Category Archives: Writing

Creative People Say Yes (Sometimes)

I once came upon my cousin Reid practicing different ways to say “no.” He was 3 or 4 at the time. “No, I couldn’t possibly,” he said. “Absolutely not.”

He was onto something, that little ‘un. At least in my family, saying no takes practice.

Saying no? I’m big on it. Sometimes I’m even good at it. I certainly like the IDEA of saying no.

I’ve written about a fair number of times:
“How do I do that? How do I become the sort of person who says no to things?”

Clitter-Clatter Clutter Time , which references two terrific posts by my favorite tattooed Lutheran blogger, Nadia Bolz Weber, “The Spiritual Practice of Saying No,” and its companion piece, “The Spiritual Practice of Saying Yes!”

The Sarcastic Lutheran says, “The people who are inclined to say yes to everything do all the work and then burn out and become resentful about the people who are inclined to say no to everything. It’s as though the world is divided into martyrs and slackers.”

I don’t make a very good martyr or slacker, either one, not for very long.

I worked enough 50+ hours this spring semester, I worry my slacker credentials are in danger of not being renewed.

Busy as I’ve been, I’m nowhere close to martyrdom. I have some regrets, but I don’t regret all of the times I said yes. (Or came up with something to do that no one even asked me to do.)

Recent things that added to my to do list that I am particularly happy to locate in the land of “yes!”:

  • In addition to volunteering in my son’s classroom at the River Valley Elementary Studio School a couple hours a week, presenting a lesson on storytelling, with a way of talking about narrative arc that was a big hit.
  • Leading the Westby Co-Op Credit Union Board of Directors and branch managers in creativity exercises.
  • Serving as a (paid) reader for writing sample/placement tests for incoming UW-R students, and as a local developmental writing coordinator (unpaid).

In general, I am unrealistic about how the number of things I try to get done will fit into the number of available hours, and I don’t necessarily do things in the right order (which sometimes does and sometimes does not qualify as procrastination).

Thus, some of my commitments (such as returning student work promptly) suffered this spring, and probably, saying “yes” to new stuff impacted the ongoing stuff.

In general, I need to parse, pare, and prune my To Do list.

So, in one way, I totally get Kevin Ashton’s “Creative People Say No.”

He is right that “We do not have enough time as it is. There are groceries to buy, gas tanks to fill, families to love and day jobs to do.”

And he is right that “Time is the raw material of creation.”

Time is a precious resource. It must be guarded. I get it.

But wow did that blog post bug me.

(more on page 2!)

Driving in a David Cates Novel

“O beautiful, for spacious skies
But now those skies are threatening”
“The End of the Innocence”

Taking the secret detour, the one the natives use,
I fly down Highway T to Z,
past the Cates family farm but really,
it’s the dips and swales and curves
and hills and valleys and long slopes up
and ridge roads that feel impossibly high
for Wisconsin that let me know I’m in a zone
where fiction could happen and also perhaps
some magic but for me, partly panic–

I get agoraphobic on some of these rises
where all you can see past the crest
is the sky. It reminds me of Eastern Montana
a little (except for more trees on both sides),
where I once drove up a long brown hill for so long,
for an hour, forever, I stopped believing in Canada.
I couldn’t imagine anything north of where I was.
Nothing but a sheer drop-off to Hell, maybe,
over the top, nothingness, a crevasse, the crimp-
edge of the known world, no ditch, just–

The trip up, the torture, doesn’t last that long here.
Just when I’m wanting to pull over,
figure out how to turn around or back up,
which is impossible–the road’s too narrow,
the curve’s too sharp, the hill’s too steep–
well, there we are, around the bend
finally, a stretch of open road, another red barn.

Another falling-down house tucked in behind
a mess of blooming lilacs, under which,
if this really is a David Cates novel, someone’s having sex
RIGHT THIS MOMENT, and probably with someone they shouldn’t.

And later the woman, or maybe she’s a girl,
would take a dandelion and say “make a wish”
as she blew the white seeds everywhere at which point
the man, or maybe he’s still a boy,
would think “tampopo” but not say it, not wanting
the girl to feel bad for not knowing Japanese,
and he might also think, but not say,
some racy, clever thing using the word “blow.”
What he probably would say would be “Great.
Now there are more weeds everywhere,”
but then regret having said anything at all.

Because you have to remember, the moment you think
“Anything can happen,” that something bad could.

Just because it’s almost June and everything’s green,
every shade of green, just because the blue sky
is paint-chip sky-blue right overhead, even when
you’ve got Don Henley cranked on the radio,
you can glance in your rear view mirror and see
how the bright blue turns to pale blue and then haze
and then gray along the horizon.

You can see farms you can’t get to on Highway Z.
The people who live there are happy or sad.
But you’ll never get there. You’ll never know.

Coming home, you’ll stop at the T of Highway T and 23
and you’ll see Frank Lloyd Wright’s wind mill
and it won’t impress you this time. Not at all.

I left Southern Illinois to go to graduate school in Missoula, Montana, and there met David Cates, who’d come from Spring Green, Wisconsin, where I live now.


His latest book is odd and beautiful and haunting and two trips to Dodgeville recently I really have felt as though I entered some sort of parallel universe. If you read the book now, there’s probably a silver station wagon taking a curve a little too fast. I’ll be waving.

The latest novel by David Cates (wonderful to read, odd to drive in)

The latest novel by David Cates (wonderful to read, odd to drive in)

When a Marriage Makes

When a marriage makes a baby,
no one is surprised.
When a marriage makes a mess,
well, likewise.

