"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

A Poem for Michael

October 29th, 2017 by

Yesterday, we held a memorial service for Michael, our youngest son. Just over three weeks ago, he took his own life after struggling with depression. We are in mourning, and we were honored to have Michael’s high school friends share their memories of their friend and all he meant to them. The following is a poem I wrote for Michael, and it was read at the service by Michael’s cousin, Chloe Inman. Thank you for reading.

For Michael–

What is length of days
but the endurance of sorrows
when to go out for your season
was to see the fragrant and flowering and,
though broken among the broken,
to frame jokes and
healing in friendships before
the light was lost and you
slipped away from us.

Though your choice
includes you no more
we will not say you are lost; lost
sounds our words shaped to
blame and loss

not carried away
by wind, by time, by
whatever is and will

We go and mourn now.
In the days to come that will now not be seen
you will not stop being our son
you are held forever
in what remains of this length of days.

–Love, from Dad

A Defense of BS

September 28th, 2017 by

Now that I am five weeks into teaching courses for the fall term, I am confronting the other tension I always feel as a participant in undergraduate education. The first tension comes specifically from being a writing teacher and has to do with students who have learned the five paragraph theme. The tension I face is that most of these students will fear or dislike writing, and I will spend an entire semester unsuccessfully trying to get them to expand on their ideas.

The second tension I’m referring to here has to do more generally with what some have termed passive learning. This has to do with students who have learned to sit passively through lectures and then take tests on those lectures and to think that they are really learning something.

They may be learning a few facts. They may even be the kind of learners who process lectures well and do learn. But there are questions about this most common method of classroom delivery that is used for every discipline.

The student takes in lectures, writes notes, studies for and takes an exam, and then comes away as a B or an A student of the discipline. They take every class like this and are told to stay quiet.

We see the same thing in most churches, where the main event is considered to be the sermon. Week after week, month after month, we sit passively as a pastor, evangelist, or special speaker expounds on some point or other.

There was a graphic out a few years ago about what most people remember from these speeches, sermons, and lectures. The drop, after two days, is something like 60%. After a week, the average listener remembers less than 7% of what they’ve heard.

I can attest to this. A week after listening to a sermon, what I remember is the illustration from Noah’s ark. I remember little more.

What this means for many college students, who have been paying tens of thousands of dollars to get an eduction, is pretty bleak. It seems to mean that after four years of lectures and test taking, they will have accumulated a stack of scantron test results, but remember only a few pecentage points of what they’ve learned.

When I talk to graduating students I had as freshmen, I ask them what they remember. “Oh, that was a long time ago,” they say, laughing.

Yes, it was, especially when I remember them remaining passive in class, refusing to discuss their ideas.

Like the five paragraph theme, passive learning is the method most students have been schooled in. And I would agree that learning to listen is important. But listening is one part of being. The opposite of passive learning, active learning, requires their participation, their commitment.

This is what I attempt every semester, and it is my main struggle: getting students to talk about ideas in class with each other, to find out what they are really thinking, to find out how they can construct knowledge.

When they’ve been schooled the other way, they sometimes act as though they’ve wasted their time with a discussion, or what they might call a BS session. “I’d rather hear from the prof,” they say.

When you think about what they retain from that endless prof-talk, though, they might wonder about this. At the end of four years, what they have to show is a stack of scantron tests with digital readouts and about 2 or 3% retention of what the various profs said.

Maybe they should rethink those BS sessions.

Interview with Indie Author Dave Milbrandt

August 6th, 2017 by

This month, I had the opportunity to talk with Indie Christian writer Dave Milbrandt about his craft. Over the past three years, Dave has published two novels, Chasing Deception and Undue Pressure. Both follow the career of Jim Mitchell, a journalist in Southern California. This summer he has finished work on his third Jim Mitchell novel, Running, which is scheduled for release this fall.

