding one’s “tribe” or one’s “people.” If taken to extremes or left unexamined, this attitude can worsen the polarization that plagues our society by excusing us from spending time with and listening to people who are different from us. But underlying this idea is a good impulse: the desire to connect with people who share our interests and joys.

Earlier this summer, I read Humphrey Carpenter’s The Inklings, which is a collective biography of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams, but even more than that, a fascinating account of an unusual group of men who “found their people.” The Inklings, as many of my readers will probably know, were an informal club of friends–mostly Oxford and Cambridge academics, mostly Christians–who met for years, twice a week, to eat, drink, have intellectually rich discussions, and–most famously–read aloud from their works in progress, some of which turned out to be genre-defining sagas like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. The atmosphere of the group, as well as some weird ideas that floated around during their intense discussions (Carpenter doesn’t shy away from these), was shaped by the group’s demographics (almost exclusively middle-aged white Englishmen) and the times in which they lived. But within their similarity, they were a remarkably diverse group in their marital status, politics, religious expressions, and philosophies on all sorts of things (e.g., how a fantasy world should be constructed). And, by all accounts, their strongly-held, often opposing opinions made the group exciting, not threatening. They were fans of each other’s work (even when they criticized it), and most importantly, they were friends.

In the decades since the Inklings met, aspiring writers (especially fantasy nerds) have been trying to recapture the heady atmosphere of their meetings. I was once part of a creative writing group called, unabashedly, the Inklings, which held long, food-fueled sessions in which we read aloud from our works in progress and received gracious yet detailed feedback from our peers. Like the original Inklings, we were brought together not only by our love of stories but also (for most of us) by our Christian faith, which deeply informed our group’s philosophy even though hardly any of us were writing explicitly Christian literature. And like the original Inklings, many of us developed close, trusting friendships.

If you are a writer–or if you don’t write yourself, but you enjoy a good story and know how to give helpful feedback (or are willing to learn how)*–I encourage you to join a creative writing group. Don’t try too hard to recapture the atmosphere of the original Inklings; you’re not them. You don’t have to wear tweed or meet every week or even meet in person. (My old group moved to Zoom during the pandemic.) Not all creative writing groups even involve critique of works in progress; some focus on support, encouragement, learning new techniques, or even writing silently in each other’s presence. The greatest gift of a creative writing group is not the activities that happen during the meeting or even the works of literature that its members produce, but that feeling of belonging, of being understood by other people who also have stories in their heads. Or, as C.S. Lewis put it, “the moment when one man says to another ‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . .'”

Subscribe to get notified of upcoming posts: an ode to my grandparents’ cabin in the western Maryland mountains and an explanation of how adjunct faculty get paid (much more interesting than it sounds!). Also, if you’re a fan of the Inklings, subscribe to my podcast, It’s Lit Time!, for an upcoming series on rereading J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth saga.

*Several of the original Inklings weren’t writers; they just enjoyed hanging out with their friends and hearing their stories.

my top tips for creative writing inspiration

Writing is hard, even for those of us who claim to enjoy it. I recently had a conversation with a former student who had graduated with a degree in creative writing but was having trouble finding the motivation to write, now that she was no longer required to do so for classes. I could relate, more than I wanted to admit. Though at first I felt like I didn’t have any advice to give her, I gradually–through about an hour of conversation–came up with the following tips. They aren’t magical, and some will suit certain people better than others. If you’re in need of writing inspiration, give them a try and see which ones work for you.