When a marriage makes a record,
it is some kind of sign.
When a marriage makes a book,
that book, that marriage–they’re mine.


nath doing the hand-sewing

nath doing the hand-sewing

old school

old school

This. Feels. Amazing.

This. Feels. Amazing.

40 years ago, I put together a collection of some of my own poems along with outright thefty poems cobbled from Beatles lyrics & birthday cards. It was made of typing paper, bound with construction paper and yarn. This was in order to get out of trouble in 3rd grade (having been squirrelly in math class).

I still hope, eventually, to publish a collection of poems through conventional channels, but how lovely it is to have a husband who can take a manuscript of my poems related to teaching, and make of it…a book.

Lazy, Lazy Thinking in the Noon Day Sun

I always used to talk about racism when I talked about logical flaws in my composition classes–that stereotypes came from generalizing badly. Sample size too small, oversimplifying, etc. (I don’t spend much time on logical flaws now, and I miss them–such fun names! Such color and metaphor–one day, the Straw Man smelled a Red Herring and Ergo, Propter Hoc!)

It never occurred to me until I read “Study: Racial stereotyping linked to creative stagnation” on that racism was connected (in inverse proportion) to creativity. It makes sense, though.

I’ve written once before in this blog on the notion of lowering associative borders, in a post called “I Can’t Get No Satisficing.”  Having high associative borders is similar to what this study (described in more detail in in this article, “Racial Essentialism Reduces Creative Thinking, Makes People More Closed-Minded” in Science Daily) calls categorical thinking.

The lead researcher, Carmit Tadmor, and her co-authors say that although creative stagnation and racism “concern very different outcomes, they both occur when people fixate on existing category information and conventional mindsets.”

The study is hopeful that people can change their thinking. I am too–part of the reason I want to begin doing workshops on creativity is that studies show people can become more creative thinkers. We’re not stuck with what we were born with.

What I would call a “creativity workshop” is typically called “enhancement training” or “creativity training” in cognitive research. Hsen-Hsing Ma published an article in 2006 with overall terrific news about the possibility that we can become more creative.

Ma cites an early researcher, Paul Torrance,  who found that “programs teaching children to think creatively were at least 50% successful.” Another study from those rockin’ 1970s by Mansfield, et. al., showed “most evaluation studies of creativity training programs seem to support the view that creativity can be trained.”


For the 2006 article, jazzily titled, “A Synthetic Analysis of the Effectivieness of Single Components and Packages in Creativity Training Programs,” Ma did what is called meta-analysis of studies (reading LOTS of studies on an issue and summarizing and analyzing their results), showing the following:

Good news item #1: “Overall, the finding of this study confirms the result of Torrance’s (1972) investigation; namely, that children can be taught to think creatively.”

But oh, gracious, the news is better than that:

“This study also found that creativity training programs tended to be more successful with older participants than younger ones.”

So–watch out old racists and stagnant thinkers everywhere. The times they are a changin’ (NOTE: if you’re old enough to recognize that song, you’re just the right age to benefit from creativity training.)

We can become more creative.

We can become more creative.


(Image from Creative Commons on flickr, “Coloured Rooms Doorways-Brian Eno Speaker Floers Sound Installation at Marlborough House” by Dominic Alves.)

“How do I do that? How do I become a person who says no to things?”

(If you’re keeping score at home, this is also “How to Get the Pay Raise You Deserve, Part V”)

Here’s one of my favorite drums to pound:

You can raise your hourly wage by working fewer hours.

(You have to be on salary for the math to work.)

How? Here’s how to do less:

10. Take people at their word. Take them up on their offers. For example, when I get an email from someone who says, “Would you like to do X, or do you need me to do it?” I mostly say, “That would be great if you would do it! Thanks!” Because what are the possibilities there?

a. It was a passive-aggressive way of asking me to do it.

b. It was a genuine offer to do X.

c. It was a way to try to shame me into doing it, hoping I wouldn’t admit to “needing” anything.

So, for a. my response is that I might sometimes accede to passive-aggressive bullshit without realizing what I’m doing, but when I see it, I like to mess with it, and play dumb, and pretend like I’m dealing with someone who says what they mean. (Because they totally should say what they mean, or at least stop talking to me.)

For b., my response is THANKS! Then I try to make the offer back  when I can. (I’m not a selfish jerk. I’m just trying to stay relatively sane.)

For c., I would, if I were forced to name names, say call 1-800-Shame Resilience and ask to talk to Brené Brown. She’ll give you the what-for. And I have many, many needs about which I have so little shame that I’m happy to let someone else feel needed.

My need to admit I have needs and someone else’s need to feel needed = pie and ice cream.

This is how great it feels to be needed.

This is how great it feels to be needed.

9. Ask for help. Don’t even wait for someone drive their passive-aggressive sedan by you so slowly that it’s easy-peasy for you to grab the bumper and ride your skateboard along in their fumes for a while. Just ask for help.  You’re a good person. You’re helpful. When someone who isn’t ALWAYS asking for  help asks you for help, do you think that person is horrible?  (Don’t tell me if you do.)
8. Pretend you’re someone you’re not. Would the Mansplainer say yes to everything asked of him? He would not. If you were a rock star, would your personal assistant field this request to you? He would not.
7. Wait to say yes. Lots of people have talked about this, so I won’t say much. But it’s pure gold in terms of effectiveness. It’s hard to say no in the moment of social pressure ACK ACK ONE OF THOSE BAD DREAMS WHERE I CAN’T SPEAK, but it’s way easier half a day later to email and say, “I’m sorry. I just looked at my to do list and my calendar and I just can’t.”

