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.

lessons from conflict

I rarely have negative interactions with my students. I don’t know if that’s because of the environment in which I teach or the obsessive care I take to try to stay on everyone’s good side–likely it’s a combination of factors. But when I do have a negative interaction with a student (typically by email, since I teach exclusively online right now), I tend to be equally obsessive about trying to figure out what went wrong. I’ve learned that there’s a good side and a bad side to this tendency, and I want to share these lessons in the form of two tips that, in most cases, should be followed in sequential order. Though I’m thinking about student and professor interactions as I write this post, these two tips can apply to almost any type of conflict.

  1. Be open to realizing you’ve been wrong. By listening to other faculty talk and doing some uncomfortable self-reflection, I’ve realized that we professors are way too quick to assume students are in the wrong–they didn’t read the assignment carefully enough, they’re entitled, they just don’t like me…you can see that these assumptions may lead down an ugly path. Sometimes those statements may be true, but they should not be our default responses. A conflict with a student can be a good opportunity to evaluate our own teaching practice. Ask yourself: Can I explain these assignment instructions or this course material more clearly? Can I rewrite the test to remove unnecessary ambiguity? Can I approach my students with a more open mind and a listening posture? You can also pose these questions to a colleague or someone else you trust, who may be able to see the situation more clearly than you can.
  2. Sometimes, though, asking those questions does not lead to an explanation of why the negative interaction occurred. Maybe the student is going through a hard time and is taking frustration out on you. Or maybe, in rare cases, this is simply a student who likes to stir up conflict. In that case, my second tip applies: Let it go. I know that this is much, much easier said than done. But sometimes it’s the only right answer. Instead of obsessively combing through your responses and wondering where you went wrong, you may need to accept that you did everything right as much as you were able. If you’re like me, you may have to remind yourself that it’s not a tragedy if a student doesn’t like you. Admitting this doesn’t make you cynical or uncaring, and it may help you sleep better at night.

So there you have it–my simple (but not necessarily easy) steps to dealing with interpersonal conflict. Maybe I should write a book about this and make lots of money. But then I’d have to fill it with embarrassing stories about myself and my students, and I don’t want to do that. So I’ll turn it over to you: What principles have you found helpful in dealing with conflict resolution?

guest post: There’s Always a Table for You

Today I’m sharing a short story by my brother Mark Stockslager, centering on the Ship Hotel, a landmark of the western Pennsylvania stretch of the Lincoln Highway. Whether you’re interested in the importance of research to creative writing (WRIT 402 students, take note!) or just love a good story, I think you will enjoy this!

There’s Always a Table for You

A Ship Hotel Story

by Mark Stockslager

“‘Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood

When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud

I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form

‘Come in’, she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm’”

Bob Dylan

1

              It was 1975, and Elmer was sick of it. Not the year, no, but mostly everything else. His job at Schellsburg’s one and only real estate business wasn’t on life support yet, but Elmer liked to say it was high time for some diet and exercise if the job wanted to see the 80s. His marriage was taken off of life support a few years earlier, and he was still sore about that. Not just sore that his wife up and told him one day that he was boring, he was fat, and he was balding and she wanted out, no — sore that he didn’t have anyone to complain to anymore.

              “And you complain too much, Elmer!” That’s something else she told him.

              Anyhow, the only thing Elmer much cared for anymore was Bob Dylan records and driving his car. He drove when he was annoyed (sick of it) and that was a frequent occasion these days. So it was on this day that Elmer got in his car, popped in the tape he’d recorded of Bob Dylan’s latest LP and started driving.

              “I’m telling you, Bill — Blood on the Tracks is gonna go down as one of his best,” Elmer told the one coworker he could tolerate, and told him again and again since Elmer picked it up in January.

              “Uh-huh,” was Bill’s reply. He’d said the same thing the other times Elmer had brought up Bob Dylan. To Bill, Dylan was just another anti-war hippie Communist who overstayed his welcome.

              It was a particularly beautiful fall day when Elmer fired up the first track “Tangled Up in Blue” and decided he’d point his Chevrolet Corvair west on 30, which Elmer affectionately referred to as “The Old Linc.” The Lincoln Highway stretched over 3,000 miles from New York to California, and was still held in high regard similar to Route 66, but the stretch through western PA that included Elmer’s hometown of Schellsburg wasn’t used by many folks. Not for long distance travel, at least. The PA Turnpike was more preferable to those trying to avoid the mountain, and the novelty of the gigantic teapot on the side of the road had worn off for those who didn’t appreciate the finer things. Like Elmer did.

              Elmer had checked the clock on his stove before leaving his house. It was just getting on 2 in the afternoon, it was a Saturday, and he had no responsibilities today. “The only thing I knew how to do was to keep on keeping on,” said Bobby, and Elmer agreed.

2

              Elmer backed out of his driveway and directly into the side of his neighbor Ellen Grayfield’s sedan. “Oh, you have got to be kidding me,” Elmer barked. Both parties shifted to park and Elmer jumped out of his car.

              “Ms. Grayfield I—”

              “Don’t bother, Elmer. I’m already over it.” She stayed in the car, but her window was rolled down. She waved her hand like she was lazily waving away a fly.

              Elmer slowed in his tracks. “What? You’re serious?”

              “Well, you’re insured aren’t you?”

              He nodded. “I am.”

              She nodded, almost in unison. “As am I. And quite honestly, Elmer, I don’t know if I even see the need for that nonsense. You see any scrapes?”

              As she said it, Elmer looked at her car and noticed it looked almost brand new. “You know, now that you mention it—”

              “Okay and how about yours?” She nodded at his Corvair, and his eyes followed.

              Elmer squatted by the rear bumper and stared. “Nothing. There’s nothing.”

              “Well don’t act like it’s God’s miracle, Elmer, you barely touched me. It wasn’t a head-on collision.” Ellen Grayfield gave Elmer a half smile and waited for his reply.

              “So you want to just shake hands and call it square?” Elmer reached his hand through her passenger window and she shook it, firmly.

              “That’s what I’m talking about, fella. Where you headed on this fine day, anyway?”

