That Thing You Do

Me at the UCCS library, wrinkles and all, writing a blog post and doing homework.

There’s a thing many teachers do, myself included. They ask a misleading question or lead into an activity counting on the class to give a specific answer, one that is not the “right” answer. Used at its best, this tactic can give the students an eye-opening and inspiring experience, such as John Keating (played by Robin Williams in The Dead Poets Society) when he had the young men walk around the courtyard and they quickly fell into step. He pointed out that they can each walk differently, in their own path. The young men in his class grew during his time with them, forging their own way and becoming the better for it. (With one notable exception but that’s a spoiler for the entire movie.)

Used at its worst, this can be a condescending put-down where an insecure teacher just wants to make themselves look smart and rob the students of the same privilege. Fortunately, I don’t have any examples of this, but it does happen.

Next time I teach, I think I’ll alter the tactic if I find myself using it. During the summer, history classes in Immigration and on Cemeteries both brought up “The common thought at the time was _____.” Instead of asking the class “Were non-whites desirable as citizens and neighbors?” the professors pointed out that people, in general, in that time and place, generally had certain attitudes that affected their culture and laws. If I were to ask a group of intelligent, compassionate students a question, I shouldn’t expect to trip them into giving an answer I plan to swiftly contradict. Instead, I could ask “What are some of the prevailing attitudes regarding ____?” Like in Family Feud, where they polled a bunch of people and the contestants, instead of giving their OWN answers and opinions, try to guess what “most people” would say.

I had my first Improv class yesterday and it was wonderful. I am really going to enjoy this! (I also have a sore knee because I stupidly took a prat fall and came down harder than expected, but that’s a story for another day.) We did an exercise where the class formed a circle, then one at a time we left the circle and filled the space inside the circle. When instructions were given, I visualized John Keaton’s class in the courtyard. Our professor had said we could enter “however we wanted” and the examples were of people with moderately understated entrances moving around the space and then, in a few moments, finding a spot to stop. One by one we entered, each of us coming up with something slightly different, whether stomping, dancing Vaudeville-style, or floating like a winged creature. At the end, we were all inside the space, but the group was very concentrated to the center. We didn’t “fill” it.

The teacher pointed this out, without seeming exactly critical. I think he’s done this many times and it’s probably the common thing that most first-time theater students do. He also pointed out that, although the goal was “fill the space,” most of us also chose to amuse our fellow students while doing so. Unlike John Keaton, instead of emphasizing how original or outrageous we could be, our prof taught us that the goal was for the group to work as a cohesive unit toward the goal of filling the space. Being too absurd was actually counter-productive to this goal.

Part of school, and work, and relationships, and life in general is figuring out what the expectations are. At the beginning of the improv exercise, I knew there would be some kind of expectation, and we wouldn’t know what it was until after we’d done the exercise. The expectation could have been “You should have all shown some originality! All you did was step inside and spread out.” Since the first couple of people did something interesting to enter, the rest of the class followed suit. Following another’s example could also be either a desirable thing or an embarrassment. After the fact, the teacher may say “Well, I see you all made the same mistake.” Or, as in a class where we are supposed to be actively and spontaneously interacting with and responding to each other, following a classmate’s lead would supposedly be a good thing.

It’s the beginning of a new semester. I’m meeting most of my teachers for the first time. I’m learning their expectations, both stated and subtle. It’s a nervous time, but I’ve been through it many times before and I’m okay with it. I’m not as prepared as I’d like to be…financial issues mean I don’t have my books or other necessities yet, but I have forced myself to accept this and work with the circumstances instead of panicking.

Today’s my work day.

Let’s see what I can get done.

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It Worked

Straight A’s and perfect attendance for two semesters!

I am well on my way to a Bachelor’s in History at UCCS. I sat down with my adviser and it looks like I’ll need three more full semesters. I transferred in with two Associate’s degrees, so I am a senior with lots of credit, but there are still a lot of miscellaneous requirements to check off. Primarily, I need lots of upper division history classes, which are challenging but OH so interesting! This summer I took Immigrant History and Cemeteries and Memory in America. This fall I am taking Medieval Science and Technology, The Ottoman Empire, and Religion and American Culture. Besides the three history courses, I need to take Freshman English (hoping that will be easy for me) and I’m filling my oral communication requirement with Improv. It should be fun!