6. Don’t LIE and say you looked at your to do list and your calendar. Actually do it. And try to make it a really accurate to do list and a calendar on which you’ve sketched out when you’re going to do what’s on the list. (Please allow me once again to recommend Things and “Sunday Meeting” by Kerry Rock-My-World.)

5.Stop thinking up new things to do that no one even asked you to come up with.

4. Don’t wait until your wicked-burnout ways land you in a health or relationship crisis (they will, eventually). Get that calendar back out and imagine you’ve been warned that approximately two weeks from now, there will be a one to two-day crisis that you absolutely have to deal with.

Or, if that feels icky, imagine that the grandmother of a former student wants to give your campus a check for $100,000 dollars and because that student spoke so fondly of you, you have to accept the check in person. Two weeks from now. It will take two days.

What would you do? Cancel some stuff? Ask people to cover for you? Reschedule some stuff? Imagine blocking out two whole days. Make a plan.

Then follow through.  Or, if that feels too indulgent, do it for one day. Or an hour.

If you really can’t do it just for yourself, to get caught up, or catch a movie, or take a nap, or work on your favorite part of your job that you never get to work on, or go on a date, or WHATEVER, then schedule an appointment with a healthcare professional and use sick leave. That is what sick leave is for. It is for when you have a health problem. If you can’t make time for what is important, you have a problem.

3. Find that one thing on your to do list that you haven’t done yet, that you don’t want to do, that you keep putting off, for whatever reason. Cross it off your list. If someone else needs to know you’re done with it, email them and say, “I’m so sorry, but I said yes to too many things this semester/month/week/year/time on the planet. I am not going to do this. I am very, very sorry.”

This is not the BEST way to be a people pleaser, but you know what? Ms. People wasn’t pleased at how long it was taking you to do whatever. At least now Ms. People can make other plans.

And even though it wasn’t taking up your time because you weren’t doing it, it was taking up a lot of psychological energy hanging around on your to do list. Kind of like that creepy guy that kept asking you what kind of batteries he should buy with his special massage implement when you worked at Spencer’s Gifts.

2. Check in with people who know you & will tell you the truth (their truth, anyway) who can fulfill these roles (these might or might not be people you actually work with, and these may be the only useful roles the fun house mirrors play in your life):

MIRROR: person who sees things pretty much as you see them in terms of philosophy, values, work-life balance, who respects you and cares for you. Ask the MIRROR person: am I working too much? am I working enough? Jussssssssst right? Make adjustments as needed, in consultation with that person.

FUN HOUSE MIRROR SKINNY WORKAHOLIC VERSION: ask someone who lives to work and works to live the same questions. If that person EVER, EVER, EVER says something along the lines of “You’re working an awful lot lately,” you know it’s crisis time (see #4 above).

(Don’t wait for that person to say “You’re working too much.” They don’t believe that is possible.)

FUN HOUSE MIRROR LOVE-HANDLED BELUSHI-BOY: if you say to this terrific guy, who’s probably wearing a Hawaiian shirt & shorts with 700 pockets, “hey, am I working enough?” and he says, “No, you’ve been super mellow and ready to play pool a lot lately” go back and double-check with your MIRROR and then make a plan if you need to. Could be you’re making time for a precious friend or it could be you got TOO GOOD at setting boundaries. Don’t worry if that happened, because

Here’s what there will always be plenty of: people asking you to do stuff. You will never lack for opportunities to do a little back-fill if you realize you were slacking. Which you probably weren’t.

1. Do whatever you can to be the kind of person who operates from a base of worth and plenty rather than inadequacy and scarcity.

I still struggle with this, but I’m trying to listen less to the voice in me that wants everyone to like me all the time, especially the people I don’t like. I’m trying to listen more to the voice that says I am enough, and that I get to be picky about who rides on the bus with me. People who bring me down can’t get on my bus. Or they at least can’t sit in the back where we’re singing “One Tin Soldier.”

This isn’t possible for all of us, I know, at least maybe not now, not this year, not this week, not with this boss, not in this job, not in this economy–I get it. I feel it. I feel gobsmacked by it sometimes. But when and where it’s possible, we need to listen to Nancy Reagan’s quavery, moneyed, seat-of-power voice:


Getting the Pay Raise You Deserve, Part IV

Part of healing from burnout is learning to set boundaries. Making time for what’s important (yourself. family. friends. fun. community. yourself again) other than your work.

Easier said than done. Really easily said. “Set boundaries.” Unless you have a cute little hint of a lisp the way John F. Kennedy, Jr. had. Then it’s a little harder to say.

Pretty hard to do.

But those of us who’ve emerged from the Pretty Good Depression still employed find ourselves picking up the slack left behind when people were laid off, or  not replaced, or carrying a heavier load in terms of student enrollment, juggling new initiatives, etc. etc.

It is just so easy to do too much for too long and end up having your soul scrape up against your to do list like bone-on-bone-bad arthritis.

In the long run, as I mentioned to my boss’s boss’s boss last Valentine’s Day (ahem), a system that is structured to rely on people burning themselves out LIKE OURS is not sustainable. (It also doesn’t get the best work out of people, even in the relative short-run–but that’s the subject of yet another blog yet to be written. Stay tuned.)

For me, the urge  to work too much (and the actuality of working too much and the guilt of perhaps not working enough) mixes with my long-term tendencies toward depression and anxiety into a toxic burnout brew that makes me less of everything I want to be (loving, enthusiastic, effective) and more of everything I’d rather not be (chronically irritated, cynical, spastically ineffective).

I’m still learning, but I’m making progress.

If you click on “burnout” in my blog categories, you’ll see it’s something I write about a lot. (cf: fixate upon.)

