Monday, January 19, 2015

Why Do I Get Bored when I Read? (a student asks) & Mindfulness Training

61º ~ yes, 61º on Jan. 19, you gotta love the mid-South, we'll get back to our "normals" of around 50º for a high for the rest of the week, but we're headed close to 70º today ~ while I know warming trends are not a good thing, I'm going to put this one in the short-term plus column

This semester, I asked my Creative Writing I students to email me any questions they have about writing. I did this to A) establish an email connection with each student and B) to help guide my prep for the semester. In general, I've gotten a lot of "How much do writers make?" "How long does it take to get a book published?" "What can I do with creative writing if I don't want to teach?" and "What do I do about writer's block?" type questions. Remember, these are first-time creative writing students, and community college students as well, meaning many of them won't have been exposed to information about the writing life. All of these are the questions I expected and have a lot of experience covering in class.

However, one question sent me rocking back on my heels. A very enthusiastic student asked "Why do I get bored when I read?" and "What do I need to read to become a better writer?" Like many of my students, he has a great desire to write but has little background in reading. He sees this gap and is concerned, but as he's tried to read in the past, he's gotten "bored." (This sets him apart from a lot of the other students who want to write but don't enjoy reading...without an awareness of that lack of enjoyment.)

I've been mulling over this question, and I don't have a definitive answer for this one student, because I don't know him well enough yet, but I have one major guess.

Our 21st century, technology-based society does not cultivate the enjoyment of reading. When asked what they do in their spare time, over 60% of my class (males and females) report playing video games. The other 40% doesn't have spare time because of family responsibilities, jobs, and school. Now, I'm not a rabid hater of video games. I think that some of them pull in the imagination in creative ways, and I do believe that we all need to have some things we simply do for "fun." What I do see, however, is that gaming and surfing the net require the opposite of skills needed for enjoyable reading.

Reading fiction, poetry, or creative non-fiction requires flexible imagination muscles. It requires the ability to inhabit the life of another person and understand it (empathy), and the best writing lures us into that imaginative act and feeds a human need. Sadly, as our world has turned toward technology and speed of information, there are fewer and fewer vehicles for creating empathy through imagination. (As the student asking the question is a young man, closer to a traditional student than a non-traditional one, I also wonder if "teaching to the test" has caused some of this as well.)

My thoughts might not be completely clear, but I don't think this student has taken the time with his reading to take it in and find pleasure from the experience of empathy. I say this because over the last decade of teaching, I have definitely noticed a decrease in the ability of my students to read something as simple as an assignment sheet and retain that information. They "read" by running their eyes over the words and comprehending them in that moment, but not by "taking in" the information communicated by the words.

All of this hits me at a time when I've taken up mindfulness training (in a non-formal way). I first learned of mindfulness when I was a college student in the late 1980s/early 1990s, and I was assigned  one of Thich Nhat Hahn's books on mindfulness. This practice requires slowing down and actually being in the moment. There's no way I can sum it up well here, but it is all about "the now." Eckhart Tolle is a writer discussing this topic who many more may have heard of these days, thanks to Oprah.

In any case, I've been struck by how the practice of mindfulness, really being and seeing each moment "I am washing this dishes. This is how it feels to wash the dishes..etc." correlates with the practice of reading. We have to give our whole attention to the words, body & mind, and when we don't, we comprehend and retain less. This proves true in my own life. I have a bad habit of trying to multi-task while I read. I might be trying to eat while I read, which requires juggling silverware, dishes, food, etc. while reading. Every time I do this, I realize I'm less engaged with the text before me. When I do focus on the words and read with a pen in my hand, then I get the full experience of empathy, of enjoyment, of new thoughts, and/or of gaining self-knowledge. The reading fulfills me.

So, back to my student, if I, a woman in mid-life not brought up by computers, texting, and a "need for speed" in all things, struggle with mindfully engaging with reading, what a greater struggle people of my student's generation might have.

Again, I don't mean this to be a technology bashing post. I do think we need a greater balance with how we use technology and more awareness of how our minds are changed (how we interact with information) because of that technology.

In the meantime, one of my goals for my class will be to show students how to become fully immersed in a text and to not get least not all of the time.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

What I'm Reading: Weeping at a Stranger's Funeral

54º ~ straight-up sun shining down on all, light breezes, backyard birds & squirrels in motion

During my recent wrestling with a writing drought, I sent out a call for inspiration on Facebook. My poet-friend, Al Maginnes, recommended that I get my hands on Gary McDowell's new book, Weeping at a Stranger's Funeral and try his approach. While I haven't tried the approach, I have finished reading the book and want to say a few words about it here.

Many of these poems were written in the middle of the night as McDowell tended to his daughter as she struggled with colic. Each morning, he would pick a book from the shelf, randomly, and find a line that spoke to him. He'd write out that line and leave it there, waiting for the middle of the might, when he would then draft a poem around or inspired by the line.

