getting psyched for NaNoWriMo

November is National Novel Writing Month, not an official holiday but the flagship event of the eponymous nonprofit organization. If you complete a 50,000-word novel during the month, you can claim to have “won” NaNoWriMo, though it’s not a competition. I did this once, almost 10 years ago. I wrote a novel, heavily inspired by The Dark Knight and Harry Potter, about a man who goes around taking the punishment for other people’s crimes. I had also been reading a lot of George Eliot at the time, so my prose in the novel is very dense, and my narrator often breaks out into philosophy. Unless you already know a lot about guns and police procedures, crime drama is not a good genre for NaNoWriMo because there’s little time for research. So my novel, which I self-published as A Man of No Reputation, has a lot of problems, but it inspired a number of themes that continue to appear in my writing, such as loneliness, self-sacrifice, and a protagonist with a perpetually sad-looking face (he can’t help it; it’s just what his face looks like!).

This year, I’ve decided to use NaNoWriMo as motivation to complete the zombie apocalypse narrative I have been working on, slowly, for over a year. I won’t be able to claim to have “won,” since I have no intention of writing 50,000 words; I am at roughly 26,000, and my story arc is nearing its end. (I’m not sure what the finished project will be properly called–a long short story? a novella? I’m mainly thinking of it as the source text for a movie.) Since November starts this Thursday, I want to take a few minutes to look back on the changes my story has gone through and forward to how it might end up. (I really do mean “might”; I have a general idea but no actual outline. I am what they call, in writers’ group lingo, a “pantser”–I plot by the seat of my pants.)

Originally, although I was and still am calling my story a (dark) comedy, my main character was going to die. It was going to be a beautiful, self-sacrificial death, kind of like in my 2009 NaNoWriMo project. I maintain that a comedy can end with the main character(s) dying, like in (spoiler alert) Thelma and Louise, a major inspiration for my story along with Zombieland and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (yes, I’m writing a road trip story). But after getting a lot of feedback about how much people in my writing groups loved my main character, Sam Larson, I started to reconsider killing him off. Yes, I was partly trying to please my audience (not a bad thing), but it also occurred to me that perhaps I could better reinforce one of the themes of my story by allowing Sam to survive.

That theme is LIFE, and it’s a theme uniquely suited to a zombie narrative, which is permeated with a grotesque parody of life. Readers learn early in the story that Sam suffers from clinical depression and that about ten years ago, he attempted suicide. Although Sam has learned to live with depression and no longer wants to die, he constantly struggles to believe that his life has value, especially in this new world in which people tend to be judged by their physical prowess and survival skills. (I’ve written extensively on my blog about this issue in zombie apocalypse narratives.) I think I could still convey this theme with Sam dying a heroic death at the end, but I believe the theme will come through even more clearly if I show him living.

I’m also using a motif that is especially suited to the zombie subgenre: eating. People are constantly eating in my story, whether it’s oatmeal heated up over a fire on the side of the road or a full Italian meal in the safe house. Of course, zombies are always eating too, but they derive no joy or satisfaction from this meaningless activity. In contrast, I wanted to show my characters enjoying food as a gift of life and sharing it with each other. So the eating scenes are not throwaways but integral to the message of my story.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo? Are there any other themes and motifs you can think of that are particularly appropriate to zombie stories? Let me know in the comments!

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my teaching philosophy

I’m taking an online class about how to teach online (it’s a totally understandable standard requirement for first-time online instructors at my new school, even those of us who have taught online elsewhere), and I have to write a paper about my teaching philosophy! With sources! What? I didn’t sign up for this! And now I feel exactly like my students feel in every single one of my classes. It seems the course designers were trying to teach us a lesson in empathy (ya think?). I think I have a teaching philosophy somewhere that I wrote for a previous purpose, but I thought it might be self-plagiarism if I turned it in for this class (again, this is the kind of stuff my students worry about). So I thought I’d try out some ideas in this post.