In Getting the Pay Raise You Deserve, Parts I, II, and III,

I acknowledge:

It is all too easy to come across as whining, and something like “I had to spend an hour on the phone getting my insurance coverage worked out today” can come across as ingratitude, a classic First World Problem….it is a luxury to consider what changes we could make to improve our lot. But you know what? A lot of us in academia do have that luxury, especially those of us with tenure.

I assert:

You can raise your hourly wage by working fewer hours.

I celebrate myself, I sing myself:

I don’t work too hard. I work hard enough.

Here’s how good I am at setting boundaries.  I got folks pounding on one of the walls I built hollering at me  like they’re possessed by the spirit of Chico Marx: “You no work enough.”

Here’s the contested boundary of the month:

In response to Scott Walker’s 2011 budget bombs (which resulted in less take home pay for my family), I looked around to find ways to save money. We love Culver’s just as much as we always did, but we don’t go as much as we used to. INSERT LOTS AND LOTS OF OTHER EXAMPLES OF BUDGET TRIMMING HERE. And then, to save money on gas, I started working from Spring Green some Tuesdays (my teaching schedule is MWF). That enabled me to volunteer in my son’s classroom now and then. That turned into a regular gig. That turned into a commitment. Which turned into a column in the Voice of the River Valley.

I do a lot of work on Tuesdays, and I check email a lot during the day. I’m considering setting up virtual office hours to make sure students and advisees remember that I am available on Tuesdays, just not in person in my office on my campus. And as I mentioned in one of the three prior posts in this series, I average more than 40 hours a week during the 9-month contract. Since I try to take a week off between semesters, and two days off at Thanksgiving, and two or three days off during spring break, and maybe Labor Day if I’ve got my course syllabi ready, that means I typically average 45 hours during an actual teaching week.  (I don’t count how many hours I work in the summer, but it probably averages to about 20. )

I don’t see why it’s anyone’s beeswax, if I’m accessible to students, if I’m doing my job well (I have official recognition of that), and if I’m doing my share for service (and I do), WHY it matters how many of those hours are in my office or on campus or in my kitchen or at a coffee shop or wherever.

But there are people for whom dedication to campus life is measured in hours worked (more hours = more dedication) and hours on campus (more = more). I don’t agree. I hope the issue goes away. If it doesn’t–well, gracious. You won’t like me when I’m angry.

Take this one boundary skirmish as a warning, all ye who dare to dream of  work life balance. Sometimes when you set a boundary, you have to defend it. But a lot of times, people don’t even notice.

If you’re brave enough, if you’re tired enough, if you’re burned out enough, tune in next time when I share my Top List of Ways to Work Less. (Remember: if you’re on salary, you can raise your hourly wage by working fewer hours.  The hilarious irony is that the quality of your work will actually go up, and in some cases, the quantity too–because you have more energy to focus on the things you’re still doing. Shh. Don’t tell.)

Meanwhile, Joshua blew the trumpet at Jericho and the walls came a-tumblin down.

This is what a system structured on burnout looks like. Eventually.

This is what a system structured on burnout looks like. Eventually.


(photo from flickr, Creative Commons, by Babak Farrokhi, entitled “Office Under Construction.” So it’s not really about sustainable systems OR Jericho.)

Grateful for my Crazy Life

Just this once, right now, and I wouldn’t say
It will happen again, I’m glad I have too much to do.
My crazy job is almost never boring.
I have the kind of brain that makes big plans
Involving levels and layers and long-term fun
With multiple players and organizations, and—well,
I tell you what—it makes me feel alive.
And tending to the people that I love
Takes time, but look at who I love—a full
Roster of family and friends and coworkers, a whole town
Of creative, funny people. And I LOVE Things,
More than a To Do list, more than software.
My house is messy, yes, because we choose
To read and play instead of clean. What a way
To be allowed to live. I’m grateful. At least today.

Car Sonnets, Bloems, and Pogs

UPDATE: I no longer write sonnets while driving. Nothing bad happened, but on reflection, it seemed so clear it was distracted driving.

Did you land here look for sonnets about cars? If you leave a comment, I’ll write you one…..


Lions and tigers and bears, oh my. Kind of like that.

Also not entirely unlike “father son and holy ghost” because I side with the Orthodox idea there, that the Trinity is meant to be un-understandable, to remind us there is always going to be something we can’t fathom about God. (I can’t remember where I read that, but it’s probably from my Holy Trinity of theology–Karen Armstrong, Kathleen Norris, or Anne Lamott. Probably Kathleen Norris.)

But my list is MOST like “gypsies, tramps, and thieves,” because one person could be a gypsy AND a tramp AND a thief, or there could be lots of people fulfilling those roles.

So, to define:

A CAR SONNET is a sonnet that was written entirely, or at least begun, while I was driving, usually on my commute to work. Unless that’s illegal, in which case of course I don’t do that. Who would do that? Not me.

A BLOEM is a poem I wrote primarily to post in my blog, upon which I usually commentate in the same blog.

A POG is a poem I post in the blog, which I think could probably stand alone (even though I go ahead and commentate anyway).

Of these, I would say the bloems have the least poetential. (Poetential, adj. Meaning: Least likely to stand the test of time, or the smell test, or the urge-to-revise test, or the put-in-a-manuscript urge.) They’re in response to current events or current concerns. Here’s a recent example of a bloem, a poem I wrote because I was so freaking excited that David Bowie had a new album & a new single.

And another bloem, about Ding Dongs.

Here’s a recent example of a pog (much of which I probably did write in the car as I drove to work, but I was writing only one line a day, so that didn’t take the whole commute). Since “Sustainable Chaos” is my life motto, this is an important poem, and like other pogs, has some level of poetential. One of my goals when I work on my full-length manuscript of poetry (either Summer 2013 or Fall 2013 or Winter 2014) is to look back through the blog and see which poems still excite me. I wonder if this one will.