A former journalist himself, Dave has had plenty of material to draw on for his work. Currently a high school English teacher and adjunct professor of political science, he manages to remain both a prolific writer and a well-loved and effective teacher.

As one testimony to the appeal of Dave’s work, Classic Coffee, in downtown Glendora, has named a coffee drink after Dave’s protagonist. When you are in the area, stop in and ask for a “Jim Mitchell.” I understand there is both chocolate and coffee in this appealing drink.

When did you first realize you were a storyteller?

I wrote my first short story in junior high. It was based on the stories of a private investigator from “Ol’ Saint Louie”. You can imagine the clichéd tropes that plagued each page of the thankfully short narrative, but it was a start.

What do you love about the writing process?

Since I tend to write during the summer, I don’t have a lot of time to compose a first draft. After the outlining process, I just start writing. I love it when the narrative is flowing like a rushing stream and I am typing as fast as I can to get the ideas down before they wash away.

Photo Credit: Lynn Milbrandt

Dave Millbrandt

What is the hardest part of being a writer?

Since I am indie author, the hardest part has been publicity and marketing. It is difficult to find the right balance between creatively promoting your work and shamelessly begging people to buy your book.

Where do you find your inspiration?

I most often realized that I find my inspiration when I’m not trying to. I wish I could be the kind of person who could sit down, looking wistfully into the distance and plot out a three-book series in a day. But most often, I find inspiration when I am doing something routine and I have time to get the juices going.

What are you working on right now?

I am editing my latest book, which will be the third tale in my Jim Mitchell series of novels. I’m also working a screenplay, but that’s in the background for now.

What has been the best part of being an independent author?

What I love about the indie format is that I get to choose how long I want to wait between finishing my work and sharing it with my readers. I don’t have to hold my breath for 2-3 years with a publisher if there is a backlog of titles in the pipeline. I also have creative control over things like cover design and fonts, which as a former reporter/newspaper layout guy, I really like.

For more information about what Dave is working on and to order his books, check him out at his website DaveMilbrandt.com.

Or is it Just that Fiction is so Real?: A Summer Musing

July 10th, 2017 by

I’m always surprised to learn that there are people in the world who don’t like to read. Not only do they not read much: they don’t get that they shouldn’t interrupt me when I’m reading.

Most experience this—whether their interest is French cooking, mountain biking, big time wrestling, or knitting. Someone sees them doing their thing they like, and they look at them like they are wearing a Halloween mask in April. Really, they ask? That good, huh?

My reading doesn’t get interrupted very often. But when it does, it’s by people who seemed to learn in elementary school to think of reading or writing as punishment. Now they think I must have really fallen on hard times. He’s reading? Did his girlfriend break up with him? What’s he done wrong, or, Where did he go wrong? Next, he’ll be praying.

I’ve learned not to yell at people for this. The worst I might say is, “You should read this,” and hand the book to them. They glance over the cover.

Most intolerable are the people who read, but just not fiction. Instead, they only read what’s “real.”

“What,” I usually ask, “you mean, instructions for medication? Street Signs? Computer manuals? I mean, what are we talking about here?”

“You know,” they say. “Nonfiction. Self-help books.”

I usually leave this alone. At least they are reading books.

Many are the fiction writers who have responded to this, of course. “With fiction,” they say, “you lie in order to tell the truth.” There is, in other words, something real that requires telling the lie, the fiction. By projecting ourselves into imagined lives, we start to see our lives played out in a larger, more complicated scenario than we normally have access to. The Greek word for story, interestingly, is mythos, from which we have derived the English word for “myth,” a word usually used on the evening news as a synonym for “lie.” But fiction writers know and tell us that in our stories we find truths about what it means to be human or what the human condition may consist of. Never mind that a king named Oedipus may never have existed or solved the riddle of the Sphinx. His story leaves us contemplating his and our human condition.