The first aspect of my teaching philosophy [Comment: This is kind of a clunky transition. Can you think of a way to introduce your topic without announcing?] is that teachers should model their expectations. If I want my students to get into the habit of consulting a manual for APA format, I should show them how to look up information in the manual, not pretend I know all the APA answers from memory because I’m the teacher. If I want my students to be able to perform a close reading of a story, it’s okay if I spend most of the class period retelling Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” (which I’m not sure if my students read in the first place even though I told them to) with an open textbook in front of me, pausing to ask questions (and admit that I don’t know all the answers and explain that some questions have many possible answers) and point out the kinds of literary elements I want my students to be looking for. If I don’t want my students to be on their phones during class, maybe I shouldn’t always be playing on mine while they’re taking quizzes (yikes, that’s a hard one!). [I don’t have a source for this. Can we use personal experience in this paper?]

Teachers should also make themselves available to their students, but with boundaries. [Comment: There, that’s a better transition!] During the workday, I try to respond to emails as quickly and as thoroughly as possible; I keep my office hours even though students rarely come by (and I keep my door open during office hours, which seems obvious to me but apparently isn’t universal practice), and I will always pause during class to answer a student’s question (but that’s mainly because I’m pretty sure I have adult-onset ADD and can’t ignore a raised hand). I see myself as an approachable helper, not an elusive oracle who speaks only in enigmatic proverbs. But I also set boundaries (e.g., I usually don’t check email in the evenings and on Sundays) not only for my own mental health, but also because I want my students to develop problem-solving skills and patience and learn not to panic when they don’t receive an immediate response from me. [Still no sources. Maybe I can throw in a gratuitous reference to Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend?]

Finally, I believe [Comment: No need to say “I believe”; I know you are the author.] that teachers should show the mercy and grace they have been shown. For example, the necessary flip side of my being unavailable on Sundays is that I’m usually a little lenient with Monday deadlines (shh…don’t tell my students)–i.e. if a student is waiting for a response to a question he/she emailed me over the weekend, I will usually allow that student to turn in the assignment a little late and/or resubmit it if it was submitted incorrectly. (Unless the question was stupid. Wait, there are no stupid questions! Don’t we all tell our students that? It’s mostly true.) I know some professors who approach students with skepticism (at least claim that they do so), muttering comments like “I bet his grandmother really didn’t die; he just doesn’t want to come to class.” I have to admit that I’ve had similar uncharitable thoughts before, especially about online students, whose faces I don’t see and voices I don’t hear, so it becomes far too easy to think of them as machines rather than people. That’s why I believe that it’s imperative, especially with online students, to assume positive intent and give students the benefit of the doubt. I’d rather be defrauded by one student (even though I HATE the thought of being lied to) than take a disbelieving stance toward every student. Like Albus Dumbledore, I want to believe the best about people, and it’s usually a good policy, except when hiring Defense against the Dark Arts teachers (Rowling, Books 1-7). [There! I got a citation in.]

Well, hopefully I can copy and paste some of this into my paper and just add some big words make it sound a little more academic. But would that be self-plagiarism?

how Harry Potter defeated Voldemort

Over the weekend, I responded to a Facebook post asking how the main character of the story I’m writing would respond if he were in the place of the main character of the last movie I watched. The last movie I watched happened to be Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (the odds were pretty good), and the main character in my zombie apocalypse story is Sam Larson, whom you can read about here and here. I said that Sam wouldn’t be in Harry’s position at all; he’d be in Hufflepuff minding his own business. But, I wrote, if he did happen to find himself in such a critical situation, he’d probably do what Harry did: sacrifice himself for his friends and accomplish a quiet, understated defeat over evil.