              Elmer was so relieved that (a) Ms. Grayfield wasn’t upset and (b) their cars seemed weirdly fresh off the lot with nary a scratch that he laughed and said, “You know, I have no idea. I was just going for a drive to be honest.”

              Ellen Grayfield once again smiled and once again nodded and said, “Great minds think alike. The Linc?”

              “Yeah I — hey I call it that too!” Elmer began to feel a sense of deja vu, but the good kind. Almost like meeting someone new and realizing you were going to be friends. Only, he’d lived next to Ellen for years and had exchanged nothing but quick pleasantries with her throughout their acquaintance.

              “You headed east or west?” Ellen’s car was still running, as was Elmer’s, but neither seemed to mind.

              “I was thinking of going west. You?”

              “East. Not sure why or what, just flipped a coin in my head, I guess.”

              Elmer was leaning over to talk to Ellen through the window and normally by now his back would have protested. He didn’t feel any pain today. “Ha, yeah, same here.”

              What was going on here? Elmer was not good at small talk (the Dylan conversations with Bill were evidence of that), but he all of a sudden wanted to stand here and chat with Ellen for hours. They weren’t even talking, really, just batting niceties around like backyard badminton, but it came naturally and it felt good. Wonder if Ellen likes Bob Dylan?

              “Well Elmer, as much as I’d like to sit here and chat with you for hours,” Didn’t I just think that? “I’ve gotta scoot. The Linc is calling, and I must go.” She looked at him for a couple beats and added, “You gonna be alright there, Elmer?”

              Elmer shook his head slightly, as if to clear the cobwebs, and replied, “Yeah, oh yeah…guess hitting the brakes after bumping you made me feel a little fuzzy. It’s been really nice talking with you, Ellen.” He moved to straighten his back, just a touch, and felt a twinge.

              “Same to you, Elmer. Don’t be a stranger.” She gave him yet another smile and yet another nod, maneuvered to D, and started to roll. “Gravity pulls us down and destiny pulls us apart, Elmer. Or sometimes together. I don’t know.” Her car pulled up to the stop sign just up from Elmer’s, its left blinker signaled her forged path, and off went Ellen Grayfield.

              Elmer, somewhat dazed but feeling good, turned back to his car. “Idiot Wind” was playing now. And what was it Ellen just said? Gravity and destiny? Elmer knew that was one of many lines in the almost eight minute track, but how did Ellen know that was what he was listening to? Elmer didn’t usually crank up the volume until he was out on the main road — out of courtesy to his neighbors of course.

              The sun glared in his eyes as he turned right onto Route 30 (“The Linc is calling,” Ellen had said) and Elmer glanced at the clock on his dash. It was almost four o’clock. “That doesn’t make sense,” he proclaimed to nothing and no one, “We talked for barely five minutes!” It had felt longer, though, hadn’t it? But if they’d talked for almost two hours, why was the tape still on track four?

              “Whole thing musta looped around and started over,” Elmer said with a grunt of a laugh, but that didn’t quite add up either. It was the thing that made the most sense, though, and Elmer left it at that. He turned “Idiot Wind” up and he sang along loudly. It was, for Elmer, the song he liked to sing along with the most.

3

              Elmer had driven for barely a mile (“Idiot Wind” gave way to “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go”) before his mind forced him back to the weird time jump he had just experienced.

              “Ok, look,” Elmer began (he talked to himself a lot since the divorce, it was easier to think that way), “It must have been later than I thought when I left the house.”

              Was it, though? His mind answered.  You looked at the clock on the stove when you left. It’s in big white block numbers. It said 1:57 pm, and you know it.

              “Alright then…the stove was wrong. Or the car is wrong!”

              Who changed the clocks then, Elmer? You’ve lived on your own since—

              “Yeah yeah, I hear you,” Elmer interrupted his own mind. “Any bright ideas then, smart guy?”

              Elmer’s prying brain seemed not to have any ideas worth noting, so his internal spat came to a quick and unsatisfying conclusion.

              Quick and unsatisfying, you say? Sounds like another reason why you and your wife had—

              “That’s quite enough out of you, thanks!” Elmer shouted at himself. “This conversation is over.” Side two had started and “Meet Me in the Morning” was on. It was a bluesy one, so Elmer turned it up even louder. He didn’t sing, but he beat hell on the drum kit of his steering wheel, dashboard, and doorframe.

              Schellsburg wasn’t much of a town to speak of, so Elmer was out in the country even before he and his mind had started trading haymakers, and Route 30 started its steady climb over the mountain. The sun seemed to be dipping lower and lower like God had hit fast forward on His VCR and the button was stuck.

              The day was almost over and Elmer felt like it had just begun. But it was Saturday, tomorrow was Sunday, and he didn’t have to let some stupid clock issue with his car (and possibly his stove) get in the way of his good time. Which these days consisted of driving and Dylan.

              The steady hum of his car grew to its usual dull roar when going over the mountain, so he turned Dylan even louder to hear it. Let’s face it, Elmer. It’s not about hearing it, it’s about feeling it. Especially when you’ve got the volume this high. Dylan was singing about Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts when the roar of his car gave way to a bang, and a hard jolt towards the oncoming lane.

              “My tire’s blown out!” Elmer yelled to no one. Luckily he was moving slowly, and no one was heading down the mountain, so Elmer corrected himself and his car slowed further to a 15mph crawl as Elmer collected his thoughts.

              “Just find a place to pull over, and we’ll figure something out. Flag somebody down, catch a ride, get a tow. We’re fine.”

              Are we fine?

              “Yes we’re fine. My back hurts and my head hurts but we’re fine.” And frankly, Elmer was proud of himself. The Elmer of the past few years would have been blowing a gasket at this point. The gasket probably would have already been blown after his little run-in with Ellen Grayfield’s sensible sedan, and a flat tire would have ruined the next few days for That Elmer. But This Elmer? He was still riding the buzz from the fact that his and Ellen’s run-in didn’t involve anything other than a pleasant conversation. It was the conversation, mostly. He hadn’t had such a friendly chat in well…

              “When I get up tomorrow, I’m gonna offer to go with Ellen to church. I’m sure she’d love the company. Who am I kidding? I’d love the company, too.” Who exactly was This Elmer? That Elmer — the snarky Elmer in his brain — didn’t recognize or exactly like him. That Elmer loved a complainer. He thought misery tasted good.