Here’s another pog, called “Yes. No–wait” in which I have a conversation with competing voices. And which I do have in mind for a particular collection, a chapbook called “Each Other’s Anodyne,” all about teaching and work-life balance issues. It has a pretty particular audience in mind, and we may try to publish some to raise money for my sabbatical (speaking of work life issues).

And “On Conscientiousness” is an important topic for me, and I do love this poem.

Not surprisingly, “Truck Pulling the Moon” was written while I was driving.

And another car sonnet (not surprisingly, I’m often thinking of work when I’m commuting), called “The Moan Tax.”

I’m not entirely sure why these distinctions(and non-disctinctions, since a car sonnet could be a pog or a bloem) are important to me. Especially since I’ve realized one of my biggest weaknesses as a poet is the ability to view my work in terms of audience–who will love what? What should get submitted where? What will stand the test of time? (Or the smell test.)

All I know is what I do, and that I feel compelled to share, and thus–poetry is a part of my blog.

(I’ve meditated on this once before, sans categories, here.)

C-word, N-word, R-word: Forward!

Seriously considering putting a warning in my syllabi for spring semester:

CAUTION! Profanity Uttered Here.

By me, by other students, by Louis C.K. in our pop culture unit in my composition classes….

Probably thinking, "man, I don't want to be in a composition class."

Probably thinking, “man, I don’t want to be in a composition class.”

When I was tenure-track, I was getting some negative comments from students about my profanity in the classroom, (probably based on The Five-Paragraph Fuck) and my student evaluation numbers weren’t as high as they needed to be to make satisfactory progress on what I used to call “the march to tenure,” so I made swearing less one of my goals. At the time, I asked myself “how important is swearing to me vs. making sure I get tenure?” Seemed like an easy choice.

Since then, I had the honor of working with a male professor who swore like crazy in class, and got terrifically high student eval numbers (mostly because he was an amazing teacher). One of the conclusions I drew from that, rightly or wrongly, was that it’s o.k. for boys to swear. Girls, not so much.

Well, fuck that shit.

It isn’t as though I swear a whole lot, actually, in life or in class. More as a writer probably than any other time. But the freedom to do so feels important, and gosh, sometimes it’s just fun.

But I suppose I’m wanting to give my students fair warning, in case they’re likely to take too much offense. Of course, we’re a small campus, so there aren’t very many sections of any given class, so it isn’t as though students have a lot of choice in course scheduling. So maybe I just want them to steel themselves….

I guess showing Louis C.K. in class gives me automatic membership in the “It’s Our Job to Complicate Students’ Worldview” Club.” Note: I have also shown Slapshot in class. But it isn’t as simple as that.

I have two goals as a teacher that often come into conflict with each other:
1. I want to create a learning environment where students feel safe to learn and grow.
2. I want part of that learning and growing to come through experimentation and boundary-expansion.

So, for example, #2 is being satisfied when students have to grapple with the episode of Louie called “Heckler/Cop Movie,” when Louie goes absolutely nuclear on a female heckler. He calls her a c*&t and calls her mother a c*&t. He says, at one point, “You’re the worst thing that ever happened to America.” I ask students to analyze it (and some episodes of Roseanne) in terms of humor, and it didn’t take very long this past fall semester for students to notice that Louie doesn’t fare so well in that episode, that every offensive thing he does gets punished one way or the other. Then they did research, and many of them found this article: “The Filthy Moralist: How the comedian Louis C.K. became America’s unlikely conscience” from the Atlantic. So there you go, worldview complicated.

Well, worldview complicated for a lot of students. Complicated in one way for students who were appalled by his humor and needed to see how freaking brilliant he is. Complicated, too, for students (primarily male and white) who already thought Louie was hilarious, but couldn’t imagine he might, possibly, be making fun of THEM for laughing and not thinking.

You’ll notice I couldn’t quite bring myself to spell out the c-word. The DVD I had bleeped it, and we had some relatively hilarious, inadvertently hilarious class moments when we discovered that not everyone knew what “c-word” stood for, or what the word meant, or why it struck some people as different than saying “dick” instead of “penis.” #whyIloveteaching

And this takes me back to point #1 above: in our culture, the c-word has a lot of baggage, much of it painful for women. As a teacher, I now feel it is my duty, to be even-handed, to find something that some male students might feel not-just-offended-but-wounded by in the same way some way some female students felt in response to Louie’s rant. Open to suggestions here. (Seriously. Post suggestions.)

My big concern, in other words, is that I don’t guide students in pursuing #2 at the expense of the same people over and over–people who are often picked on in our society.

Just in the realm of vocabulary alone, it’s hard for me to think of a _-word that slams a heterosexual white man without any obvious disabilities. But if we were brainstorming, insults for women, those in the LGBTQ community, people of color, people who are differently-abled…those insults would just spring trippingly and quickly off our tongues.

I’m completely comfortable deleting a post on my own Facebook thread when someone casually uses language I am offended by (or worry a friend might be offended by). In the classroom, the rules of propriety and etiquette don’t seem as clear to me.

As part of my ongoing creativity research, and in preparation for spring semester, I’m continuing to read Dispatches from the Classroom: Graduate Students on Creative Writing Pedagogy, a terrific book I got excited about FIRST because there are precious few articles, let alone whole BOOKS on creative writing pedagogy. This book, edited by Christ Drew, Joseph Rein, and David Yost, came out last year and I find it consistently thought-provoking.