That last part surprised me as I wrote it. My character, Sam, is certainly quiet and understated. But what’s quiet and understated about the most epic battle between good and evil of our time? With wands and spells and people flying through the air and Hogwarts castle burning to the ground? The answer is that Voldemort isn’t defeated in a battle. He’s defeated after a battle. In the final movie, which follows roughly the last one-third of the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the first half is loud and fast, with lots of cuts and lots of people on the screen at any given time. Then, when Harry, Ron, and Hermione slip away from the aftermath of the battle and witness the intensely private death of Severus Snape, things slow down. Harry watches Snape’s memories and learns his fate alone (and this is quite a long scene in the movie), and he walks into the woods to face Voldemort alone, except for the unseen presence of the spirits of his loved ones. When Voldemort finally faces Harry, there’s no music and no sound from the other characters, just Voldemort’s curse ripping through the silence.

A quiet, thoughtful conversation between Dumbledore and Harry ensues in Harry’s personal version of limbo, a whited-out King’s Cross Station (even the muted color creates a sense of hush in this scene). And when Harry returns to life, he stays silent, pretending to still be dead, until the right moment. Keeping quiet about his defeat of death is surely difficult for the ultimate Gryffindor, but Harry has learned wisdom to balance out his eagerness.

Once Harry reveals that he isn’t dead, chaos breaks out, and the battle resumes, but it isn’t the focus of the story. In the book, everyone eventually stops fighting and watches and listens while Harry and Voldemort face off and Harry gives a long, detailed explanation of the Horcruxes and why the Elder Wand doesn’t work for Voldemort–why, in fact, Tom Riddle is already defeated. In the movie, the conversation is much shorter, and the face-off has no audience; Harry and Voldemort fight alone on the ramparts of their mutually beloved school. Both portrayals, in different ways, value privacy over display and wisdom over physical force. Voldemort goes out, to quote T.S. Eliot, “not with a bang but a whimper.” And, in an anticlimactic but perfect move, Harry destroys the wand that brings about Voldemort’s defeat, knowing that it would come to defeat others.

Much has been written on how the valued qualities of all four Hogwarts houses are necessary in the defeat of Voldemort, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone explain how Harry comes to embody all four in the end. (I’m sure someone has written about this; I just haven’t seen it.) Obviously, Harry is most of all brave like the Gryffindor he is. He faces death, “the last enemy” as the Apostle Paul puts it. But he is also incredibly logical and thoughtful, like a Ravenclaw, figuring out the wand conundrum that still confuses me a little bit every time I read the book. He is wise in a different way, too–“wise as a serpent” (to use Jesus’ words), shrewd like a Slytherin, knowing when to hold back information and when to reveal it. And like a Hufflepuff, he gives credit to the others who participated in Voldemort’s defeat. Harry knows that although he is the Chosen One, his bravery, wisdom, and cunning would fall short if not for the friends he remains loyal to, even when (as he often is) he is tempted to strike out on his own. And not just friends, but surprising allies like Snape.

Well, shoot, I just made myself cry while blogging–AGAIN. Harry Potter fans, I’m interested to know what you think about all this. Let me know in the comments.

back to school

Today was the first day of classes at my new institution. Last time I wrote about the first day of classes, I wrote about being so scatterbrained that I could barely organize my thoughts for a blog post. While I wasn’t exactly a chilled-out guru sitting on a mountaintop in mountain pose with a cup of green tea today, I was considerably more focused and less stressed because now teaching is my entire job, not something I try to fit in around meetings and administrative tasks.

It’s an unusually hot day in western Michigan, and this morning it was raining, so my office has been a little damp all day. But at least it has air conditioning, unlike the room where I taught this afternoon. (There were fans blowing, but only the students who sat in the back of the room got to benefit from those, I realized when I went over to talk to one of them after class.) I like to wear a cardigan while teaching because of the pockets, so there was sweat actually dripping down my back and my legs after about an hour of class. On the positive side, my classroom has windows, and it also has an upright piano, which I doubt we’ll ever use, but it looks cool to have in the background. Actually, maybe I’ll see if any of my students can bang out a rendition of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” on October 31, when we have the Reformation/All Saints Day party that I really did schedule on the syllabus. (It may end up being a Halloween party as well, but I wanted to get a sense of who my students are before I start foisting pagan celebrations upon them.)

