Category Archives: writing teacher

What to Write When Your Head is Empty

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Sometimes when my health is poor and too many things are already on my mind, it is hard to think of a subject for the daily essay.  I don’t let that stop me.  Yes, indeed, I can write with a completely empty head.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not a stupid man.  But sometimes life’s demands can empty your mind of idea seeds, and the garden of your mind might be slow in providing new blossoms and palatable fruit.  But some people do a lot of writing with empty heads.  Some are toxic to read because there is no substance to what they say.  And some can spin out a tale or a logic trail that fascinates even though the idea furnaces are initially cold and not ready to cook.

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So maybe I have an idea to write about today already.

Maybe I can say something about how I get ideas out of my stupid little head.

But my head is completely empty today.

Oh, well… I already re-blogged something else anyway.

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500 Words

oliverwendellholmessr1

When I started this whole blogging-every-day thing, I decided the rule had to be 500 words written in a day.  And I meant to hold myself to writing 500 words somewhere in the writing day, whether it was my blog post or the novel I was working on, or a combination of both.  I followed that rule religiously through more than 1,500 blog posts and five first draft novels.  I found it easier and easier to surpass 500 words on a daily basis.  There are all sorts of bits of time available and I collect ideas faster than a rich kid generates empty candy wrappers.  The more I call on the well of words for more words, the more words are available.  Now, it seems, writing only 500 words is the trick.

I suppose I have become an Old Man of Words.  I know both the rules and the exceptions.

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Knowing that I can write more than 500 words easily, then the question becomes, why don’t I?  Well, the cardinal rule is “Say it short.  Say it simple. And say it sweet.”  That rule can generate a lot of wonderful writing, full of juicy ideas that splash with flavor when you bite into them.  Ernest Hemingway knew that rule.  Every poet knows it.  Readers generally prefer the easily accessible idea expressed with elegance.

Now, I also have to admit a guilty pleasure in perpetrating purple paisley prose.  That is the style of writing in which I generally write convoluted sentences with complex ideas that fold back in on themselves and over-use alliteration to criminal degrees.  Charles Dickens liked to do that with descriptive details.  Paragraphs about the boarding schools of London, the streets filled with child chimney sweeps and flower girls, and dingy mind-dulling workhouses could take up two or three pages per paragraph.  And two pages further on, he layers more details on the same setting.  Piles and piles of words and wordplay fill the pages of William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust.  And if you haven’t read at least something from each of those gentlemen, you will never know what you are missing.  But you can prune your paragraphs like a greenhouse master florist with limited space will do to his orchids, and you can actually end up fitting great beauty and powerful content into something even more limited than a 500-word essay.  In fact, if you take your ideas and distill them, and keep distilling them, over and over, you will eventually have pared the words down into poetry.

So, there you have it.  The reason my essays are about 500 words.  This one is four hundred and forty one words.

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Reading Other Writers

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Nobody who wants to be a writer gets by with just writing and never reading anything by anybody else.  It is too easy to devolve into some kind of human mushroom that way, thinking only thoughts a mushroom could think, all fungus-like and having no chlorophyll of their own.  You never learn to decode other people and other people’s thinking if you don’t read other people’s thoughts crystallized in writing.

And not every other writer is Robert Frost.  Or even Jack Frost who thinks he’s  Gene Kelly.  There has to be some interpretation, some digging for understanding.  What did that writer mean when she said political correctness was like a tongue disease?  And what does it mean when a commenting troll calls me a nekkid poofter?  Is that how he spells “exceptional genius”?  I think it is.  Trolls are not smart.

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I know people have to make an effort to understand me.  When I write, I am writing under the delusion that I can produce literary quality off the top of my head.  In fact, I can barely produce hair off the top of my head, and it is gray when I do it.   See what I did there?  It is the kind of joke a surrealist makes, pretending the idiomatic expression you use is to be taken literally when it doesn’t literally make sense.  That kind of nonsense is what my readers have to put up with, and probably also the reason why most of them just look at the pictures.  If you have to think too hard when you read, your brain could over-heat and your hair could catch fire.  I like that kind of purple paisley prose that folds back in on itself and makes you think in curlicues.  But most people don’t.  Most people don’t have fire-proof hair like I do.