              For now, though, Elmer (This Elmer, Our Elmer, if you will) had the matter of his front left tire to worry about, and where exactly he was going to pull off. There weren’t a whole lot of options going over this particular stretch of the mountain.

              There is that old restaurant and hotel joint. The one that looks like a ship?

              “Oh you’re trying to help now, are you?” Elmer chided himself. But That Elmer had a point. It was coming up on the left, wasn’t it? It wasn’t what it used to be, back in the glory days of presidents and celebrities coming to visit, but it was a parking lot, and that’s all Elmer needed at the moment.

4

              It was only seconds after Elmer decided the ship was his best option that the structure loomed around the corner (and not a moment too soon — his tire was thumping loud enough to give up on Dylan). It took Elmer a moment to register two things. Number one — the building was beautiful. It was freshly painted, lit up like a used car lot (but in a good way), and the parking lot was jammed. Number two — the hotel was lit up because it was basically dark. He looked at his dash and saw that it read 5:45.

              “That doesn’t make a lick of sense, but I don’t care. That’s the least of my worries.” And it was true — Elmer hung a lazy left into the small lot and wasn’t sure if he’d find a spot. His Corvair crept along the small strip of parking on the side of 30 (the building was built on the side of a steep cliff on a mountain, after all), and shortly Elmer found a perfect spot. Right in front of the entryway.

              “Hey look at that!” He practically punched the roof in excitement. He eased the car into the space (perfect fit) and hoped the next time it moved was onto the back of a tow truck.

              Elmer sat in the now-quiet car and took a quick moment to close his eyes and collect himself. Yes, his back and head hurt. Yes, he got a flat on a day that seemed to be flying by him, but he wasn’t angry. He wasn’t even disappointed, really. This Elmer was trying to take it easy, baby, take it as it comes (Elmer liked The Doors, too, but nowhere as much as he did Bobby).

              Elmer could hear music, but it wasn’t rock and roll. It was big band music, and it was coming from the hotel. “Sounds hoppin’ in there!” Elmer got out of his car (his back gave him a holler, but not as big as he had feared it would) and made for the door. He knew priority numero uno was asking to use the phone to call a tow, but he was more excited to see what was going on inside.

              As Elmer reached for the door, it swung wide for him. The music came into a loud focus, as did the pleasant smells and sights. The first pleasant sight was an older man wearing a suit, a captain’s hat, and a warm smile, who had opened the door for him.

              “Come in, come in!” the captain said (Elmer assumed he ran this ship) and stepped aside to usher in an Elmer (This Elmer) who was feeling that good, good daze from earlier today at about 1000%. “I’m Herb, the captain of this ship. What can I do for you, Mister…”

              Elmer looked up and met Herb’s eyes. They were kind, patient eyes. The eyes of someone who was waiting for an answer but nice enough to give you time to gather your bearings before you answer. Elmer appreciated those eyes. “I, uh…I’m Elmer! I’m Elmer. My car—”

              “Flat tire, huh? That’s not fun at all.” Elmer gave him a puzzled look. How in the world? Herb recognized the look and laughed. “Oh, I heard you pulling in. Thumping like a bass drum, it was.”

              That was good enough for Elmer (maybe not for That Elmer — the music is way too loud for somebody to have heard that, he thought) so he recovered and asked Herb if there was a phone he could use.

              “Why sure there is, Elmer. Anything else I can help with? Hey, you hungry, Elmer?”

              Elmer was, and Elmer wanted to hang out here as long as he could, honestly. At least until the tow truck got here. It was Saturday (night) after all. “Yes, sir, I am, but is there even a table open? This place is hopping!”

              Herb smiled, gave Elmer a nod, and waved his hand towards the center of the small but charming dining area. “Of course, Elmer! There’s always a table for you.”

              Elmer followed as Herb led him to the small table, one chair already pulled out for its next occupant. “I’ve actually never been inside here, Herb. Driven past it all my life, though.” He looked at Herb then, who was smiling expectantly. “Wait, do we know each other?”

              “I don’t think we do — we get a lot of people in here these days, but I never forget a face. I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of seeing yours before.” A small cacophony of music coming from the slightly cramped stage at the front of the dining room. No one was dancing —not yet — but Elmer had the feeling the tables would get cleared after dinner and this party would really get swinging.

              “Well, Elmer, if there’s anything you need, I’ll know. Somebody will come by to get your order.” Elmer and Herb shook hands, and Elmer sat down as Herb made his way through the room, smiling, nodding, chatting, and overall commanding the room like only those really special people can. Like a captain, for instance.

5

              Elmer had ordered drinks and dinner and was tapping his foot to the music when That Elmer tapped on his brain.

              Say Elmer, what did you come here for? It wasn’t just hopping music and fettuccini alfredo.

              Elmer brought his hand down hard to the table, but no one noticed over the music. “The phone!” He whispered to himself. He’d never called the tow! As if he’d heard Elmer’s whisper, Herb made his way over to him, hello-ing as he went.

              “You ready to make that call now? I figured you’d want to wait until you’d ordered so the timing worked out.” Elmer almost laughed in relief.

              “Yeah! Yeah, that’s good thinking, Cap. I’ll admit, I’d almost forgotten about why I was here in the first place.” Elmer stood up and allowed Herb to lead the way.

              Herb walked in step by Elmer’s side, somehow both of them able to walk comfortably even in the small room. “Oh, let’s say that the dinner and the show was the main reason, Elmer. The car trouble was just the luck that brought you here.” Herb took Elmer to a door off the dining room that led into a small office. Outside the office was a grand (grand for a small restaurant that looked like a ship built on the side of a mountain) staircase that led up to what looked like rooms to rent.

              Elmer laughed and said. “I like that idea, Cap. I like it a lot.”