All classes here are 90 minutes long, and I was worried about filling that much time on intro day, but I neatly rounded out the first hour by taking attendance and rambling about myself, the syllabus, and the textbooks (I am a champion rambler), and then I had my students write a literacy narrative during the remaining half-hour. I’d read about literacy narratives in composition journals–apparently they are rather passe now–but I had never assigned one myself. My off-the-cuff version of the assignment probably didn’t exactly conform to the standards of the genre, but not only did it use up a good chunk of class time; reading the results also taught me quite a bit about my students as writers and readers (e.g. several of them are Harry Potter fans; some lack confidence about writing, and all of them have decent handwriting)–and my students got a 10-point completion grade. Win, win, win.

Eleven of my twelve students are women, so I promised the token male student I would not single him out in class. All but two are brand new freshmen, though a couple of them have parents who work at the university and/or took pre-term classes, which means they probably know more about this school than I do. Still, they all looked sincere and eager to learn, many of them were taking notes during my course introduction (and I didn’t penalize them for doing so, like Snape did to Harry Potter), and one of them asked approximately ten questions during the syllabus review. She apologized for having so many questions, but I thanked her and told her that others probably had the same questions. The best student feedback I received today, though, probably wasn’t meant for my ears. Before class, I heard one of the students saying to the person next to her, “I’m so excited about this class.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a student say that about a freshman writing class. I wonder if she still felt the same way after class.

I wrote a brief note on each student’s literacy narrative, and in many of them, I asked the student to talk with me about something–not incorrect grammar or ineffective transitions, but Harry Potter, creative writing, or some other such enjoyable topic. I hope they will come see me, even the ones who are shy about their writing or terrified about starting college. Especially those ones.

I don’t have any classes tomorrow, so I’ll have time to prepare for my Wednesday classes, which I think are in a room with air conditioning. Every time I walk into a class for the first time, I’m nervous that I’ll be met with faces that are judgmental, sarcastic, or completely checked out, and occasionally that happens, but most of my students really want to be in college. I just hope that after sitting through my class on day 1, they want to stay.

I quit my job.

Today is my official last day at my current job, a position that has given me incredible experience, educational advancement, challenges for personal growth, and colleagues who have become my friends. And really good pay to boot! I went to college to be an English teacher, but after graduating I quickly realized I wasn’t ready for a high school classroom. (I would have been eaten alive, and I don’t mean by zombies.) So I went to college, part 2, to be a person who studies literature and puts off getting a real job a little longer. During my first year in grad school, I was a graduate student assistant, which those of you who have done anything similar know essentially means a hard-working, poorly-compensated instructor. (But we wouldn’t trade that experience for the world!) During that year, I realized that I enjoyed teaching college students–they were a little bit more mature and motivated than high school students, and I only had to see them 1-3 times per week, for about an hour at a time!

During my second year in grad school, though, I accepted a full-time staff position in the Graduate Writing Center. I took it because I was flattered to be offered it (by my thesis chair, to whom I owe both my career path for the past 10 years and my interest in Victorian literature) and because the pay and working conditions sounded better. I started as the instructor for a graduate-level basic writing course (I was teaching grad students before I had finished my master’s—talk about imposter syndrome!); two years later, I became the director of the Graduate Writing Center, and eventually I became the director of nearly all of our university’s tutoring services. I had never intended to go into writing center work (which is a field of its own, a vibrant and growing one), but I professionalized myself into the field: reading the major journals, attending conferences, getting involved in organizations, and learning to speak the writing center language. All along, though, I was still thinking of myself as a teacher, picking up courses even though my eventual faculty contract didn’t require me to teach (even though this made me crazy busy) and trying to stay current in the fields I would be teaching. When it came time to get my Ph.D., I didn’t go for a degree in writing center studies, nor even composition, but literature and criticism. The degree wasn’t practical for my job, but it was practical for the career in teaching that I still believed I would have.

