Sunday, September 18, 2016

Radical Revision: Verbs

78º ~ big storms a-comin' with some much-needed rain, skies laden with gray, one cricket cricketing

I am still running around, juggling as fast as I can, and these days my response to friends and family alike tends to be "sorry, I have no minutes left." Yet, as I said before, I'm also happier than I've ever been, and all of the "work" taking up those minutes is work to which I said "yes!"

Still, I know the blog is here waiting, so today I want to share one of the most successful revision exercises for poetry that I did with my intro to creative writing students. After explaining how it works in class, I'll provide an adaption for those working from home.

Most of us learn early that verbs can make or break a piece of writing. The proper verb, with just the right zing or slouch elevates ordinary writing to extraordinary. However, it's one thing to learn this and another to be able to overcome the inertia of ordinary writing, pluck those verbs out of our minds, and translate them to the page.

With this in mind, I thought up a way to demonstrate this to my students by way of a bit of MadLib. Students come to class with typed up rough drafts of a set of poems. Before we begin the revision, I ask them to open their journals and write a list of the most creative verbs they can think of. I give them a few to prompt them: squish, catapult, lounge, etc. Then, I prompt them to think as outside the box as possible. After about a minute, we go around the room and each student provides one verb from their list while I create a catalog on the board. Going around the room twice provides 40 verbs, plus whatever each student has on their private list.

Next, I ask the students to pick one of their rough drafts at random. Then, they have to underline all of the verbs (in any form or tense), including the "to be" verb (the biggest culprit of inert writing).

Then, to spice things up and get really radical, they have to pass their draft two or three to the left or right (far enough to get it out of their direct line of sight). As this passing is happening, I make a huge point that students should NOT read the poem that arrives in front of them. Instead, they are to mark out every underlined verb and write in one of our "creative" verbs from the board or from their own list.

With the substitutions made, we pass the poems back to the original writer who then reads and checks to see if any of the changes will work. Of course, 90% of the new verbs won't make sense, but a few will, and, more importantly, the student will be shaken enough to re-see the poem via the verb choices. (As a side benefit, the class tends to laugh and bond over some of the more outrageous suggestions.)

Here are a few of the changes that worked in our class recently.

Original line: "The way I look at you is a curse."
Revised line with one of the verbs changed:  "The way I look at you blossoms a curse."
Original line: "Whispers fade."
Revised line: "Whispers levitate."
Original line: "The car came to life."
Revised line: "The car fumbled to life."

By and large, most students were able to change several verbs in the draft to "up the ante" on the action and on the readers' interest levels. As beginners at revision, this is a huge lesson in the power of re-casting lines and images, and it is one that hasn't failed me yet in making an obvious impact.

After class, I contemplated how I could do this at home, alone. Creating the verb list is easy, as is identifying the verbs in a draft. However, without a partner, there needs to be a way to randomize the verbs and really distance one's writer self from the original draft. Perhaps the simplest way would be to number the verbs in the original draft and then create a numbered list of random "creative" verbs to substitute. For distance, I'd recommend waiting at least a day before making the substitutions so there is less affinity with the original.

Until the next free minute...

Monday, September 5, 2016

Dream Job: Year Two

94º ~ feels like 106º ~ after several easy days, the humidity returned today and we are back to swamp weather ~ with enough rain so far this summer, the grass remains green, the birds, squirrels, chipmunks, etc. remain fat and happy

NB: What follows should in no way be read as complaint. I'm still wildly in love with my dream job.

Classes at UCA began on 8/18, while I was away in Hudson, NY attending the Home School. Luckily, I had two great colleagues who agreed to meet my classes on Thursday and Friday so I could take advantage of the opportunity to study with such amazing people, both faculty and students.

I returned to Arkansas thinking I'd done enough prep work before I'd left to handle the start of the semester. I couldn't have been more wrong. Yes, I had my syllabi and my initial assignments set up, but the reality of still being new to my dream job hadn't quite sunk in.

Last year, I wrote some about "leveling up," moving from a 10-year career at a community college to a tenure-track job at the University of Central Arkansas. This move means that many of the courses I'm teaching now, I'm teaching for the first time. At the community college, I could only teach first- and second-year courses, and that meant first-year writing, intro to creative writing, world literature, and every once in a while, forms of poetry.

At UCA, the only creative writing course that I am repeating from my cc time is Intro to Creative Writing. Because of a difference in structure, the Forms of Poetry class at UCA is a bit different from the one I taught at PTC. Also, at UCA, as of last spring, I no longer teach any first-year writing. The result of this is that I find myself with four different classes, three of which have all new preps. Here's my schedule.

Introduction to Creative Writing (covering 4 genres...and oh, I changed the book this semester).

Forms of Poetry, a 3000-level course that incorporates theory and workshop.

Forms of Illustrated Narrative, a 3000-level course looking at a multitude of media that incorporate text and visuals from comics and graphic novels/memoir to collage and body-mapping to digital modes and writing for video games to 3-D installations. This course incorporates theory and workshop.

Special Topics: Ecopoetics, a 4000- and 5000-level course (8 grad students, 7 undergrads) that explores the latest theory in ecopoetics and asks students to write and workshop in the genre.

Aside from the actual class time, prepping new classes means reading more than the students, taking a stab at the pacing for the entire semester and then breaking that down into what needs to be covered in each class period, creating class notes, making assignments and then once those assignments come in providing feedback. Yes, I did some of this during the summer, but not enough. Lesson learned.

Along with content management, I have to keep records of attendance and fulfill other university requirements in a timely fashion. I'm also the type of professor who encourages my students to email me with their questions, and I maintain on online classroom of resources for each class to help bridge any gaps that might form between what I covered in class and what the students have to do outside of class.

Besides teaching, now that I'm in my second year at UCA, there is a full-on expectation of all of the out-of-class work that tenure-track faculty do. I sit on multiple committees, and, as many of you know, my big task in particular is to direct the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference. I also attend conferences and on-campus professional development in order to stay on top of current pedagogies. In the meantime, I'm also trying to write, revise, and submit in order to keep my publications coming on a regular basis.

In other words, dear reader, my cup runneth over.

As I noted at the start, please do not read any of this as complaint. I'm still completely thrilled by my position at UCA. In fact, I'm happier than I've ever been in my teaching life. I'm also more challenged than I've ever been. I know that in a few years all of this hard work will pay off when I get to teach a repeat of these courses, and I'll be able to revise and fine-tune all that I'm trying now.

In the meantime, I hope to pop back into the blog more regularly and am resolved to find a way to do so.

Until the next installment.