20180103_082404 Of course, there is the opposite problem too.  Some writers are not hard to understand at all.  They only use simple sentences.  They only use ideas that lots of other people have used before.  You don’t have to think about what they write.  You only need to react.  They are the reasons that words like “trite”, “hackneyed”, “boring”, and “cliche” exist in English.  But simple, boring writing isn’t written by stupid people.  Hemingway is like that.  Pared down to the basics.  No frills.  Yet able to yield complex thoughts, insights, and relationships.

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Sometimes, it doesn’t even take a word to make the point.  For instance, why, in the picture, is Fluttershy trying to drink out of the toilet in the dollhouse bathroom?  For that matter, why does a doll house even need a bathroom?  Applejack doesn’t even fit in that yellow bathtub.  I know.  I tried to stuff her in there for this picture.  And, as you read this, doesn’t this paragraph tell you a lot about me that you probably didn’t even want to know?

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When I am reading the writing of others, I am looking for a cornucopia of things.  I want to not only understand their ideas, I want to detect the limping footprints across the murder scene of their paragraphs and come to know the deeper things about them as well.  I spent years decoding and trying to understand the writing of preliterate kids in my middle school English classes in order to be able to teach them to write better.   And I learned that no writer is a bad writer as long as they are using readable words.  I also learned that very few writers are James Joyce or Marcel Proust.  Thank God for that!  And given enough time I can read anything by anybody and learn something from it. I read a lot.  And it may not always make me a better writer to read it, but it always has value.  It is always worth doing.

 

 

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Writing Every Day

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Teachers of serious writing will often tell you… or more correctly, give you the Word of God, “You want to be a good writer?  You have to write every single day.”  And having been a teacher of writing at the high school and middle school level, I am committed to passing that on to you also as the inviolable Word of God.  You see, I have long been, well, not a serious writer exactly, more of a dedicated writer with warped notions of reality and a tendency towards goofiness.  You can see by the view of my WordPress insights page that I have steadily, in five years’ time, been noticed and looked at by increasing amounts of thoroughly duped WordPress viewers.

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10,373 visitors have viewed something on my blog 17,383 times in 2017.  And I know that most are looking at the pictures and moving on.  That’s how I get away with writing some of the stupid stuff I post on my blog.  But there’s a secret to that too.  I drew or painted a lot of the pictures I use on this blog myself.  You would think that sooner or later some expert psychologist would trace violence in the streets back to my pictures as the ultimate cause, but that hasn’t happened yet.  I am sure that is mostly because not even the psychologists can muck their way through my paragraphs of purple paisley prose.  You see, I most often use my writing on this blog to commit atrocities of humor and wit.  I only rarely dabble in things intended to be uplifting, spiritual, politically challenging, or sentimental.  I complain on my blog a lot.  It is also a place for expressing my inherent grumpiness and old-man dyspeptic irritations with life.  But viewers tend to take my humor seriously and only laugh at the stuff I am most embarrassed about.

I was supposed to be doing this blog as way to promote my book, Catch a Falling Star, for I-Universe Publishing.  They set it up for me.  But, as they don’t pay me anything for the work I put into it, and it doesn’t really impact sales anyway, I use it now as writing practice.  I have as a personal goal to write 500 words a day.  The blog counts.  So it means that some days, the 500 words I write in my blog are the only words I get written that day.  Though, now that I am retired, 500 words of blog writing plus 500 words of novel writing can get me well past writing 1000 words in a day.  It doesn’t take long at that rate to build up an awful lot of words.   I shudder to think what would happen if the word dam were to suddenly give way, releasing a word-flood of monumental proportions.   Half of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex would drown in Mickian words if that were to happen.

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So, do I think that you should write every day?  Do I think it makes you a better writer?  Do I actually follow my own advice?  Yes!  To all three.  And as I have passed the 500 word mark yet again, I can stop now.

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Wielding the Big Pencil

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The guy holding the big pencil used to be me.   I know you are thinking, “But, Mickey, you are not a rabbit!”  Well, that’s true, but it is also true that the whole thing is a metaphor, and metaphorically I was always Reluctant Rabbit, pedagogue… teacher… the holder of the big pencil.  It is a writing teacher thing.  The best way to teach kids to write is to have them write.  And the best way to show them what you mean when you tell them to write is to write yourself.  You learn to read better by reading a lot.  You learn to write better by writing a lot, reading what you wrote, and reading what other people wrote, especially if those other people were holding the big pencil in front of the class.