As time went by, I received advancement opportunities, leadership experience, and pay increases for which I was (and still am) grateful. But trying to have both my administrative career and a teaching career on the side was making me crazy, and often it was my “real” job as the tutoring center director that suffered. I knew I should give something up, but while the classes were where my passion truly lay, the administrative work was where most of my pay and all of my benefits came from. And, let me be clear, I didn’t hate that work. It just wasn’t what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life.

So a couple of years ago, I started applying for jobs elsewhere–not just in other schools, but in other states, where I could hit “reboot” on my life, reassessing things that were cluttering up my schedule and my mental space–not just professionally, but personally. And just last month, I received a job offer that would allow me to do so, and I took it. For the first time in my academic career, I won’t be a director of anything; I’ll just be a plain professor (well, associate professor). And I’m very happy about that.

I’m not sure what this will mean for my plans to rebrand this as a Hufflepuff leadership blog, since I won’t be in a leadership position anymore except insofar that all teachers are leaders in a sense. I’m thinking about making it more of a (sometimes Hufflepuff) emotional intelligence blog, which is basically what it has been recently. I’d still like to use my fictional characters Patrick Weasley and Becky Weasley, and maybe even Sam Larson, who appeared last week. As always, I am open to your suggestions.

As Bilbo Baggins once said (in the movie The Hobbit; please don’t hate me for quoting it), “I’m going on an adventure!” I’m glad you, my readers, will be adventuring with me.

Children’s Literature Conference!

I’m here at Shenandoah University’s 33rd Annual Children’s Literature Conference in Winchester, VA. Specifically, I’m here in the dorm room (complete with inconveniently tall beds) that I’m sharing with my friend and conference veteran Allison Scoles (look for her picture book blog starting later this year!). Now that we’re three days into the conference, I want to give you a recap of what I’ve heard so far.

Monday: First, there was a power outage, and everybody freaked out, but the show went on. (Someone actually quoted P.T. Barnum, with proper attribution.) Our first presenter, Laurie Ann Thompson, author of books for young activists such as Emmanuel’s Dream and Be a Changemaker, bravely gave her presentation in a dark, stuffy auditorium. Her description of her middle school experience was what stood out to me most. I wish I’d written it down, but basically she said that she’d tried to be as unremarkable as she could–invisible, if possible–in order to avoid unwanted attention. I can understand that desire, and I think many people can. She also spoke of her career in software engineering prior to becoming a writer; this became a theme of at least the first couple of days of the conference: very few people follow a simple trajectory from childhood dreams to school to being a famous writer.

The power came back on right as Matthew Holm, the illustrator of the Babymouse and Squish books (his sister, Jennifer L. Holm, writes the text), was about to speak. This was a good thing, because he did a bit of sketching during his presentation. Confession: On Tuesday, I noticed that his sketch (of Squish the amoeba looking a little bit like Harry Potter) was still on the easel, so I sneaked up to the platform at the end of the day and took it. Why? Because it’s original artwork, because I love Harry Potter (“Really? You love Harry Potter?”), and because I think I have a little bit of a crush on Matthew Holm. I mean, he’s an adorable nerd with an infectious laugh who draws comics for a living, and who’s happy doing that even though he knows he’s probably never going to win a Caldecott. Also, during his roundtable session, he gamely answered a whole string of questions I asked about how a comic book illustrator would behave during the zombie apocalypse. I asked these for research purposes. (Seriously, the main character of my zombie story is a comics creator.)

After lunch, we heard from Ryan Higgins, author and illustrator of Mother Bruce, its sequels, and other picture books that draw from the comic tradition. He mostly told embarrassing stories from his life in a sheepish voice, but he also gave us what appeared to be a very detailed (though he claimed it was rushed) demonstration of how he uses an app called Procreate (snicker snicker) to draw Bruce, the cranky bear. I enjoyed seeing some of his juvenilia (including an illustrated joke book–I think I made one of those as a child too, or at least a page of one) and learning about his influences–from Calvin and Hobbes to his grumpy yet nurturing grandpa.