              “Phone’s on the desk. Take your time, Elmer.” And with that, Herb was back at it.

              Gotta say, I really like this guy.

              “That makes two of us, good buddy,” and Elmer dialed the only tow truck service in town.

              The call was short, and the friendly but slightly stressed voice on the other end of the line assured Elmer that somebody would be out at some point this evening. “But it’s a Saturday night, sir, and it seems like everybody’s driving and everybody’s blowing tires tonight.”

              Elmer wasn’t fazed. “Hey, you can put me at the end of the list if you need. I was able to pull off a nice stop and I’m having dinner, so I don’t mind the wait, truly.”

              “Thanks for understanding, sir. Where is your car located right now?”

              Elmer gave the name of the Ship Hotel (“That old place? Sure, I know it”), thanked the voice, and rejoined the fray.

              As Elmer shut Herb’s office door, he noticed Herb talking to a woman by the front door who looked like she was the main greeter of guests. Herb wasn’t necessarily speaking angrily, but he was more agitated than Elmer had seen him all evening. He wondered to himself what could have the Cap rattled like that.

              Herb broke away when he saw Elmer and instantly flashed him a smile, not betraying that anything could have been bothering him mere seconds before. “Any luck, Elm?”

              “They’ll certainly be here before this party dies down, but hopefully not much before,” Elmer laughed. “Say Cap, everything alright? Not to pry, but you seemed a bit concerned just now.”

              They arrived back at Elmer’s table, his fettuccini just freshly dropped off, and Herb clapped him on the back as Elmer sat down. “Aw now…it’s nothing we can’t handle. Nothing that matters much — it’s doom alone that counts.”

              “Alright, Cap, but if there’s anything I can do….” Herb didn’t reply, but bowed slightly and smiled and off he went.

              Nothing really matters much, it’s doom alone that counts…now where had Herb heard that before? It was right on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn’t place it. It sounded like a lyric. Like a Dylan lyric, his mind chimed in. Do you suppose the Cap likes Dylan too? Or what do you think is really going on here tonight, Elmer?

              Elmer wasn’t sure how to answer the question, so he decided to tuck into the best fettuccini alfredo he’d ever eaten in his life until further notice.

6

              The combination of Elmer’s hunger and the best fettuccini alfredo he’d ever had meant that he finished fast enough to want another plate, but he was keenly aware that two servings of pasta was a trend he’d better stop subscribing to if he wanted to see his feet anytime soon. So after making the wise decision of allowing his digestive system to work, he settled back to listen to the band and glance around the room.

              The Captain was nowhere to be seen at the moment, so Elmer took in the other clientele. It seemed to be your typical Sunday lunch crowd, folks in church-appropriate suits and dresses. It struck Elmer as a little odd for a Saturday night, in fact the whole setting seemed a bit old school, but it was A-OK by him. Nothing wrong with a little fancy dress and fancy music to break up the monotony of his usual TV dinners and leftovers by the record player.

              Elmer thought back on the events of the day. Or at least he tried to — what time did he get up that morning? What had he eaten for breakfast? Can we remember anything before leaving the house and running into Ellen Grayfield?

              Elmer put his hand to his mouth to disguise his muttering and said, “You know it’s getting real when you start saying ‘we.’” That Elmer had a point, though. Elmer thought hard and couldn’t recall anything before leaving the house in the afternoon to drive — but that’s probably because we had the same boring morning we always do, right?

              “You and I are thinking more and more on the same page, buddyroo,” and then Elmer decided to stop conversing with himself before anyone noticed.

              “How did that alfredo treat you, Elmer?” His smiling waiter appeared out of nowhere, who Elmer hadn’t seen since he’d taken Elmer’s order.

              Elmer took a second to recover. “It was the best I’ve ever had, uh…I’m sorry what did you say your name was?” Elmer wasn’t sure the waiter had given it, but he erred on the side of politeness.

              “It’s Robert, and I’m glad to hear that. You got room for dessert?” Robert produced a dessert menu in the same slick motion of clearing Elmer’s plate, and Elmer didn’t bother to ask how Robert had known his name.

              “I’ve always got room for dessert, Bobby,” and they laughed like old friends. Elmer ordered the cannoli (leave the gun) and hoped his tow truck was hours away. Come to think of it, what time is it anyway?

              There wasn’t a clock on the wall. Like magic, Herb approached Elmer’s table and said, “Glad to hear you enjoyed your meal, Elm. It’s coming on 9 o’clock, I’m surprised your tow isn’t here yet.”

              “9 o’clock! Time flies when you’re having fun I guess!” Yeah, at the speed of sound, and Elmer agreed. “I told them to take their time on the account of having too much fun here to be pried away.”

              Herb glanced behind him to see the greeter making a beeline for Herb and Elmer. “That’s what I love to hear —” She whispered in Herb’s ear shortly, and Herb turned to a curious Elmer. “Phone’s for you, Elmer. Sounds like it’s your tow.”

              Herb ushered Elmer not to his office, but to the small greeter’s stand which had a phone with its receiver sitting face down, waiting for Elmer. “Yeah, this is Elmer.”

              “Sir…I’m sorry to say…having trouble…the place…confirm the address for…” The voice sounded a million miles away with an ocean of static in between.

              “Yeah the address is—” and then the call dropped. Elmer turned to see Herb still with him and said, “I guess they’re having a hard time finding this place, and the call dropped on me.”

              Herb nodded apologetically, “Sometimes the phones are a little wonky here —us being at sea.” A beat passed and Herb and Elmer started giggling like they were two school kids sharing a dirty joke. “But hey, Elmer, looks like the dancing is about to start.”

              The tables had been cleared, and the band had kicked it into overdrive. Still older songs, but this time it was a song Elmer could actually place the title. They had begun playing an instrumental version of Sam Coke’s “Twistin’ the Night Away,” and Elmer couldn’t resist.

              “Well they’ll get here when they get here, won’t they, Cap?”

              “That’s the spirit, Elmer. Get on out there!” Elmer didn’t have to be told twice.