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I was recently reminded by people who know me that once I held the big pencil in the front of the class.  They both asked me, “Really?  You were a teacher?”

I suppose it is hard to believe when once you’ve gotten to know me, at least a little bit.  I don’t strike people as the sour-faced, anal-retentive English-teacher type.  I smile and laugh too much for that.  They can’t believe that someone like me could ever teach.

But over the years, I got rather good at holding the big pencil.  I learned, first of all, that anyone can be a good teacher.  You only have to be competent in the subject area you are trying to teach, and open to learning something new about teaching every single day for the rest of your life.

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Here’s something you have to learn about teaching to be any good at it; Discipline is not about making kids behave.  You can shout, stamp your feet, and hit them with a ruler and you will never get them to do what you want to them do.  It has to be about limiting the choices they have for what they will do.  Yes, one of those choices is to be removed from the classroom to go have fun sitting in the uncomfortable chair next to the assistant principal in charge of discipline’s desk, but the good teacher knows you should emphasize that they can either sit like a lump and imitate a rock, or they can participate in the activities presented.  And in my classroom, activities led to jokes and laughing and trying new stuff… some of it hard, but most of it easy.  Kids don’t end up having a hard time making the right choice.

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Here’s something else you absolutely have to learn to be any good at it;  You have to like kids.  Not just the well-behaved teacher-pleasers, but also the class clown who’s too smart to sit still for stuff he already knows, the shrinking violet who is a wonderfully complex well of deep thoughts who is only a little bit too scared to actually speak in class and share her thoughts, and the dark snarky demon who is quietly plotting the next outburst that will make your life a living hell so he or she can spend time with their old and dear friend, the chair in the assistant principal’s office.  If you don’t like them, you can’t teach them, and driving dynamite trucks in war zones is an easier job.  It pays better too.

I often try to picture Donald Trump teaching English to seventh graders.  What a slapstick comedy that would be.  The man doesn’t know anything.  He is always angry.  And he hates everybody except his daughter Ivanka.  My fourth period class wouldn’t merely eat him alive, they would skeletonize him faster than a school of piranhas could ever hope to match.  And it might be entertaining to watch (assuming it was metaphorical, not literal).

And I sincerely wish I could hold the big pencil in front of class again.  It was the act that defined who I was and what purpose I had in life.  But it isn’t gone since I was forced by ill health to retire.  I held the big pencil for over two thousand students in the course of thirty-one years.  And I will always hold the big pencil in their memories of it.  It is a sort of immortality for teachers.

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What the Heck is this Blog About?

I read a lot of other people’s blogs for a lot of reasons.  As an old writing teacher and retired Grammar Nazi, I love to see where writers are on the talent spectrum.  I have read everything from the philosophy of Camus and Kant to the beginning writing of ESL kids who are illiterate in two languages.  I view it like a vast flower garden of varied posies where even the weeds can be considered beautiful.  And like rare species of flower, I notice that many of the best blossoms out there in the blogosphere are consistent with their coloring and patterns.  In other words, they have a theme.

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So, do I have an over-all theme for my blog?  It isn’t purely poetical like some of the poetry blogs I like to read.  I really only write comically bad poetry.  It has photos in it, but it isn’t anything like some of the photography blogs I follow.  They actually know how to photograph stuff and make it look perfect and pretty.  It is not strictly an art blog.  I do a lot of drawing and cartooning and inflict it upon you in this blog.  But I am not a professional artist and can’t hold a candle to some of the painters and artists I follow and sometimes even post about.  I enjoy calling Trump President Pumpkinhead, but I can’t say that my blog is a political humor blog, or that I am even passable as a humorous political commentator.

One thing that I can definitely say is that I was once a teacher.  I was one of those organizers and explainers who stand in front of diverse groups of kids five days a week for six shows a day and try to make them understand a little something.  Something wise.  Something wonderful.  Something new.  Look at the video above if you haven’t already watched it.  Not only does it give you a sense of the power of holding the big pencil, it teaches you something you probably didn’t realize before with so much more than mere words.

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But can I say this is an education blog?  No.  It is far too silly and pointless to be that.  If you want a real education blog, you have to look for someone like Diane Ravitch’s blog.  Education is a more serious and sober topic than Mickey.