The last presenter on Monday was John Schumacher, or Mr. Schu, a former school librarian, now blogger, professor, and Scholastic ambassador, whose enthusiasm and energy make me feel exhausted just watching him. He referred to himself as the “Oprah of books” because he kept giving away books to people just because they waved their hands in the air. I guess he likes to see his enthusiasm mirrored! He mostly told stories about kids’ responses to books, some of which were quite emotional. It was an inspiring conclusion to the first day, but I felt like I needed to take a nap afterward.

Okay, I’ve done it again–my post is already long, and I’ve only done one day. On day two, we heard from some heavy hitters (three Newbery winners and someone who’s probably going to win a Caldecott one day), so I’ll save them, along with the equally awesome day three, for a later post. I suppose I should give you a “takeaway” from the conference thus far. Well, it’s been more reinforcing than revelatory for me. The presenters have been speaking about how children need to see themselves represented in books, to learn empathy through books, and to choose books they want to read. I already knew all that. But hearing each of the presenters explain these concepts in their own way and illustrate them through their own lives has been endlessly fascinating. I’m ready for day four (well, after a good night’s sleep in my weirdly tall dorm bed).

blog rebranding update and story excerpt

This summer–probably in July–I will finally be making the official, no-turning-back shift to the Hufflepuff Leadership blog. (Consider these past few months a soft opening.) In order to do that, I need your opinion. The colleague who will be helping me with the design is asking what I want the site to look like. Well, I know I want it to incorporate black and yellow and a badger; beyond that, I’m not sure. So here’s my question: Are there any blogs whose layout you admire? The topic is beside the point; I’m asking about things like fonts, use of white space, text organization, etc. Please let me know your favorites by commenting below.

And now, I’m going to take advantage of this time when my blog still doesn’t have a clearly-advertised focus and use today’s post to add to my work in progress, a road trip buddy sad comedy set in the zombie apocalypse. Every once in a while, I like to share a bit of this story with you (see an earlier excerpt here). Not into zombies? That’s okay; there aren’t any in this part of the story. Are you into Italian restaurants and/or mother and son reunions? Good, then you should keep reading.

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The restaurant looked (small and dim) and smelled (like a friendly ghost of garlic bread) just as Sam remembered it, except that the chairs and tables had been pushed back against the booths, leaving space for air mattresses and sleeping bags. Sam’s mother leaned over one of the chairs, bandaging a young man’s forearm. She was facing away from the door. Unlike her husband and son, Anna Larson was willowy. Her hair, which she wore in a braid like her immigrant great-grandmother must have worn hers, was nearly white, but the flannel shirt and faded jeans she wore gave her a youthful look that was surely unintentional. “Hey, Mrs. Larson,” said the man in the chair, gesturing toward the door with his free hand.

Anna turned around and saw her son, who was wiping his eyes with the heel of his hand. “Sam.” She strode toward him and hugged him. “We didn’t think we’d ever see you again,” she said, her voice muffled because her mouth was pressed against his ear.

“That’s what Dad said,” Sam said on a shaky exhale, pulling back to get a good look at his mother’s face. “And you’re…?”

“I’m fine,” she replied. “I’m getting to be a nurse again. It’s been–well, since you were born.” She turned around. “I think this is one of your old friends? He shot himself in the arm during target practice. We’re all learning here.”

The young man stood up. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, a few years older than Sam. He had the arms of someone who spent a lot of time in the gym and the abs of someone who spent a lot of time around garlic bread. “I just grazed the top of my arm. Could have been a lot worse, as klutzy as I am.”

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Well, there, I introduced my new character, which was my goal. If you’re interested in learning more, let me know!