  1. Join a writing group. I recommend this one all the time. Being part of a supportive writing feedback group, online or in person, can bring all sorts of benefits, from lifelong friendships to marked improvements in your writing craft. More to the point of this post, belonging to such a group can work wonders for your writing motivation, both because hearing other people’s work can get your mental gears turning with ideas of your own and because knowing that people are waiting for your next installment creates a healthy, exciting pressure.
  2. Try some writing prompts. A book of story prompts (e.g. “Write a short mystery that includes a mirror, a bird, and Germany” or whatever) was one of the first gifts I gave my now-husband, an avid tabletop roleplayer who is always looking for campaign ideas. But you don’t even need to spend money on a book to do this; creative writing prompts abound on the internet. The constraints of the prompt can be a great antidote to writer’s block, and you can always abandon them once your story gets going.
  3. Set aside a regular time to write. This advice is so common as to almost be a cliché, but most people don’t do it. (Actually, I haven’t been doing it lately either, and I notice the absence of this routine in my life!) For several years, I spent the last half-hour of each of my workdays writing something–a PowerPoint for a class, a page or two of my novel, a blog post. Editing something I’d already written counted too. I was always amazed at how much I was able to accomplish in 30 minutes, five days a week.
  4. Read widely. Once again, this is common advice, but you’d be surprised how many people I’ve met who say, “I’m a writer, but I don’t really read much.” I understand it might not be your favorite thing to do, but if you’re a writer, you should be reading–in your genre, outside your genre, writers whose style you admire, etc. You don’t have to approach it like an assigned task (unless that motivates you to do it), but any reading you do is going to have benefits for your writing in some way, even if you don’t notice it right away.

I hope these tips are helpful to you! Let me know if you try any of them, and please share writing tips of your own!

why giving feedback to students makes you feel tired

I had an idea for a post to write today, but I’m not going to write it. One reason for that is that the topic is better suited to my podcast, so I’m going to save it for an episode. But the main reason is that I don’t feel like I have the brain capacity to write about that topic–which is as abstract and philosophical a topic as I’m willing to touch–right now. I have just spent about two hours answering student emails and text messages, grading assignments, and making Microsoft Word comments on a student’s masters thesis draft. The emails and texts were not just “Received, thanks!” type of messages; they consisted of several paragraphs’ worth of writing advice (in this case, about creating plausibility in a fantasy scenario) and explanations of how to use our learning management system. The grading feedback, while short, got into the topics of primary sources in early American history, tree communication (this is a real thing; there’s a book about it), and parallel universes. The Word comments weren’t of the basic “put a comma here” variety; they involved suggestions for further research, recommendations about elaborating on particular topics, and other macro-level issues regarding this student’s thesis.

Sometimes I get to the end of several hours of this kind of communication and wonder why I feel like I can’t have an intelligent conversation, or why I don’t want to talk at all. Maybe you’ve felt the same way. I know why: It’s because those individualized comments–whether they are written in red pen on a paper, typed in a comment box on Canvas or Blackboard, or spoken to a student in a face-to-face or phone conversation–are perhaps the most important thing we give students. I would venture to say they are more important than grades or lectures or materials. And if you take your job seriously and care about your students, you’re going to bring your best to writing (or speaking) those messages. So it’s no wonder they wipe you out in a good way. They are not peripheral–they are your work. Teacher, you are a writer (or a speaker, and not just a lecturer). Own that!

What’s new on the podcast?

I just got finished recording two episodes for my podcast, It’s Lit Time! with Dr. Tess, where I talk about anything with a storyline. I had so much fun with both of my guests today as we talked about widely different topics, and I’m looking forward to a third recording session tomorrow night. I’m going to try to get a little fancier with these episodes than I have with past episodes (and by that I basically just mean that I’m going to work on creating an intro with some catchy music), so you can expect these episodes to release in August:

What Is a Family? with Andy Thigpen (all about The Godfather)

What Is a Lousy Book? with Christy Austin (or, the top seven things that make Christy stop reading a book)

What Is a Superhero? with Sam Harris (hopefully, the title is self-explanatory on this one)

Meanwhile, you can listen to my first two episodes, What Is a Story? and What Is a Novel?, on my podcast site: https://asynchronous.podbean.com/ (Another of my goals for the near future is to make these episodes more accessible and easier to discover.)