By the way, were you worried about the poor bunny in that first cartoon getting eaten by the fox and the bear?  Well, maybe this point from that conversation can put your mind at ease.

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Mickey is tricky and gets good mileage out of his cartoons.

You may have gotten the idea that I like Bobby McFerrin by this point in my post.  It is true.  Pure genius and raw creative talent fascinate me.  Is that the end point of my journey to an answer about what the heck this blog is about?  Perhaps.  As good an answer as any.  But I think the question is still open for debate.  It is the journey from thought through many thoughts to theme that make it all fun.  And I don’t anticipate that journey actually ending anytime soon.

 

 

 

 

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Wisdom From a Writer’s Life

Don’t get too excited.  I searched every box, trunk, bag of tricks, safe, closet, and jelly bean jar that I have in my rusty old memory.  I didn’t find much.  In fact, the old saying is rather applicable, “The beginning of wisdom is recognizing just how much of a fool you really are.”  The little pile of bottle caps and marshmallows that represent the sum total of my wisdom is infinitely tiny compared to the vast universe of things I will never know and never understand.  I am a fool.  I probably have no more wisdom than you do.  But I have a different point of view.  It comes from years worth of turning my ideas inside out, of wearing my mental underwear on the outside of my mental pants just to get a laugh, of stringing images and stupid-headed notions together in long pointless strings like this one.

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Mason City, Iowa… where I was born.  River City in the musical “The Music Man“.

One thing I can say with certainty, nothing makes you understand “home”, the place you grew up in and think of as where you come from, better than leaving it and going somewhere else.  Federal Avenue in Mason City looks nothing now like it did when I was a boy in the 1960’s going shopping downtown and spending hours in department stores waiting for the ten minutes at the end in the toy section you were promised for being good.  You have to look at the places and people of your youth through the lenses of history and distance and context and knowing now what you didn’t know then.

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Grandpa Aldrich’s farm in Iowa is now Mom and Dad’s house.  It has been in the family for over 100 years, a Century Farm.

The only thing that stays the same is that everything changes.  If I look back at the arc of my life, growing up in Iowa with crazy story-telling skills inherited from Grandpa Aldrich, to going to Iowa State “Cow College” and studying English, to going to University of Iowa for a remedial teaching degree because English majors can’t get jobs reading books, to teaching in distant South Texas more than a thousand miles away, to learning all the classroom cuss words in Spanish the hard way, by being called that, to moving to Dallas/Fort Worth to get fired from one teaching job and taking another that involved teaching English to non-English speakers, to retiring and spending time writing foolish reflections like this one because I am old and mostly home-bound with ill health.  I have come a long way from childhood to second childhood.

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                                                                                      If “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is really true, I should be Superman now.  I look like I’ve seen a lot of Kryptonite, don’t I?

Six incurable diseases and being a cancer survivor since 1983 have left their marks upon me.  Literally.  Little pink bleedy spots all over me are the mark of psoriasis.  The fuzzy-bad photo of me spares you some of the gory details.  The point is, I guess, that life is both fleeting and fragile.  If you never stop and think about what it all means then you are a fool.  If you don’t try to understand it in terms of sentences and paragraphs with main ideas, you are an even bigger fool.  You must write down the fruit of your examinations and ruminations.  But if you reach a point that you are actually satisfied that you know what it all means, that makes you the biggest fool of all.

If I have any wisdom at all to share in this post about wisdom, it can be summed up like this;

  • Writing helps you with knowing, and knowing leads to wisdom.  So take some time to write about what you know.
  • Writing every day makes you more coherent and easier to understand.  Stringing pearls of wisdom into a necklace comes with practice.
  • Writing is worth doing.  Everyone should do it.  Even if you don’t think you can do it well.
  • You should read and understand other people’s wisdom too, as often as possible.  You are not the only person in the world who knows stuff.  And some of their stuff is better than your stuff.
  • The stuff you write can outlive you.  So make the ghost of you that you leave behind as pretty as you can.  Someone may love you for it.  And you can never be sure who that someone will be.

So by now you are probably wondering, where is all that wisdom he promised us in the title?  Look around carefully in this essay.  If you don’t see it there, then you are probably right in thinking, just as I warned you about at the outset, “Gosh darn that Mickey!  He is a really big fool.”

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