Just this week, I finished M. Thomas Gammarino’s “Invoking the Muzzle: Censorship and the Creative Writing Classroom” and found much to applaud and agree with, but a few places I found sticky.

It’s pretty obviously connected to my concerns above.

He positions himself as a libertarian sort of professor for the most part (for which I feel some kinship, cf: assigning Louis CK, above).

“Can fiction create a hostile learning environment?” he asks as he discusses one of his own experiences as a student writer, when he turned a story into a workshop about a pedophile keeping “pets” in the basement. The teacher reacted strongly, reasoning that other students would essentially have been forced to read it, that they weren’t as free to put it down as they would have been if it had been in a magazine, etc. Gammarino dropped that class, but as he points out, the problem remains.

He summarizes another incident (that he was not involved in) in which a teacher was disturbed by the violence in a student story and sought help outside the classroom–this ended with the student getting expelled and the instructor losing her job. Gammarino blames this on the institution’s overreaction and the attempt at censorship, calling it “prophylactic hysteria” (the phrasing of which I covet).

I like how he distinguishes the basic philosophical positions: “Libertarians may find themselves in the anguished position of having to defend the free speech of people whose viewpoints they find repulsive, but those who favor enacting controls on hate speech appoint themselves to the essentially undemocratic position of prescribing a morality for the masses.”

(I would say in this case it’s not the masses so much as it is the enrollment in any given course, but the point still holds.)

I also appreciate that he asked for feedback from other creative writing teachers, and there’s one response I’d like to highlight, the one from Wilton Barnhardt: “It is, of course, always a judgment call whether this kind of incident is pure aggression, a sociopathic acting out, a smart-ass way to get attention or indulge in hate-speech, or a clumsy attempt by an untrained writer to deal with difficult topics. I think we all know good and well when it’s the former, and I am prepared to sit there and listen and help and edit when it’s the latter.”

Therein lies the sticky place for me. I don’t always know good and well how to distinguish between the former and the latter. Sometimes it’s obvious, sure, but we’ve all seen studies about the higher incidence of mental illness in the field of creative writing, so it wouldn’t be surprising at all to find problems with mental illness in the creative writing classroom.

[Would it automatically be different, I realize I need to ask myself, seeing violent imagery from a student I knew to have mental illness issues, vs. a student who seemed emotionally stable? Hm.]

Violent imagery + mental illness doesn’t automatically add up to “will act on what is described.” Still, when a student I was working with informally began submitting pieces about stalking and harming a female teacher, I wrote him and said I wasn’t comfortable working with him. He cried censorship, and maybe he was right, but one of my absolute life goals is to trust my gut more, and my gut was telling me “RUN!”

I had the choice though–he’d been my student in the past, but wasn’t enrolled in anything at the time.

Gammarino did not give much space to discussing his original teacher’s point about student choice in terms of reading and responding, but I think it’s an important question. He was also very dismissive of another teacher he knows of who asks students to fill out a cover sheet for the pieces they’re going to workshop, describing the potential offensiveness (among other things, I assume). Gammarino says “I want to challenge the warrant behind all of this: namely, that it is part of the writing teacher’s job to protect the comfort level of his students—that is, to keep them from being offended.”

But it isn’t just “being offended” that I’m concerned about. It’s trauma. If a young woman has been raped, a rape scene will be traumatic. The more graphic, the more traumatic (I assume). And even if a young woman hasn’t been raped, do I really want to contribute to the rape culture we live in by asking a whole class to read a graphically violent rape scene?

I’m remembering a particular violent story, a series of revenge fantasies by a student who had writing skills and “issues” in approximately equal measure. It just so happened that the women victims came to more gruesome ends than the men.

I worked with this particular student all semester, and tried to get him to move beyond what I called his “shock and awe” imagery. But there were female students who were deeply uncomfortable working with him, and I don’t feel as though I helped them navigate their discomfort because I wasn’t sure how much of it was sort of an intellectual “ooh. ick.” and how much was simply an appropriate reaction of horror.

Gammarino says “Clearly teachers must do everything they can to protect their students’ safety,” but in this case he means safety in the sense of not actually being the ones killed and hacked up as described in this particular story.

Nothing bad happened in that way with this student; I wasn’t really worried that it would. My “gut,” in other words, was telling me this wasn’t going to make the news.

Gammarino adds that teachers must also “maintain a level of discussion appropriate to higher education,” and that’s where I’m getting stuck. What is appropriate here?

I absolutely agree with him when he says “…insofar as we choose to protect our students from ideas we ourselves may find odious, we also protect them from developing complex minds capable of deciding such matters for themselves.”

So my goal IS helping them navigate their discomfort and their horror. I am wondering if some kind of cover sheet would help–not simply to let students opt-out of reading something they’re alarmed at before reading it, but to also help us keep track of who is pushing what boundaries.

Gammarino describes his own pedophile-with-pets story as “a chance to stretch my imagination,” and that, ultimately, is what I find most troublesome about censorship–it boxes everything up so tightly there is precious little stretching possible.

If we grant that creative writing has to be about more than the craft of writing (the “writing” half of “creative writing”), but also has to be about creativity, then the stretching is crucial, and worth a great deal of student discomfort.

But what if the student writing the scary imagery has been doing that for years? And wants to do only that for the class? How creative is that? What about the student who wants to turn in only masturbation-paced erotica? They’re pushing other people’s boundaries, sure, but not their own.