Enjoy, and join the conversation by replying to this post!

monthly goals

Hello, blog readers! It’s been over a month since I’ve posted, and I miss you. I’ve had a couple of students tell me they’ve started following my blog, so I thought I should get on the ball with some new content. Before I do, though, I want to remind you about my podcast, It’s Lit Time! with Dr. Tess. While this blog focuses on teaching and learning, the podcast is about literature in a broad sense, including film and other forms of storytelling. I have some exciting conversations with guests coming up later this month, including discussions of The Godfather, superheroes, and mistakes writers should avoid. For now, check out my first two episodes:

Episode 1: What Is a Story? https://asynchronous.podbean.com/e/its-lit-time-episode-1-what-is-a-story/

Episode 2: What Is a Novel? https://asynchronous.podbean.com/e/its-lit-time-episode-2-what-is-a-novel/

And now that the commercial is over, today’s post.

I was reading last week about someone who shares her goals each month with her blog readers as an accountability method. I thought I would try doing this, with hopes that it will be useful not only for me but also for you–perhaps as an inspiration for a framework for your own goals. (The goals themselves, of course, will be highly individual.)

All year, I’ve been using a formula for my goals that involves the concept of loving others well. I started with three and have added one each quarter, so I’m up to five. Here they are:

  1. Love and serve God well.
  2. Love and serve Jordan well. (Jordan is my husband.)
  3. Love and serve my students well.
  4. Love and maintain my body.
  5. Love and maintain our home.

The first thing some of you might notice about these goals is that they are not the SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based) goals that many of us have been taught to make in organizational settings. (Teachers, you know these would not fare well as lesson objectives, as in “After this lesson, the student will be able to…”) This shortcoming is addressed partly by the fact that these goals deal with relationships in which I’m attuned enough to the other person or entity that I can usually tell intuitively whether things are going well or poorly. But also, as facilitated by my Cultivate What Matters Powersheets Goal Planner, I’ve broken down each of these large-scale goals into quarterly mini-goals, which are further broken down into action steps. My mini-goals for this summer range from the near-universal “Clean more regularly” to ones that are specific to my situation right now, like the one about helping Jordan transition back to the office three days a week after having worked almost entirely from home since March 2020. My action steps are even more varied, from setting my alarm earlier on Sunday morning to training for a race (I just signed up for a local zombie-themed 5K trail race) to making strategic use of apps like Forest and Love Nudge.

Once again, this post is meant to be inspirational, not prescriptive. And I realize that for some of you, the idea of making quarterly mini-goals and action steps sounds cheesy or restrictive. But for those of you who enjoy this kind of stuff–or are open to trying it–I hope this post gets you excited. Please feel free to keep me accountable–and to share your goals with me. Let’s help each other out!

It’s Lit Time! with Dr. Tess

I’ll keep this brief, but I want to let you, my blog readers, know that I started my podcast! It’s not the education podcast I envisioned when I posted about this a few months ago, but rather a show about stories of all kinds–books, movies, and anything else with a story arc (though, as I hope I showed in this first episode, that term “story arc” is a bit slippery). I’ll keep my ruminations about online teaching and learning here on the blog, and my observations about literature on the podcast–though there may be some crossover from time to time. If you like stories, listen to Episode 1 and let me know what you think!

https://asynchronous.podbean.com/e/its-lit-time-episode-1-what-is-a-story/

Christmas anticipation–online professor style

When I taught on a university campus, the Christmas celebrations began as soon as the students arrived back from Thanksgiving break. (I should add that I taught at Christian universities, so the specific holiday of Christmas–not just a general air of festiveness–was celebrated loudly and proudly.) Everything had to happen early to get all the various departmental parties and campus traditions in before winter break. The maintenance crew had to start putting the lights up early (one of my universities meticulously outlined every tree on the main street of campus) so we could enjoy them for more than a day or two. Christmas music started floating out of various doorways, and colleagues started dropping cards and cookies on each other’s desks.