History was definitely the best choice to mesh with a writing career. All through both semesters, I came up with tidbits to put into my stories (did you know the hand/torch of the Statue of Liberty was on display in a public park for years before the statue was assembled?) and things I’d like to explore further (Penrose and Palmer, both great philanthropists in the early days of Colorado Springs, did not see eye-to-eye…) Many of the ideas are Steampunk-related, figuring out ways to tweak the Victorian timeline to create an alternate history. Other ideas are about the clash of cultures; something easy to extrapolate into a SciFi story.

Alas, I do not have time to actually write the stories yet.

A year ago I told myself that, this time, I would not stress over doing everything exactly right. I allowed myself to let some things go. Although I turned in every assignment, many of them were not my best work. Sometimes I only skimmed the assigned reading. Sometimes I (gasp!) skipped it altogether. I still went to class and still participated even if I wasn’t completely prepared.

It worked. I not only passed, I managed to get A’s in every class. (One was an A- last spring.) I worked hard, but I also balanced the other things in my life, and it paid off.

Yet I am very fortunate. I got perfect attendance, but I was never sick enough to miss class. I never had a family member in crisis when I needed to be in class. There were never any other spontaneous issues that could have kept me away from campus. There were a number of instances when I needed to do schoolwork, but instead had to prioritize something else. But it wasn’t crippling. I was always able to either find another piece of time to get it done, or I let it go (like the reading) and limped through.

One great aspect of school is that it sets you up for success. You’re presented with a to-do list, and you do it. But this is so different from real life, and that’s a frustrating realization. This is beyond the condescending platitude “No one ever said life is fair.” You can be well-qualified for a job and still not get hired. You can be excellent at your job and never receive recognition or reward. You can set off on a journey and either find something incredible and new, or look back and realize there was so much that you missed.

I will continue to manage my energy (and spoons) and do the things on the list that my teachers and the university created for me.

Then I’ll try to find a way to make this academic thing a permanent gig.

 

 

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Work Habits

Before I went to college at age eighteen, my father gave me some advice on studying. “Always read the book ahead of time,” he told me. “Then after you’ve heard the lecture and done the assignments, go back and read the text again. That way you’ll learn the material thoroughly.”

I just repeated this advice to my daughter, even though she still more than a few years away from college. But I added one caveat…

Don’t do it.

If the primary goal is to thoroughly grok the information, then multiple readings and diligence in doing the assignments is  a great way to learn. However the goal of learning is not always to cram every bit of information into your head. As a student, one juggles many responsibilities and deadlines. Putting too much energy into one thing means taking energy away from something else. If one is a perfectionist or OCD or has a similar internal impetus to overdo, then trying and failing to do this thorough kind of work can sabotage one’s overall success.

I love my Rise of Modern Europe class. One of the main parts of lecture is to show a slide of a primary source such as a diary excerpt or bill of sale, and ask “What is this telling us?” Last class we looked at a chart that listed all the groups that participated in the Thirty-Years War, and when they entered and left the conflict. The point was not to know each of the armies; the point was to understand that this was a huge conflict involving many different factions in ever-changing alliances over several decades.

Another exercise we did in class was to attempt to read a lengthy piece in a very short time. The professor urged us to know the difference between a text we need to study closely, and a text we only need to skim. Both methods have great value.

I still haven’t found a good way to mesh my writing career with academia, but most of that is time management. It’s not that I’m doing it wrong, it’s that I need to prioritize some things, and other things must be put off. One thing that is both a blessing and a curse is that ideas for stories and essays pop up regularly. It’s nice to have ideas, but frustrating not to have time to work on them. Someday I’ll write The Diet of Worms Was Not a Buffet and The Closeted Calvinist (If you’ve studied Calvinism, you’ll get the problem with that title.)