7

              Elmer danced for minutes, or hours, he wasn’t sure. He wasn’t a good dancer (he was bad, if we’re being honest), but this crowd didn’t mind. Everyone became instant friends when the rock and roll started to play. The men had shed their suit coats, but even then everyone had a sheen of sweat as they danced to song after song.

              The fettuccini alfredo would have normally given Elmer a serious case of the burps, but Elmer felt better after this meal than he had in a long while. He didn’t even seem to care that his cannoli was long forgotten, but he had a feeling it would turn up at some point. Things just seemed to show up in this place.

              Several songs later, everyone was laughing, panting, and fairly well tuckered out. The band switched back to something smooth and slow and Elmer looked around for the Cap. Herb was on the far side of the small room, leaning on the wall with a content smile on his face. Elmer approached. “You can really cut a rug, Elmer,” Herb said as he pushed himself to a standing position. “I always like to hang back and watch people dance on the weekend nights. People seem so happy and alive.”

              Elmer was still panting a bit when he said, “I can attest to that, Cap. Say, what time is it now?”

              “It’s just now 11, Elm. You might be stuck with us tonight,” Herb once again had an apologetic tone, as if he was being an inconvenience to Elmer.

              “That’s just fine, that’s just fine. They’ll catch me in the morning, I’m sure. I just want to peek out at my car real quick. Is there a room available for me?”

              Herb smiled. “There’s always a room for you, Elmer.”

8

              Outside the air was cool but not cold, and Elmer breathed it in deeply. Elmer was more partial to the fall and winter (“You sweat less in the cold!” he’d say), and he was glad that the summer heat was in the rear view mirror.

              “Speaking of rear views, let’s have a looky at this car of mi—” Elmer blinked as he cut himself off. He blinked again, rapidly, as he stared dumbly at his Chevrolet Corvair. Now he bugged his eyes out as he squatted by the left passenger tire, the one that was a ragged piece of rubber when he’d sailed into this place.

              He didn’t need to squat, could have seen it ten paces away, but Elmer wanted to make sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him. The tire was completely full, no holes, not even any wear on it. Elmer stood up too fast and put his hand on the hood to steady himself.

              “You good, Elm?” Elmer whipped around to see Herb standing in the doorway with a look of concern on his face. “You look a little dizzy.”

              “Just catching my bearings, Cap. But take a look at this.” Elmer stepped aside and Herb approached the car and squatted just as Elmer had a minute ago.

              He whistled. “Look at that, Elmer! That’s fresh off the rack, I’d say!” Herb stood slowly, scratching his stubbled cheek at the unexpected sight of the brand new tire.

              Elmer looked up at the considerably taller Captain. “What are you saying, Cap, they came by and replaced my tire without trying to collect any payment?” Elmer had a thought just as he said it, and checked the wipers to see if a bill had been left there.

              Herb followed his eyes and said, “No bill that I can see. What are you thinking, Elm?”

              “I’m thinking there’s some good samaritans out there, but this would be a random act of kindness of a biblical proportion.’’

              Herb laughed at that and replied, “You’re not wrong, Elmer. There’s ‘paying it forward’ and then there’s this. That’s assuming they did fix it gratis. I guess that means you won’t be staying with us?” Herb had a genuine look of sadness on his face when he asked it.

              “Well, I…I guess I don’t need to now, do I?” Elmer felt that same sadness. He wasn’t ready for the night to end.

              Herb read Elmer’s face and said, “The room’s still on the table for you, Elm. Car or no car, you’re welcome to stay the night. Free of charge.”

              Elmer protested. “Oh hey now, Cap, of course I’ll stay, but you gotta let me pay for the room.” They began walking back to the ship as they talked.

              The door was still open and Herb hung back to allow Elmer to enter. The band was finished for the evening, and the clientele were either making their way to the exit or up the staircase to their rooms. “Elmer, I insist. You’ve become a fast friend, and I like to take care of my friends.”

              “Okay, Cap, I won’t fight you. And I thank you — for everything. This whole night has felt…I don’t know…” Magical, his mind said.

              “Magical?” Herb suggested.

              “Yeah, that’s right.”

              Herb paused at the greeter’s stand to grab a key off of a rack that held several rows of key holders. “That’s what I like to hear, Elmer. You’re in room 14, last of the ‘first class cabins’ that we’ve got. The rooms aren’t big, but they’re cozy enough.”

              Elmer hesitated before going upstairs. “I guess I don’t have any toiletries.” He didn’t say what he really wanted to say.

              “That’s no matter. Check the cabinet under the sink, and if you need anything else come down and holler. We’ll get you squared away.” Herb smiled at Elmer’s continued hesitance, and he stuck out his hand. “It’s a pleasure to have made your acquaintance —no, your friendship—tonight, Elmer.”

              Elmer shook — firmly and earnestly. “Cap, I can’t thank you enough.”

              “Come and back and see us sometime.”

              “That’s a promise.”

              Elmer’s room was indeed small but cozy, and the cabinet did indeed have everything he needed for the night. Almost like they knew, huh?

              Elmer, tired and happy, laid down in his clothes on the bed and sighed. “Yep…almost like they knew.”

9

              He woke feeling more refreshed than he had felt in ages. He sat up and surveyed his cabin on the SS Grand View Hotel. “The Ship of the Alleghenies,” he said to the empty room, and then his heart sank.

              Elmer wasn’t in a small cabin on the ship. Elmer was in his bedroom on Peter Street in Schellsburg. He shut his eyes, held for a moment, and opened them. Still the same bedroom with the same ugly wallpaper he and his wife had chosen together. Elmer threw himself on his back as if to will himself asleep again and gave up immediately.

              “This isn’t right, it can’t be right.”

              I know it, Elmer. It was so real.

              “It was real, dammit!” Elmer stomped out of the bedroom towards the front door. He wasn’t sure what was happening, but he knew he was going to drive right back to the Ship. He was still there in his mind. If he was dreaming, he hoped he wasn’t sleepwalking too.

              Elmer whipped open the door and almost ran into Ellen Grayfield. “Hey, Elmer! I was just about to invite you over for breakfast and — say, where are you off to in such a rush? And still in your jammies, no less?” She looked like she was feigning surprise — like she already knew the answer.