Even if the pandemic hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have been able to experience all of that this year, my first year teaching completely online. While I’m probably going to get more accomplished this December than ever before because I’m not getting interrupted for things like the faculty Christmas card photo and the office decorating competition, I miss the excitement of December on campus. So I’m making a list of ways that I can make these next few weeks special as I work from home, and I’m sharing that list with you in hopes that it will inspire you to add a little anticipation and jollity into your December, even if you’re not an online professor.

  1. Listen to Christmas music. This is obvious, but what if you’re tired of the cycle of the same 50-ish songs that gets played on every radio station? Also, what if, like me, you prefer to listen to instrumental music while you work? Good news: There’s a ton of wordless Christmas music out there, in a range of genres from classical to bluegrass. Just search “instrumental Christmas” on Spotify or Pandora. One of my favorite artists in this niche is Craig Duncan, who has released a whole series of Celtic and other folk-inspired Christmas albums over the years. Also, a fun activity for you classical fans is to repurpose pieces that aren’t normally considered Christmas music. For example, this morning I was listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Greensleeves.” I listen to it year-round, but on December 1, it becomes “What Child Is This?,” like magic.
  2. Start your workday with an Advent reflection. You can take this in many different directions. I’ve never tried this, but I bet you could come up with readings for the whole month of December from Charles Dickens’s Christmas stories. For the past few years, I’ve been enjoying Biola University’s Advent Project: http://ccca.biola.edu/advent/2020/#. You can sign up for free by entering your email address, and every day from now until Epiphany (January 6), you’ll receive a multimedia devotional that includes two pieces of music to listen to, a work of art to look at, and a scripture passage, a poem, a reflection, and a prayer to read. Biola also does a Lent Project in the spring, and if you sign up once, you’ll get both series of devotionals every year. And they are very good about not sending junk emails; you’ll only receive the devotionals. I love this because it’s a moment of reflection and worship that comes right in the middle of my morning email check–a time when I very much need it!
  3. Upgrade everyday items. On December 1 or slightly earlier, I bring out my Christmas items. These are not just tree ornaments, though my husband and I do have three trees to decorate this evening! (That’s what happens when you get married after living alone for years and accumulating a lot of stuff.) I have Christmas mugs, Christmas coasters to put them on, Christmas socks, Christmas sweaters, Christmas earrings, Christmas candles, Christmas hand towels, Christmas notepads, Christmas soap and matching-scented room spray, a Christmas tablecloth, Christmas cookie cutters and tins, even a Christmas salt and pepper shaker set. I realize that to some people, bringing all this out every year and putting it away a month later probably sounds horribly stressful. But for me, a person who loves ritual and tradition, this is one of my most dearly anticipated activities every year. And you don’t have to go all out; even one or two special items can do the trick. Try it–a grading session is more fun (or at least more bearable) when you’re drinking tea out of a mug that says, “Have a cup of cheer.”
  4. Have your own office Christmas party. I haven’t tried this yet, but because my husband and I are both working from home right now, I’m hoping we can take some breaks during our workdays over the next few weeks to do something seasonal like watching a short Christmas movie, working on our cards, or taking a brisk walk in the frosty air (or the snow, if we ever get this lake effect snow shower they keep talking about). Our activities this year will not be centered on food because we’re doing the Whole 30 right now (great timing, right?), but if you’re working from home with someone else, you could have a cookie-baking party or re-create the classic office potluck (i.e., each of you searches the pantry and fridge and puts something yummy on a fancy plate). This is also a great time to listen to your favorite non-instrumental Christmas music.