But for now, I’ll read. Once. I’ll skim. I’ll take in everything I can even if there isn’t time to grok everything I want to grok.

And I’ll pass BOTH quizzes tomorrow.

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I’m a Meh Diabetic

A year ago I began a new writing project. I started documenting my life as a diabetic after receiving the diagnosis in February of last year. It was going to be heartfelt and true, following the ups and downs of learning to manage my blood sugar, eating right, and getting more exercise.

It wasn’t that interesting.

I abandoned the project after a couple of months. Yes, I had new medicine. I take five pills every night, which is intrusive but not nearly as bad as many, many diabetics have. I poke myself twice a day to measure my blood sugar, but I don’t have to poke myself to take insulin or other medications. My numbers are almost always well within the range the doctor wants them to be.

It’s always a challenge to decide what projects to abandon, which ones just need to rest on the shelf, and which are worth making time for. I’m a full-time college student this semester, so time-management is of great importance. My first priority (after taking care of my family) is to make sure I’m prepared for class. It’s not perfect. Sometimes I skim a reading instead of scrutinizing it. I’ve turned in papers knowing that the citations weren’t quite right. I might end up with B’s or even a C instead of a perfect A, but I’m okay with that.

My fiction writing, unfortunately, has again taken a back seat. Hopefully, after certain things (like better housing) are in place, and I have a semester under my belt to figure out how things work, I’ll be able to balance it all.

Meanwhile, I’m fine with chucking the “My First Year as a Diabetic” project in the trash.

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Publishing: Fiction vs Academic

If my name followed the verb-preposition-noun pattern it would be Takes-Selfies-With-Statues

I seem to be very adept at choosing careers that do not directly provide monetary compensation for the work I put in. If I were independently wealthy, or my husband was making enough money for me to live a life of leisure, I’d be perfectly okay with this. I’d love to create stories and do research and sometimes combine the two (Steampunk in particular) simply for the enjoyment and personal fulfillment.

Alas, that’s not very realistic.

In my very first week back to school I heard about a workshop geared for graduate students and teachers interested in publishing their work in professional journals. Although I am still an undergrad, I hope and plan to work on my masters degree at UCCS after I earn my bachelors. I was the only undergrad in the workshop, and it was both interesting and informative.

One of the main reasons for choosing History as my major is that it blends well with my fiction writing career. It also gives me many different options in the professional world after I have my degree. I could even work for the FBI!

The kind of work I enjoy most is project-based. Writing a novel, revising, querying, then hopefully being accepted then editing and publishing. I would enjoy chasing whatever ideas come to me (which reminds me…I have a specific Shakespeare-related question to ask of a specific Shakespeare professor on campus) then research them, write up my findings and publish the results. I’d love to work with other people on similar journals.

One thing that writing fiction and writing for academic purposes have in common is that, in both cases, it is very possible that you could put a great deal of work into a project and never see a single dime from it.

One of the main differences between writing fiction and writing for academia is that, in fiction, the money almost always flows to the author. If someone asks you for a fee, it is a huge flashing warning sign. In publishing your research in an academic journal, fees are normal and expected. With fiction, being asked to do something “for the exposure” is an insult, and only worthwhile to newbies who are trying to establish a name for themselves. (My first two stories were for charity. For everything else, I was paid. Not paid well, but I was paid.) In academia, one of the main goals is to have someone else cite your work. It is worthwhile to produce research that others trust and are interested in referencing for their own work.

I’ve just begun to explore the possibilities ahead of me in academia. I do believe many of the interesting paths will blend well with writing fiction. And raising a family. And finding personal fulfillment. And…well…I’m enjoying the path I’m on.

I’m just not exactly sure where it goes.

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Scholastic vs Fiction Writing

Simon is helping me take notes for this paper.

I need to write. Yes… this is the day for my weekly blog post, which is something I can whip out in ten minutes as an 0ff-the-cuff piece that doesn’t need citations or beta readers or anything more than a once-over proofread.