              “I’m uh—” He stopped and looked down at his clothes. He was wearing his usual sleep attire—a white t-shirt and boxer shorts. Friday night’s boxer shorts, by the look of it. “I’m, well…” Elmer thought about it and for a second and figured he might as well tell Ellen the truth. They’d connected yesterday and surely she’d understand. He launched into his story — the flat tire, the ship, the Cap, the dancing, the dinner, all of it. He was talking so fast that he wasn’t sure Ellen would keep up, but she took it all in, nodding and smiling at him. She smiled like she was hearing a story she’d heard a bunch of times before.

              “So anyway, I have no idea why I’m here and not there and I just gotta get back to —okay, why are you smiling at me like that?”

              Ellen touched his arm and said, “Elmer, you want to go inside for a bit? We should talk. And you should grab a housecoat.” Elmer had a pout on his face, but nodded and turned to let Ellen in his little living room. He shuffled to his bedroom, and he heard Ellen in the kitchen banging around. He put on actual clothes, washed his face, and brushed his teeth — both to give Ellen time to make them breakfast and him time to collect his thoughts. Let’s go hear her out, Elm.

              Elmer looked at his face in the mirror. “Okay, pal. We’re ready.”

10

              “So you and the Cap became fast friends, huh?” Ellen and Elmer sat at the small dinette set in the kitchen, sipping coffee and picking at eggs and bacon. Well, Elmer was picking. Ellen was enthusiastically enjoying the fruits of her labor.

              “Yeah, he was…he was the best. Ellen…can you tell me what’s going on, please?” After a beat he added, “And thanks for the breakfast.”

              She waved. “Not a problem, Elm. Look, I’m just gonna tell it to you flat and true. Herbert Paulson, the founder of the Ship, died two years ago in 1973, at the age of 99. He died in a bathtub on his beloved Ship, as a matter of fact.” She stopped and looked at Elmer, allowing him time to process and respond.

              Elmer didn’t take any time to process and blurted, “No no no that’s not right! I was there! The Cap is alive!” He was becoming increasingly frantic. “And he was barely in his 70s, surely! Come on, we’re going there right now, together.” Elmer stood up with a jolt and sloshed coffee on the table.

              “Sit down, Elm,” Ellen said softly, which he did, looking like a child obeying his mother.

              Elmer, with his head down so as not to make eye contact with Ellen, murmured, “Are you telling me I’m a liar? Are you telling me I dreamed this?” To Elmer, the dream would be just like a lie. Or is it something worse?

              “I’m telling you that if we drove the 9 miles to the Ship right now, you’d still find it standing. But you wouldn’t find the Cap, and you wouldn’t find the hopping place you found last night. The Ship has seen better days. I’ve seen them myself.” Ellen reached over to touch Elmer’s hand.

              Elmer found it in himself to meet Ellen’s eyes. “Ellen, what day is it today?”

              Ellen smiled a sad smile, like she knew she was about to break Elmer’s heart. “Today’s Saturday, Elm.” That’s when the tears came to his eyes.

              “It was so real, Ellen.”

              “I know it was, Elmer.”

              “It was a dream?” He wanted Ellen to confirm, to slam the nail in the coffin.

              “That’s the closest word to it. I still visit the Cap too sometimes.” Her hand was still on his. “Was it a good dream, Elmer?”

              He choked out a small sob. “The best.”

              Ellen then took Elmer’s hand into both of hers. “Then that’s good, Elmer. That’s real good.” She took a moment and said, “Elmer, I think we’d be good friends. Would you like that? Would you like to be my friend?”

              Elmer smiled then, with tears still in his eyes. “Yes I would, Ellen. I would very much like to be your friend.”

THE END

“Just to think that it all began on an uneventful morn

‘Come in’, she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm’”

Ditto

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!

Work Places: The Carlisle Inns of Ohio

This is the third post in my series about places to do remote work in some of America’s most beautiful vacation spots. Click here for the first post and here for the second.

Good morning from the Carlisle Inn in Walnut Creek, Ohio! I just walked into our room after sitting on the balcony, which overlooks rolling farmland and (on the front side of the hotel) the quiet main street of Walnut Creek. (It’s just slightly above freezing outside, but the balcony faces the sun and is warming up quickly–and besides, I had a cup of tea.) My husband and I are here on a weekend trip that’s part family visit and part couple’s getaway. We plan on spending time with my aunt and cousins who live in the area and are avid board gamers like ourselves, but we’re also going to do a few things just the two of us, like taking a walk this morning and, tomorrow, hitting some of my other favorite spots in Walnut Creek: Der Dutchman Amish Kitchen Cooking (for breakfast), Carlisle Gifts, Coblentz Chocolate Company, and Walnut Creek Antique Mall.

Why would one want to spend a chilly November weekend in middle-of-nowhere Ohio? For one thing, it’s beautiful here, especially at this time of year, with recently-harvested fields resting on hillsides, orange and red trees blazing over the ridges, and mist rising off the pastures as the frost melts in the morning. For another, it’s quiet here. Although this area (primarily in Holmes and Tuscarawas Counties) has become a prosperous tourist destination in recent years, it isn’t overdeveloped, and businesses close down early at night, reflecting the agricultural lifestyle of the Amish, whose culture-challenging lifestyle is one reason why tourists find the area so fascinating. (Jordan and I passed almost as many buggies, tractors, and bikes as cars as we came into town last night.)

If you visit, I recommend staying in one of the Carlisle Inns, whose slogan is “Peace & Comfort.” (I feel like that should be every hotel’s slogan, right?) They are part of the Dutchman Hospitality Group, who run several fine establishments in the area, including the Der Dutchman restaurant (hearty, homestyle fare) and two of the most gorgeous fine gift shops I’ve ever visited, Carlisle Gifts in Walnut Creek and Dutch Valley Gifts in Sugar Creek. There are two Carlisle Inns. The one in Walnut Creek, where we’re staying, is the older of the two, so the rooms maybe aren’t quite as up-to-date, but they’re still comfortable and clean, and you can’t beat the charm of this location, which stands as a friendly beacon at the foot of Walnut Creek’s main street (especially when it’s lit up for Christmas, like it is now). I love being able to walk next door or across the street to the retail establishments I mentioned earlier, or stroll a little further into the residential part of Walnut Creek.