I hope you got at least one idea from this post, and I hope you’ll share your ideas for making December special with me in the comments!

book recommendation: The Courage to Teach

I realize I’m behind the times here. Parker J. Palmer’s The Courage to Teach was published in 1997. I’m reading the 2007 updated edition, but still, teachers are facing new challenges that Palmer couldn’t have imagined when he wrote this book. But then again, maybe he could. The specific circumstances are unprecedented (I know; we’re all tired of that word), but the underlying issues are the same. Schools having to shut down due to a pandemic—that’s a new challenge. Teachers being required to go into work, even though their buildings are shut down, because the people in charge don’t trust the teachers to do their work unsupervised—that’s an old problem.

This is a book about inner work, and Palmer is a Quaker who talks a lot about the voice of vocation and stuff like that. Don’t let that scare you away. He’s a wise, level-headed teacher with years of experience. I was going to share some quotes today, but I’d end up quoting entire chapters. So I’ll just share one example of how this book has helped me so far: It’s allowed me to understand and admit that, when I’m not at my best, I’m deeply afraid of what my students think of me. And it’s given me some steps forward to deal with that fear—not “quick tips,” but truths that will require some reflection.

If you’re a teacher at any level, I highly recommend this book. If you’re not a teacher, you can read it anyway—or you might enjoy one of Palmer’s other books, such as Let Your Life Speak. If you’ve read any of his books, let me know what you think!

on “putting oneself out there” and how it feels to fail

I thought I’d start this blog on a positive note with a post about rejection and failure.

That’s a joke; you can laugh. I’m not trying to make a profound statement about the value of failure. I believe it can be valuable, but that’s not what this post is about. Today, I want to start a conversation about how rejection and failure—and the fear thereof—feel in the moment you are experiencing them, before you start looking for life lessons and recalling all the inspiration quotes you’ve read about Thomas Edison and people like that. Let’s talk about what makes us feel these feelings and what we do to deal with them.

Academics are always at risk of rejection and failure. I am reading a book by Helen Sword called Air and Light and Time and Space: How Successful Academics Write (and really enjoying it! Perhaps I’ll review it here when I finish), and I found it delightfully ironic but not surprising that she included a chapter on failure in a book about successful people. The book consists largely of quotations from Sword’s extensive interviews with prolific and well-regarded (but not necessarily celebrity-level) scholars from across the disciplines, and in this chapter, they speak of rejection letters, bad reviews, discouraging colleagues and “mentors” (I put this in scare quotes because a discouraging mentor should be an impossibility), and the all too familiar fear of sharing one’s words and ideas with an audience of any size.

Sword’s book is addressed to professors who publish academically on a regular basis, which means I’m a little bit outside her target demographic. Perhaps some of you, like me, are in a position in which your primary duty is to teach and there is little or no expectation for you to publish. But that doesn’t mean you don’t consistently face rejection and failure too. For one thing, if you have a blog, a social media platform, or even a regular-person social media profile that your colleagues and students can find, your ideas (and your photos of sunrises and pumpkin spice lattes—I’m talking about myself here) have a larger audience than you might feel entirely comfortable with. If you are an online faculty member with creative control over your own course, your students are reading your words, hearing your voice, perhaps seeing your face each time they log into the course, and there’s always a risk that the students will find your mannerisms awkward or your teaching style overbearing, or that an activity or reading you assign will fall flat. Even if you see yourself as merely a facilitator of a course that someone else designed, you are still the breathing, human face of the course for your students, and every time you post grading feedback or send an email clarifying an instruction, there’s a chance your students will misunderstand or be offended or ignore you.

Why do we keep setting ourselves up for potential rejection or failure? Well, think about the alternatives—you could just not reply to your emails, or you could never try anything new in your course, or you could wear a paper bag over your head in your course videos (as just a few examples). I hope you agree with me that, while these alternatives may be enticing, they are not desirable options. The very same conditions that set you up for failure and rejection are also the conditions that allow you to teach, to encourage, to model, and—possibly—to change lives. But now I’m getting too inspirational. Let’s back up for a minute.

