Monday, May 25, 2015

Write What You 'Don't' Know

Writers often live by the rule: 'Write What You Know'. In doing so, a writer is comfortable in their surroundings, knows what they are talking about, and therefore, bring a sense of reality to their writing. It kind of keeps us from looking like idiots, I guess. However, I've discovered that I have a real problem with writing what I know. And the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem...

First of all, I have to say, I adore research. I love learning about something new. For me, it's like travelling to a different world, briefly, and getting a taste of something I've never had before. Like worms. Okay, I'm not eating a worm for research, although I did eat a rock once, but I digress. The point is, research is fun. And in writing my novel, They Call Me Crazy, I did some research on worm farming so I could make one of my characters believable.

Of course, I couldn't learn all there was to know about worm farming, but I learned enough to pick out what I considered the interesting aspects of it, and that's what I included in the book. As a reader, I don't want to know all the details about it, just the parts that get my attention. As a writer, I have to remember that the ultimate goal is to interest readers.

It seems that if I were a worm farmer, I would be able to give a lot of interesting information, because I would know so much. Right? Not always. I'm not a worm farmer, but I have been a Nurse for 30 years, and although I could tell you some great stories, I find that when I write about anything medical, I tend to instruct. I give too much information and try to be as detailed as possible. The result? Boring, run-on lectures about medically related subjects, when all I really wanted was someone to get a paper cut. I've been a Nurse for so long that choosing between 'the interesting parts' and 'the important parts' has become difficult.

Yes, I had someone that knew a little bit more than me about worm farming read the book for accuracy (Yes, there are worm experts). But the medical stuff? I've found that I have to 'consult' with other medical professionals for accuracy, and non-medical readers for interest and believability. If I were writing an instruction manual, it would be different. But I'm not. I'm writing novels, with a purpose to entertain, not teach.

So write what you know...Yeah, yeah, yeah---to a certain extent. But don't be afraid to dig through some subjects that you don't know anything about. 
How else are you going to learn how earthworms mate? 
(Well, I guess you could just read my novel....)  

Saturday, May 9, 2015

A Letter to My Students

The end of a semester is bittersweet for me.  Although I look forward to reading a book or ten over the summer, I will miss the past few months of teaching writing, literature, humanities, and speech. I will also miss reading all the essays from my students. I'm sure my students will have nightmares about the phrase "cite your work", but in the end, I hope they learned something of value that will help on their journey. What they don't realize is, I always learn from them, and this semester, thanks to some excellent work by my students, I learned quite a bit.

As a final thank you to all of my students, and an opportunity to give them some additional bits of wisdom from someone who has 'been there, done that', I've made a list of things to consider---academically and personally. Good luck---go forth and make a difference.   

1. Never underestimate your ability to change the world-I've thought about this my entire life. I am one person, what could I possibly do? As I've gotten older, I've realized that my small contributions add up. I've raised two wonderful men who will make bigger contributions than I ever could. I teach others the value of education and I teach them to express themselves through writing. You don't have to feed an entire village. Teach them to grow crops, and they will feed themselves.

2. Practice reading, writing, and speaking in public-In a survey of employers conducted by Hart Research Associates, eighty percent stated they wanted grads with better oral and written communication skills. Of course, taking courses that focus on these skills is extremely important, but just like everything else, practice is the key.

3. Listen to others opinions and arguments with an open mind- You may not agree with them, but hopefully you can gain an understanding of why they feel the way they do. This is a necessary skill for compromise and is important in all aspects of life.

4. Expect the unexpected- This semester, like every semester, there have been work conflicts, illnesses, new additions to families, and deaths. You can't always prepare for these things, but they are going to happen. Prepare yourself. Remember, you can't always control 'the problem', but how you handle the problem is completely up to you.

5. Education comes in many forms- As I've said, I always learn from my students. I have learned about conflicts around the world that I knew little about, different religions, lifestyles, and public health concerns. I can tell you about the fascinating social life of a ladybug and what fracking actually is. I even learned how to heel a calf in a parking lot at College of Southern Nevada. Look at every experience as an opportunity to learn something. You will be surprised at the knowledge you will gain.

6. Continuing on number 5, you will be amazed at the things you will remember.  A lot is two words. I can thank my high school English teacher, Phyllis Abbott, for drilling that into my head.
7. Read and write outside of your comfort zone-It's good to get angry once in a while. When you read something that gets under your skin, stop and ask yourself why. I have a few essays I assign every semester that are meant to do just that. It always works, and students begin thinking. Additionally, you may be surprised to find that you actually enjoy reading certain things that you thought you weren't attracted to. This semester, I have had students that learned that they loved reading plays and that they connected with Langston Hughes' poetry.  Try it, you may like it.

 8. Once in a while, take the 'other side'- Really. You might learn something about the issue, the opposition, and/or about yourself.

9. Question everything-In a world where we are bombarded with information, remember, it isn't always reliable information. Don't blindly follow what others tell you. Find the answers for yourself and make your own decisions.

10. Be yourself, appreciate others, show compassion-I know that a lot of students, fresh out of high school, are trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be. It's a tough time, but it is also an exciting time. Be yourself. Uniqueness is a fantastic trait. Do what you love. Appreciate the uniqueness of others. Life would be boring without human variety. Show compassion. Remember the essay we read about compassion? It is one of my favorites, because after thousands of years of teaching and preaching compassion, we as humans still can't do it consistently. Try.

Thank you for another great semester!

Teachers, Instructors, Professors: What did you learn from your students this semester?

Students: What did you gain from your studies?