The other Carlisle Inn is in Sugarcreek, a somewhat more built-up town, though still not at all overdeveloped. It’s newer, so the rooms are a little nicer, and it sits on a whole compound of Dutchman Hospitality properties, including the Ohio Star Theater (a popular local spot for concerts and live theater) and Dutch Valley Market, a food shop. I prefer the location of the Walnut Creek inn a bit more, but you really can’t go wrong with either. You might choose the Sugarcreek Carlisle Inn if either a) you want an ultra-comfy room to stay in on a quick overnight stop on a road trip (I’ve done this) or b) you’re coming to see a show at the Ohio Star Theater (I’ve done this too, when a friend and I came to see Fernando Ortega a few years ago). You might choose the Walnut Creek Carlisle Inn if you want a quiet weekend getaway where you can do a little shopping but still feel like there’s no one else around for miles.

Since this is part of my Work Places series (and Jordan is wrapping up work across the table from me right now), I should mention that the rooms in both Carlisle Inns, from my experience, all have decent-sized tables and ample plugs. I don’t remember the Wi-Fi situation in Sugar Creek, but here in Walnut Creek the network, while adequately fast and reliable, isn’t password-protected, so if you’re concerned about security, you might want to forego the hotel network and create a hotspot on your phone. Also of note, the rooms have Starbucks coffee in them.

But don’t stay in your room working too long if you can help it. Take a cue from your Amish neighbors and distance yourself from technology for the weekend. Isn’t that what you came here for?

Work Places: On the Lanai in Oahu

This is the second post in my series about places to do remote work in some of America’s most beautiful vacation spots. Click here for the first post.

Today is the last day of a week-long vacation I’ve spent with my husband and his parents on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. This has been my first visit to Hawaii, and it’s been wonderful. My main advice to anyone visiting Hawaii for the first time is don’t work. Seriously–this is too beautiful a place for you to spend your time inside staring at a computer. If you have a job that truly requires you to check in from time to time, don’t be checking your email on your phone while standing at the edge of the Waimea Valley waterfall or one of the equally stunning vistas you’ll see practically every time you step outside. Instead, build in a day or two when you can hang out at your lodging and get your task list to the point where you feel okay not worrying about it for the rest of the trip. And if you can, stay at a place that has a lanai.

A lanai is essentially a Hawaiian patio. We have been fortunate to be able to stay in a first-floor condo that has one main lanai, plus two smaller ones accessible through the bedrooms’ sliding doors. I’ve been doing yoga each day on the lanai outside our bedroom. On the main lanai, we’ve been eating all of our stay-in meals, playing games, and watching the sun set over the ocean almost every night. This is also where I did at least a little bit of my work on each day that I had to do some grading. There’s no electrical outlet out there, and it does get quite warm when the afternoon sun reaches the lanai (and that’s going to be true no matter what time of year you visit Hawaii). So I did end up going inside and doing some work in the air conditioning at the dining table, which still afforded a beautiful view of the palm trees and the ocean. But as often as I could, I tried to be outside, feeling the breeze, hearing the ocean, and watching the bold birds hopping across the lawn (most common were mynas, Brazilian cardinals, and zebra doves–yes, we bought a Hawaii Audubon Society book at the grocery store) and the occasional mongoose slipping through the bushes.

In summary: Don’t go to Hawaii planning to work. But if you can’t avoid it, you can’t beat the lanai.

Work Places: breakfast and Wi-Fi in Ludington, MI

Since working remotely has been a theme of this blog since it became what it currently is, and since I’m finding myself working in a variety of far-flung parts of America this month, I’ve decided to start a recurring series called Work Places. In each location, I’ll write about the places where I get out my laptop or planner and do anything that falls under the umbrella of work (and I have a fairly expansive definition of the term).

Before I get to today’s location, I’ll briefly mention where I was last weekend. My husband Jordan and I spent Labor Day weekend at a family cabin in Grantsville, Maryland, in the mountainous western part of the state. There’s no Wi-Fi at the cabin, and I didn’t want to spend much of this vacation working, but I did have some grading to catch up on, and one of our days ended up being too rainy for hiking, so I create an iPhone hotspot at the cabin. I worked for about three hours under the sturdy roof of the outdoor kitchen area, while Jordan sat by the nearby campfire and read. For a grading session, it was pretty idyllic. Afterward, we had lunch at the Cornucopia Café, a breakfast and lunch place with a quiet, rustic vibe, a seasonally changing menu (we’ve eaten there several times and always enjoyed the food), and a full coffee menu, within a short walk of the historic Casselman Bridge and the Spruce Forest Artisan Village. We saw a woman using a laptop at one of the tables, so we’re assuming there’s Wi-Fi there, but don’t quote me on that.

All right–now for today’s Work Places. This weekend, Jordan and I are RV camping with his parents in Ludington State Park, on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan (i.e. the Michigan side). Cell phone reception in the state park is terrible, at least in the campground where we’re staying, and in general I think that’s a good thing. (When we came here last year, my phone kept thinking I was in Central Time–it must have been picking up a signal from across the lake. It was like being in a place outside of time.) But today, Jordan needed to do a half-day’s worth of work, so I decided to join him in his quest for Wi-Fi in downtown Ludington.

We left the park when the sun was just coming up; the quiet and semi-darkness made the trip feel more magical than such an errand normally would. Jordan’s dad had scoped out a few locations for us earlier in the week, and his recommendation was Red Rooster Coffee and Community on James Street, so we headed there first–mainly because it’s one of the few businesses in town that opens at 7 am. It has the somewhat sterile industrial look that seems to be so popular in coffee shops these days, but it still manages to feel cozy, mainly because it takes that “community” thing seriously. There are bulletin boards advertising local events and businesses, the baristas are friendly, and it seemed like every other person who walked through the door knew either one of the staff or one of the other customers. The coffee was good (Jordan had a cold brew, and I had a hot cup of their medium roast), and so were the muffins (we split a banana nut and an orange cranberry). We decided to wait until our second location of the morning to have a full breakfast, but the Red Rooster offers oatmeal, an acai bowl (my father-in-law tried this and said it was good), and a variety of breads and spreads. We stayed for about two hours and never felt like we were being pressured to move. The Wi-Fi was strong and easy to connect to, all the tables had easy-to-reach outlets, and the bathroom was clean. The hip youngster music they were playing was a little loud, but not too distracting, though Jordan did have to step outside to made a phone call.