There are many good people who will not read fiction. Whether it is because they have high standards for reality, because they don’t want to try to imagine other lives, or because they will only read books that affirm what they already believe, they don’t have time for it. These are all, I think, reasons that tell on us. Many are the Facebook memes recently that have advertised the values of reading fiction, not nonfiction, for developing empathy. And this is reason enough to read fiction. We might be in a position to love others. This squares well with the most important points of my theology.

But reasons one and three above, I think, are especially strange. We have high standards for reality? But is it that we fear that if we read a work of imagination, we will be lost to fantasy and the table will threaten to leave the floor? Is our sense of propriety that endangered? What are we resisting here?

But the third reason really gets me. Are we against being open to new ideas? I find this especially among people who teach theology, I’m afraid. They think of fiction mainly as a debased form of allegory. And when I talk to a theology person about a novel I’m reading, when they find that what I describe doesn’t fit any neat New Testament allegory, they dismiss it.

But theology is not just a formula. The best theologians, like the best fiction writers, are always embarking into their deepest senses of mystery, looking to discover things. What I find most interesting, is they don’t emerge from this mystery as heretics.

I have an example of this from a recent blog I wrote last month, which you can find here.

In either case, whether we don’t want our sense of reality, or our formulas upset, the “reality’ is that our sense of what is real only reaches about as far as our own vision–and what we’ve read. I suppose a good book on light particles or a History of the Third Reich might prove useful. But how helpful might an especially observant writer of fiction be, to add to or deepen our own “headlights” as we get to know characters in greater depth than we usually can in “real” life? It’s almost like the lights are going on a bit longer and brighter. A good novel can do this for us.

I doubt that I’ve convinced anyone to try reading fiction with these few scattered ideas. And I don’t want to forget that reading is first a pleasure. But it is also an invitation: Come, enjoy some of the richness that being alive holds out to us.

Of Declining Literacy Rates and Technological Natives

June 27th, 2017 by

Many of my students have heard from the elders in their communities that they have short attention spans. And their grammar is bad. These problems have resulted, they have been informed, from their uncritical use of too much social media. Or, as it is sometimes said, social media has caused a decline in the literacy rate, and they, my students, are the living evidence of this decline.

Most of my students will simply take this. They will nod and accept this assessment during class, even add what they consider evidence to the claim. I try to seize on this as a moment to introduce the purposes of doing research, or, at the very least, reading widely. I ask them to challenge what they’ve been told about themselves.

Since this notion is not based on research but on people’s experiences of other people, I suggest that I can refute it by telling them about the many people I know over 50 who cannot think or write and have short attention spans. Then I tell them about what I’ve read, that technology has long been blamed for what are always perceived as declining literacy rates—for this, I remind them of what was once written about TV, radio crooners of the 1930s, and even Plato’s hatred of writing, which he held would destroy memory. I tell them that this is a bit of research I’ve actually done. But I ask them to consider what evidence would be needed to support the idea that their generation is responsible for a declining literacy rate. How is literacy mapped? Does it mean the same thing to us today that it meant in the 1950s?

I explain that the research for such claims in either direction will need to be conducted along many different lines. For example, most of us don’t remember the 1950s. But that doesn’t mean that we can assume they represented a better time. We will need to find out what people thought about literacy at the time—especially the Soviet scare with Sputnik and the sudden need to raise test scores in the sciences. It is my hope that in discussing just this one issue that I will have drawn a continuous line for them from their own writing and reflecting on personal experience to thinking about the nature of knowledge that is found in other forms of research and discovery.

This is, of course, one way to begin to reflect on the nature of knowledge behind the writing my students will do. Valuable research, I want to demonstrate to them, is discursive and tied to their concerns, both personal and professional. Research is not something trivial, something outside of themselves, something simply dumped into a paper that doesn’t extend our thinking. I will sometimes have them freewrite on the questions we raise.

The point in all of this is to begin to provide a scaffold for research. Nearly every opinion they’ve been given on every subject has come from their community. In research, we look for ways to understand the ways that an opinion, which seems obvious and given, is really covering over complexities.