I do plan to try to use this prompt, and I think it's wide-open enough to serve poets of any style.

All that being said, the result of the prompt for McDowell is a series of poems created out of fragments, thoughts snatched from an unmasked mind, making leaps and intuitive connections rather than linear progressions. In her blurb, Lee Ann Roripaugh calls these "mosaic worked poems." Yes, in the true sense of a mosaic made up of broken pieces, these are poems made up of broken thoughts with lots of white space as the grout that holds the whole thing together.

For me, the book is most successful being read in large chunks together. I have a hard time entering fragments in fits and starts, but when reading the poems together, their weight builds and ideas spark.

For an example of the way McDowell makes use of fragments, here are some lines from "Of Notes."

More like autumn than autumn is

Settling gravel and moonlight, and a campfire
feels its way into the dark

They used to burn coffee to cloak
the scent of death

One little two little three little

Bike racks        Fire hydrants         And all the little boys
allowed outside

unwatched after school.

The poem goes on from there, but what I want to highlight are the intuitive leaps already present. We begin in "autumn," a time of burning leaves, a time of "death." Next we get the "campfire" and a leap to the use of burnt coffee "to cloak / the scent of death." And finally, we get that eerie threat of what could happen when children are left "unwatched." The poem takes a turn back toward the innocent after this, but it is bittersweet as an echo to a reminder of mortality and danger in this world.

Reading this type of collage / mosaic poem requires me to flex muscles I don't normally use in reading more linear / cohesive poems. It requires both a loosening of my hold and a strengthening of my focus on each individual line. I have to give up the idea of a straight narrative or a "clear" lyric, and instead give each line, each word the same focus in order to bring the intuitive leaps into focus.

I'm thankful for Weeping at a Stranger's Funeral for this insight, and more, for the beauty of the lines etched on every page.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

2015: Arriving with a Whimper

27º ~ gradually warming up out of our first true "cold snap" ~ looking at 55º for the weekend ~ all here remains shrouded in gray

Dear reader, I was all about the forward movement in mid-December, and then there was Christmas, and in the aftermath of that holiday, the onset of "the central Arkansas death cold," so named by a friend who suffered through it first.

I knew the holiday would shift my focus from writing, and I let it be. After all, for me, living a full life informs my writing. However, on December 27th I had the first inklings of a head cold. This would later spawn into a going-on three-week upper respiratory nightmare. I've spent a lot of the last few weeks "drinking lots of liquids and getting rest." Oh, and spending a fortune on over-the-counter treatments for the symptoms. But this is not meant as a sob story, as so many others suffer much more difficult medical issues and I am on the mend.

Instead, this experience brought to mind a book on writing that I read a million years ago in the early 1990s, Starting from Scratch by Rita Mae Brown. In Starting from Scratch, Brown offers lots of great advice and support for people trying to figure out the writing life, but the thing that has always stuck with me is her discussion on a healthy lifestyle and writing. In the book, she talks about practicing healthy living as a way to support her writing. This went against all my young romantic ideals of the artist drinking wine or whiskey, smoking cigarettes or pot, and generally "running wild," a la The Beats, and yet, over the course of my life, I've come to agree with Brown. I can't write with a muddled brain, whether from "over-indulgences" or from the kind of fog brought on by a head cold.

After Christmas, while I had two open weeks of nothing but free time (with a moderate amount of prepping for the semester thrown in), once I came down with the severest symptoms, I couldn't formulate an original thought to save my life. Now, I know that I didn't ask to get this cold, and I didn't live an unhealthy lifestyle to bring it on. However, I did make some unwise choices. The kind I seem to make repeatedly. On the first sign of the cold, instead of putting myself to bed and taking care of myself, I went all out in taking care of household chores, errands, and cleaning that had been put off during the end of the semester crazies and the holiday. I overworked myself and tried to deny that I was sick. It caught up with me in a big way.

And once again, I'm re-learning "the oxygen mask lesson." In life, like so many other women, instead of reaching for my oxygen mask first (airline safety rules), I reach out to do for others OR to do the things that I believe I am supposed to do to make me a good wife, daughter, sister, friend, etc. I am lucky, no one in my life is making me think I have to do these things. Instead, I impose these ideas on myself until once again, life reminds me that if I don't take care of myself first, then there is nothing left to give back to family, friends, writing, students, the community, &etc.

Somewhere in all of this, I read online (somewhere): "We schedule what we value." This is my new mantra, and it is written out on a post-it that is stuck to my computer monitor, right where my eyes meet it first thing.

So, my wishes for the new year include: (short term) a return to health and (long term) a steady practice of scheduling time for myself, especially time to write.