So here’s my plan for my beginning creative writing class for Spring 2013: students are going to have access to a cover sheet for workshops. Half of it will be what they want to tell other students about the piece they’re submitting, and half of it will be like this (note–VERY ROUGH DRAFT), a way to keep track of how much experimenting people are doing. So if, for example, someone is writing in traditional meter and spouting mainstream ideas all semester, we can all note that and suggest the person push in some other directions. But by the same measure, we can suggest that someone who is consistently writing pieces that “might give your grandmother a stroke” could branch out a little.

I’m also going to Xerox Gammarino’s piece for my creative writing class before the first workshop. I anticipate a good discussion.

(This is also something I’m realizing I need to research more.)

Still haven’t decided about the “CAUTION: Profanity uttered here” warning.

Dear Jodie Foster: I got it (and it wouldn’t matter if I didn’t)

It’s been a long time since I watched an award show, but my husband was getting our son to bed last night, so I got to turn on the Golden Globes, which has long been my favorite awards show because it never seems to take itself too seriously, and just enough big stars always show up to make it fun.

I missed the beginning, so I missed some good Fey-Poehler moments, but thank-you universe, I got to see George Clooney canoodling Amy Poehler during the best actress in a comedy category moment.

And I got to watch all of Jodie Foster’s speech. Live.

And it made me cry. In a good way. Because it’s 2013, I said something on Facebook almost immediately, and then read a comment and HOLY CRAP–that speech was an instant controversy in a way something can be instant controversy only now, with all our immediate access and RESPOND RESPOND RESPOND modes.  I’m glad I wasn’t looking at f.b. or Twitter when she was speaking, because the people complaining might have colored the speech for me.

It’s a pretty Rorschachy cultural moment, apparently. People who watched the same speech I did thought it was incoherent, fragmented, confusing, and inappropriate. On Twitter and Facebook, people have said she was drunk. On drugs. Unhinged. Or sad. Perhaps in need of professional help.

So far, the only article I’ve read that gets it right (from my perspective) is this one from Salon, “Jodie Foster Comes Out, Gritting Her Teeth,” and even there–I thought she was having more fun than that.

In an attempt to figure out why people are responding so differently, I’ve watched the speech several times and analyzed the transcript. Here’s what I think–it was the tone and the pace and the lack of transitions that made people holler “incoherent!” If you watch the speech again, knowing what’s coming, or look at the transcript, it doesn’t seem so wacky. Or even very disorganized or fragmented.

Some caveats for my analysis: I love Jodie Foster. She could pretty much do or say whatever and I would be fine.

Caveat #2: the speech did feel zoomy to me, sort of flight-of-fancy-paced, but HELLO. I like that kind of zooming, that kind of doesn’t-feel-structured-but-it-is feeling.

What did we expect her to do? I suppose we would have expected a brief “thank you, this town has been very good to me, etc.” speech. Something like her Oscar speech, when she won for The Accused in 1988, a 141-word snippet in which she also thanks her mother. She said, “There are very few things: there’s love and work and family. And this movie is so special to us because it was all three of those things. And I’d like to thank all of my families, the tribes that I come from.”

In contrast, last night’s speech was more than 1,100 words. Nearly ten times as long. Lots of time to do lots more.

And I do know from incoherence. I’ve been teaching first and second-year college students for 25 years now. There’s incoherence (no main point, supporting points that don’t match main point, supporting points that don’t connect to each other), and then there’s subtlety.  I also teach creative writing, including creative nonfiction. There are ways to express ourselves that meander, that don’t add up to incoherence. I think Jodie Foster is more akin to Mary Paumier Jone’s “Meander” than a first-year disorganized essay, or a “bizarre” or “incoherent rant,” as many people are labeling the speech.

What she did, as I outline it, is the following:

  • Start with an insider joke (“Well, for all of you ‘SNL’ fans, I’m 50! I’m 50!”)
  • Thank the person who introduced her (“I want to thank you for everything: for your bat-crazed, rapid-fire brain, the sweet intro. I love you and Susan and I am so grateful that you continually talk me off the ledge when I go on and foam at the mouth and say, ‘I’m done with acting, I’m done with acting, I’m really done, I’m done, I’m done.’” MORE ON THIS LATER. IT IS KEY.)
  • Comment on winning a Lifetime Achievement Award (““Trust me, 47 years in the film business is a long time….”)
  • Announce that she is going to pull a rabbit out of a hat (“So while I’m here being all confessional, I guess I have a sudden urge to say something that I’ve never really been able to air in public.”)
  • Thwart our expectations (“I’m single!”)
  • Explain why she’s thwarting our expectations (After a weird moment without audio–I thought it was my TV, but the ABC transcript says “audio went out,” she picks up with “…be a big coming-out speech tonight because I already did my coming out about a thousand years ago back in the Stone Age….”)
  • Comment on culture in a joking way (“But now I’m told, apparently, that every celebrity is expected to honor the details of their private life with a press conference, a fragrance and a prime-time reality show. You know, you guys might be surprised, but I am not Honey Boo Boo Child. No, I’m sorry, that’s just not me….)
  • Comment on culture in a serious way (““But seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy.”  That BUT SERIOUSLY does count as a transition, btw.)
  • Impart some wisdom (“There are a few secrets to keeping your psyche intact over such a long career. The first, love people and stay beside them.”)
  • Thank people who have helped her (“That table over there, 222, way out in Idaho, Paris, Stockholm, that one, next to the bathroom with all the unfamous faces, the very same faces for all these years.”)
  • Conclude (“I will continue to tell stories, to move people by being moved, the greatest job in the world. It’s just that from now on, I may be holding a different talking stick. And maybe it won’t be as sparkly, maybe it won’t open on 3,000 screens, maybe it will be so quiet and delicate that only dogs can hear it whistle. But it will be my writing on the wall. Jodie Foster was here, I still am, and I want to be seen, to be understood deeply and to be not so very lonely. Thank you, all of you, for the company. Here’s to the next 50 years.”)