I want to talk about the specific scenarios that trigger those fears of rejection and failure. Please share in the comments below—what, in your teaching career, has made or regularly makes you want to hide under your desk? For me, one of the worst triggers is reading course evaluations. I think a big reason why these are so consistently scary for me is that my first full-time college-level instructional job was teaching a required, zero-credit course that many students regarded as remedial (which it was, even though we didn’t use that word) and as a punishment for not passing the placement test. Some students welcomed the opportunity, some begrudgingly came to admit that the course wasn’t a complete waste of their time, but others bore a semester-long grudge toward the course and took it out in the course evaluation. And of course, I read all the negative comments in the evaluations as if they were about me, as a person, even though many of them weren’t. So even though I’m now teaching courses that students tend to enjoy or at least find valuable, my heart rate still goes up and my palms get sweaty when I open those evaluations. I rush through them, seeking out negative comments so I can get them over with, which causes me to skim over and not fully appreciate the positive, sometimes even glowing, comments that now typically outnumber the bad ones. Course evaluations are supposed to be a tool to help faculty know how to improve their courses, but for me, they’re too tied up with ugly emotions to really be helpful. Like other things in academia that are supposed to be useful, they have become an ordeal instead (perhaps another post for another time?).

Here are some other scenarios that might trigger a fear of rejection or failure:

  • Presenting an idea in a committee meeting or email discussion
  • Asking for something (a pay increase, time off, the opportunity to teach a desired course)
  • Meeting with a new student who thinks you’re cool and wondering the whole time if her illusions about your awesomeness are being shattered (Does this sound oddly specific? It’s happened to me. By the way, this scenario involves imposter syndrome, a subcategory of today’s topic that I plan to write a whole post about soon.)

What are some of your scenarios? Why do you think they are triggers for you? Do they cause physiological symptoms like the ones I mentioned above? (The raised heart rate and sweaty palms are not just metaphors!) Is there anything you have learned to do to deal with these fears or at least mitigate their symptoms? (For example, in my welcome post, I mentioned that I might have my husband hold my hand while I read course evaluations.)

I’m excited about the community we are forming here, and I look forward to reading your thoughts on this topic. If you found this post helpful or mildly entertaining, tell a colleague or friend!

What’s next for Penelope?

I’ve been blogging at this site since December 2011. I started the blog so that I could review a couple of books that I wanted to receive for free. Since then, I’ve written about topics as serious as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and as frivolous as my hypothetical Roller Derby name. I’ve told numerous embarrassing stories about cooking mishaps and breaking things. I’ve reviewed movies and albums, shared a couple of fan fiction stories, and hijacked the blog for a couple of months as a promotional platform for my self-published novel. I once seriously considered and made some steps toward re-branding this into a “Hufflepuff leadership” blog. (I still think someone should do that.) I’ve written about my job, my faith, and lately, my marriage. And I have nine partial drafts in my queue, including a “zany” travel mishap story that turned out to be boring when I wrote it down and a post tentatively called “what Ross Geller has in common with almost every Jimmy Stewart character (and me?).” (This one was doomed from the start.)

I realize that if I kept pressing forward for another year and a half, I could celebrate the tenth anniversary of this blog. But I think it’s time for me to end this long chapter in my writing life. I’ll keep the WordPress account in case I want to write a special post now and then, but these will likely be rare. Writing will always be one of my primary means of processing my thoughts and feelings, but not all of that writing needs to be shared with a readership.

Speaking of you, my readers–I know I’ve always had a small following, but you’ve been incredibly faithful. Some of you left long, frequent comments on my posts; others read the blog quietly for months, maybe years, before dropping into a face-to-face conversation the fact that you were reading it–always a delightful surprise. Thank you for paying attention.

I’ve thought for a while that it would be fun to have a podcast or a YouTube channel (actually, I have a great channel idea that I’m trying to convince my husband to help me with), but I don’t think I’ll jump into anything like that anytime soon. I’m thankful for the years I’ve been able to share my thoughts with you, and I hope we can stay in touch by other methods. Now I’m going to go cry a little.