You can park on the street for free in downtown Ludington, but the spots (which are nice and spacious for bad parallel parkers like me) are all marked “2 hours.” I am not sure if this regulation is closely patrolled, but I went out to move the car a little before 9:00 anyway. About that time, Jordan came to a good stopping place in his work, so we decided to walk down the street probably a tenth of a mile to Brenda’s Harbor Café, a breakfast-focused diner whose menu looked good to us online. We were seated right away even though the place was clearly busy, and we’re still here (9:48) finishing up our breakfast and working on our back-to-back Lenovo Yogas–yeah, we’re cute :). (There aren’t many outlets, but the Wi-Fi password is clearly printed on the condiment tray. It’s like they want you to stick around.) Although the décor here is nautical kitsch (anchors on the curtains and wallpaper, walls packed with framed photos of boats), this place actually feels a lot like the Red Rooster with its friendly staff and vibrant conversations among the patrons, who seem to be locals. (Again, I’m only exaggerating a little when I say that we seem to be the only people here who don’t know anyone else.) And the food is great! Jordan had a classic breakfast of eggs, sausage, toast, and hash browns, while I went for the slightly fancier option of eggs Florentine (a Benedict variation with spinach and tomatoes), and we both really enjoyed our meal. The waitress kept the water and coffee (a solid standard diner coffee) coming, and I enjoyed doing a little people-watching while surreptitiously writing this post. (I didn’t really want the waitress to know I was reviewing this place in real time, you know?) I haven’t checked out the bathroom yet, but the Wi-Fi is working great, and the music is more muted (I think I’ve heard the Beatles and the Eagles, but I can’t really tell).

I want to emphasize that I encourage setting boundaries around work. It’s important to disconnect regularly, even if you don’t go to the extreme of camping in a park where time zones don’t exist. But if you do have to check in with work while in Ludington, check out these two spots. Stay tuned for more Work Places!

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!

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!

Well…CRAAP! Is it time to SIFT the CRAAP?

Today we have a guest post from one of my brilliant graduate students, Miriam DeCock, who wrote this post for an assignment in my class. If you’re a teacher or student, especially at the college level, you may have heard of the CRAAP test for evaluating sources, especially websites. In this post, Miriam introduces us to the SIFT test, a sort of pre-screen that helps researchers determine whether a site is worth the time it takes to go through the CRAAP test. I had never heard of SIFT before reading her post, and I’m excited about this new tool for helping students become literate consumers of information–one of my passions. Even if you’re not a teacher or student, the principles of SIFT can help you sort through the piles of information that get virtually dumped on you every day.

What follows is the text-only version of Miriam’s post. If you’d like to see her original version, which takes you through the process using examples from a real website, you can find it here. The title of this post is Miriam’s too!

Credible, reliable sources…in this crazy, high-tech, low accountability digital age, how do you know what stays and what goes?

We all know that source credibility is paramount to a successful academic or professional paper.  How do you determine if your sources are credible?  How do you teach your students to determine source credibility?  What is credibility, anyway?

A commonly-taught method of determining source credibility is the CRAAP (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, Purpose) test, designed by librarians at the University of California, Chico.  Of course, these elements are important to consider when evaluating sources.  A problem, however, is that this checklist is geared towards print material; in today’s digital age, it is imperative that we can quickly, carefully, and accurately evaluate online sources.  In light of this new digital age we are in, Mike Caulfield has developed a tool, referred to as SIFT (Stop, Investigate the source, Find better coverage, Trace claims, etc.) to help quickly determine if an online source is worth digging into deeper, or moving along and leaving it in the dust.  

Both tools are valuable and both are worth learning about.  Just like any tool, though, we must understand when each one should be used, and how it should be applied.  

Let’s focus on the SIFT test.  The SIFT test is designed to quickly (60 seconds or less!) evaluate an online source.  If the source passes the SIFT test, then it’s time to run it through the CRAAP test (but that will be a post for another day!)

What is the SIFT Test?

STOP: Is the site familiar?  What reputation does it have?

INVESTIGATE: What authority does the author have?  Are there “affiliate links” or page sponsors that might indicate a bias? 

FIND better coverage: Look for a trusted source to confirm the claim.

TRACE claims to the original source: Where did the information originate from? Can you trace the claim to its origin to “get the full story”?  If you are already looking a the primary source, you can search for another source to verify the claims; if you are looking at a trusted source, this step is not absolutely necessary.

Note from Dr. Tess: This is where Miriam takes you through the SIFT process using a real website in the full version of the post, which I highly recommend!

For further reading…  

Want an in-depth look at the SIFT evaluation method?  Make sure to check out Mike Caulfield’s site at https://hapgood.us/   

Caulfield provides an excellent, free, mini-course to learn how to implement his system in various settings.  For more about the CRAAP test, visit https://library.csuchico.edu/sites/default/files/craap-test.pdf

Sources Consulted and References

California State University, Chico, (2010 September 17). Evaluating information: Applying the CRAAP test. https://library.csuchico.edu/sites/default/files/craap-test.pdf   

Caulfield, M. (2019 June 19)) SIFT The four moves. https://hapgood.us/2019/06/19/sift-the-four-moves/

Sawchuck, C. (2017 August 23).  Test anxiety: Can it be treated? Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/generalized-anxiety-disorder/expert-answers/test-anxiety/faq-20058195  Vaiana, D. (2020 February 12).  How to overcome test anxiety: 5 strategies that work.  College Info Geek. https://collegeinfogeek.com/test-anxiety/