What’s so fragmented about that? Just because she didn’t say, “Next, I would like to comment on culture in a joking way.”  Really? We needed that? “And finally I would like to conclude.”

I always tell students that transitions are for readers. They’re kind. They’re considerate. Jodie Foster wasn’t being so terribly kind and considerate, I suppose–maybe that’s why people actually seem offended by the PERCEIVED lack of coherence. We thought she was nice! We thought she loved us and wanted us along!

One reason I think this seemed incoherent is not because she was incoherent; I think it’s because she is so freaking smart. Who the hell tries to comment on culture and impart wisdom at the Golden Globes? Jode.

I don’t know that we’ll ever know if this was ad-libbed or totally planned or partly ad-libbed and partly planned or how sober she was. We just heard her thoughts on privacy, after all.  But it stands up pretty well to analysis.

And it’s hilarious in some ways, even though people were mostly NOT laughing at the right places (not at the Golden Globes and judging from Twitter, not in a lot of homes).  If we go with the notion that the biggest component of humor is surprise, we can see she was going for it again and again–starting with “I’m 50!” and tossing out the almost Schecky Green style of “my fellow actors out there, we’ve giggled through love scenes, we’ve punched and cried and spit and vomited and blown snot all over one another — and those are just the costars I liked.” (Someone should have done a rim-shot. Maybe if she’d slowed down and said, “bah dum bum” we’d have gotten it, but no, she was ZOOMING.)

Then she moved on  “I’m single” and then with “I’m not Honey Boo Boo,” which, if she’d allowed us to linger, could have taken us to layers upon layers of serious hilarity. Jodie Foster, beautiful, in a shiny dress that matched her great blue eyes, fit, strong, brilliant, no she is not Honey Boo Boo. But wow. If she did have a reality show….But we didn’t get time to picture it and giggle to ourselves because she went zooming on to “I’d have to spank Daniel Craig’s bottom just to stay on the air” (which he did laugh at–another reason to love him).

Then there’s all the deep irony of 1)coming out by thanking your longtime lover when HEY!  You just told us you weren’t coming out!  WAIT A MINUTE!  and 2)sending a message to your mother who apparently has dementia and is close to death, which is a pretty goddam intimate thing to do when you were just lecturing us on PRIVACY, 3)and also, there were your sons, which paparazzi are pretty crappy at grabbing snaps of, beautiful boys, right there at your table when you were just lecturing us on PRIVACY….

[And this actually wasn’t the first time she “came out” in public. I’m looking for the link, but she thanked Cydney publicly at least once before and called her her wife–and if her being a lesbian were a secret at all, it was a pretty open secret. I know some people have been angry at her for years for not “coming out” in a big way, but obviously, she wanted to do it her way.]

Caveat #3: I love Robert Downey Jr’s performance in Home for the Holidays, and Foster’s commentary on the DVD of that movie makes it sound like he ad-libbed almost constantly, and that she loved it.

So maybe I wasn’t as startled at the pace and lack of transitions in the speech because Robert Downey Jr. introduced her. He set the tone, and he set the pace. He was ironic almost all the way through, and silly, and almost no one laughed, it seemed, when he praised her for her philanthropy and the Jodie Foster Aquatic Pavilion, which he followed up quickly with a picture of her face photo-shopped onto Bo Derek’s famous “10” shot, with the caption, “Let’s Get Wet!”

He didn’t pause to let any of his jokes sink in. He just plowed on through.

And when she thanked him, she specifically mentioned his “bat-crazed, rapid-fire brain,” and “the sweet intro.”  You know what? The intro wasn’t sweet. It was, I trust, sweetly intended, since they’re friends, but it was mostly for her I think, an individualized, Robert Downey Jr.-ized chunk of what she would find funny.

She just picked up that baton and ran with it, and if we couldn’t keep up, well–we don’t get to hang out with them, do we? We’re not in their league.

Mel Gibson did look a little lost. I’d rather not be in his category of lost-ness.

But it says something, doesn’t it, that the two actors she chose to have at her table are not known for their clear-headedness and decorum? I take from this that she is loyal as the day is long and she has a fondness for the crazy. Both traits I happen to share.

I did feel dizzy at the end of her speech, no doubt, and the “I may never be on stage again” was a very weird moment, but we got a lot of Jodie Foster last night, more than I ever thought we’d get. Just looking at who was at her table–that was a lot, by itself.

She’s been in the public so publicly, so long, I’m not going to say “we got the real Jodie Foster!” There are layers upon layers upon layers there.

But in a room where she feels at home, where she can take whatever tone she wants and zoom however fast she wants, she ended with good news, “I will continue to tell stories, to move people by being moved,” and what I took to be the storyteller’s basic credo: “Jodie Foster was here, I still am, and I want to be seen, to be understood deeply and to be not so very lonely.”

She finished with “Thank you, all of you, for the company. Here’s to the next 50 years.”

That’s why it matters, right, why it was bothering me for people to react to the speech so differently than I did? Because I was, very distantly, keeping her company. I’m 47. Beginning with her picture on the Coppertone bottle (and I could write a whole blog about Coppertone, the very name working as a transporter, and if I ever smell it–wow, I’m gone), she has been a part of my life.

She was never not there.

I wish her well and I loved, loved, loved that speech.

Zoom zoom!


UPDATE: Here’s a story from 2007 when Jodie Foster thanked Cydney Bernard. She isn’t quoted as having said “wife,” so I’m either remembering a different story, or remembering this one wrong, but this is from five years ago.