Specifically, I need to write a 750+ word paper that argues whether a specific historical person (who isn’t famous, but we have a large excerpt from his 13th century diary) is a peasant, merchant, or nobleman. It’s my first academic paper in many years, and the assignment is basically intended for us to get our toes wet as scholars of history.

Writing 750 words is a piece of cake for me. Making sure that I have a thesis that is appropriately stated and well-supported is a bit more of a challenge, but something I’m up for. Doing the citations properly is a challenge, but I can follow the online guide.

Writing fiction may not seem like a direct preparation for writing an academic paper, but it definitely helps. I know the difference between following an important thread (such as defining the difference between a peasant and a merchant) and chasing something fluffy down a rabbit hole (the crowds in Florence chanting “BALLS!” because that’s what was on the Medici crest.) I have the discipline not to fall down the rabbit hole, and limit my other sidetracks to what is immediately necessary for this paper.

I am enjoying my classes immensely! I am not surprised by the amount of work or time, though at times I can feel it is getting overwhelming. (Overcoming that is another skill to discuss some other time.) Today is my day between classes, which are all on Tuesdays and Thursdays for now. I have a specific set of tasks I need to accomplish, and fit in normal family stuff such as picking up my kid from school, and writer commitments such as an important meeting tonight.

Later in the semester I hope to be in a better “swing” so I can find time to finish the fiction as well as fulfill my academic commitments.

And enjoy doing it!

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Anthropology and Science Fiction

I was perfectly happy when my advisor suggested I take Cultural Anthropology, as it checked off four different requirements for my degree and was a freshman level class. (I’m a senior, majoring in history.)

Today we had our first class. One major point of today’s introduction was that anthropology covers all times and areas where humans have existed and do exist. Studying some aspect of today’s humanity is just as valid a branch as studying a long-dead civilization.

The idea that humanity consists of many very different cultures fascinates me. Some of the best SciFi out there begins with a civilization that is vastly different from any society known on Earth, such as Ursula K. LeGuinn’s  The Left Hand of Darkness or Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye. Many stories (and they’re good stories) simply extrapolate the author’s own society, adding in some advanced tech.

Worldbuilding should involve the development of the characters’ culture, society, and political structure. The more different the society is from the familiar, the bigger the challenge for the author.

One of the first series I began working on as a completely built world are the Kingdom Come novels. They are primarily romance novels, set in a far-future human-colonized world. I wanted to write about relationships in a framework that was very different from the hetero-normative, primarily monogamous society I live in. Kingdom Come is polyamorous, with a traditional marriage consisting of several men and several women. I didn’t want to write kink. I didn’t want my characters to be breaking out of the traditional mold and trying something new, I wanted them to have different expectations imposed on them by their own society. On Kingdom Come, if your romantic group is small, consisting of just a few members, your friends and family will try to fix you up with other singles and small groups.

Having multiple characters in a relationship means I have more than one or two POVs. This can get complicated. I’ve experimented with a few different ways to tell the stories, from focusing on one or two characters to giving equal time to eight. I’m not sure what works best yet.

It would be interesting, not to mention make my life so much easier, if I could visit Kingdom Come and observe the relationships first-hand.

From an anthropological point of view.

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The Return

I didn’t write in December. Just a few words on the first two days of the month, then I let it go. It wasn’t a deliberate release, but I realized what was happening and I went with it.

Today, the holidays are over and both kids are back in school. I opened my NaNo novel and added words. Not as many as I’d like, but I know when I haven’t written for a while it takes a while to get flowing again. The next scene is one I used to be stuck on, then figured out during December when I wasn’t doing any actual writing.

A week from today classes start at UCCS and I will finally be working on finishing my bachelor’s degree! I’m very excited to get going, but I am a little nervous because there’s a delay in my financial aid and I don’t know whether it’s going to be disbursed or dispersed.

My schedule has me on campus only on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and some Saturdays. I like this a lot! Hopefully it will work out with my kids’ needs and everything else I have to do. This is important, for me, and for my family. A bachelors in history will enhance my writing career, and allow me to explore other jobs (such as teaching) that require something more than an associates degree.

My writing goals for the year are to finish the stories I started in 2017. I have not yet specified a timeline for completion…I thought I’d finish last year. I’m also not sure about writing anything on Tuesdays and Thursdays, because I spend most of the day in class.

For now, I’m doing the tasks I can, when I can do them. Hopefully by the end of January we’ll all be in a happy routine.

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What’s Worth It

As a teenager in the 80’s I was jealous of the girls who spent an hour or more every morning making their hair perfectly floofy and feathered from all angles. Not jealous enough to spend that much time on my own hair, but I did admire the result. I put foam curlers in my hair every night, then brushed  up and back every morning. It was simple, and produced the desired result.

It’s fun to dress up and be fancy now and again, but my daily norm is no makeup and a simple hairstyle. It’s not worth the time and trouble to do anything complicated. The only exception is that I often put a french braid in my 10yo’s hair, and we don’t do that every day.

I’ll be 47 later this month. Solidly into middle age! Now, unfortunately, I have to take the time to do many necessary things that have nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with aging. I’ll spare you the details, but I swear that whatever the neti pot dislodged the other day could have gained sentience.

It’s not always easy to decide what’s worth my time and effort. Most of the time, my daughter likes having her hair done up. She just hates how much time it takes. I think it’s worth it not just because it’s cute and keeps her hair neat all day, but I also enjoy the mother-daughter time.

I’m enrolled in college this spring. I have two girls, the older of whom has special needs and is transitioning to adulthood. There are a lot of demands on my time. I started several stories in 2017, and I want to finish them. I also have a number of stories on the shelf I’d like to delve back into.

I need to decide what’s worth my time. My NaNo novel Coward of the County is just over 50k, but unfinished. It’s part of a series that I’m not likely to query soon. Twenty-first Century Airship Princess has great potential, but requires some re-arranging along with a rewrite of the unfinished rough draft. Techspectations and Mother of Dragons could be novellas, shorter and easier to finish.

They’re all worth my time.

That’s the problem.

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Finishing

I finished the year sick. Halfway through November I came down with Bronchitis. Mid December, still recovering from Bronchitis, I went to orientation at UCCS and picked up a stomach bug that did very nasty things to my innards for 24 hours. When I went to see the doctor for that, she told me I also had a UTI.

I’m taking waaaay too many prescriptions at the moment, but I trust my doc. And if being sick now means I can be healthy for the beginning of school in January (I’m finally finishing my Bachelors degree in History) then it’s worth it.

I technically won NaNoWriMo by passing the 50k wordcount by the end of November, but I still need to finish the story. I also set aside two other WIPs to do NaNo; I need to finish them as well.

That’s the goal for next year.

Finish.

The big change coming up is going back to school full time. I’m excited and happy and really looking forward to it! UCCS is an incredible school with a lot to offer. With two Associates degrees under my belt, I’m going in as a Senior. I have a lot of transfer credits, but I also have a lot of specific credits to complete. I’m not overloading. I’m taking twelve credits, which is the minimum to be full time. I was also able to schedule myself primarily on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which is nice.

I’m eager to see how school meshes with writing. I’ll have lots of work, including reading and writing, to do of course. The nice thing is the campus. UCCS is related to CU  Boulder and CU Denver. It’s a beautiful campus, tucked around a big hill in the middle of Colorado Springs. It has all the usual academic buildings, dorms, student center, arts building, and a brand new health complex. No football stadium, but that’s not something I’ll miss. (Maybe sometime during the year I’ll drive up to Boulder for a game. Maybe CU vs CSU but that’s a story for another time.)

The library has gorgeous views of Pikes Peak, and a plethora of places to sit and study (or write!) They also have a couple of tradmill desks, also with views of Pikes Peak. Tables in the student center, snack bar, and places all over campus are designed for students to sit and hang out. Or study. Or write.

This could be perfect.

Finishing the Bachelors degree is the beginning. I’m strongly considering continuing for my Masters, and who knows what lies beyond?

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