What to write about

What to write about

Here’s a post from a blog I wrote at the end of the year for Nimrod Journal. It’s my attempt to answer the question most of us who write hear so often: what do you write about? How do you find your ideas? You can read it here.

In the meantime, are you writing? Do you write? Keep a journal? What do you write about? And how do you decide?

More on ~ why blog? why write at all??

More on ~ why blog? why write at all??

A writer friend of mine is thinking of beginning a blog for a journal she edits. She asked several of the advisory & editorial boards to be thinking of possible blog posts. The response astonished me. NOT because they were interested (I expected that — writers ❤ having their names in even online print!), but because they didn’t have a CLUE about blogs.

Yes, they (some of them…) read them. And all of them knew blogs are electronic media. But these pretty smart folks were talking about blog posts of 1,000-1,500+ words! Basically, essays (some even said ‘essays.’) I’d put it down to the advanced age(s) of the majority, but in point of fact? Most are younger than I am… Big sigh.

i’ve been blogging regularly, for national outlets, for more than 5 years — almost 6. Not forever, but it’s not that old a medium, right? And it is its own animal, shorter than the essay it echoes. More white space than a newspaper article, even. Shorter paragraphs (a suggestion which I often observe only in rejection!), and a more informal tone. I know these parameters well, even when I choose to reject them (which I do, as my various web tools will nicely inform me!). The conventional blog wisdom is that a blog post should be between 300-500 words (I’m already at 220 here), and feature a lot graphics. I accept the graphics — it’s the web, right? — but I often go over on the length. I justify my wordiness with the caveat that my audience is pretty much used to reading longer pieces than any blog I’m going to write!

But the purpose of a blog is different, as well. As a long-time teacher of writing, from academic writing to personal essay to poetry to blog, what colours my writing (& writing pedagogy) most is years of journalism. The cardinal rule (which fits in with my rhetoric background nicely!) is: know your audience. It’s one of the main reasons I started this blog, when I was already blogging for a national website. The national website is very nice folks, but 90% of their emphasis is Christian, with a strong lean to the evangelical. That couldn’t be less in line w/ my own leanings. I’m like…I must be the Buddhist Unitarian token…?

So here I am, reaching a fraction of the readers I did elsewhere, and still hopeful numbers will change. I’ll never be a viral commodity (too long! too wordy! too whatever!), but that’s never been why I write, to be ‘famous.’ I just want to offer a map on what is often — at least for me — a pretty dark journey. Especially in these days of polarised politics & hard-hearted demagogues. Writing is one of the few ‘talents’ (cultivated as a skill, let me tell you!) I can offer to ‘the cause’ of compassion, of lovingkindness. Of mettametta

Non-Sanskrit speakers mostly translate metta as ‘lovingkindness.’ And that’s how I think of it, certainly. But the infinitely wise Sharon Salzberg, in one of her many disquisitions on metta, notes that it’s really much more than that. It’s connection, love, intimacy. But NOT simply with others. With ourselves, our own lives, as well. For if we can’t love & connect & be grateful for our own happiness, how can we offer that to others? It’s sooo much harder for me to forgive my own fallibility than it is to see the reasons behind the actions of someone I love.

But Salzberg reminds us: each life has the same merit. Hard for me to believe when I compare my own life to that of a leader like the Dalai Lama, or Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Or US Congressman John Lewis, whose angry passion offends some, while it awes me. I look at him as a force of the best of nature: the fire that brings life to the prairie, by destroying the waste that lies before it. I’m definitely not good at seeing us equal lives!

I’m sure this seems a looong way from blogging! But it isn’t. The Archbishop and the Dalai Lama have great gifts. I have only my small one — writing, and a determined voice. So putting it out there is what I do to contribute. Even when I know it’s only a small voice. And even when it means telling folks who are SURE they know…what they don’t know. About blogging. About the different kinds of writing. About media. But NOT about life. 😉

To FB or not to FB ~

To FB or not to FB ~

I’m a writer. It’s what I do. More honestly? It’s what I be. I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember: keeping journals, writing stories, even a novel as an elementary kid (okay, so it was pretty short…).

I’m the kind of writer (person?) who has to write it down to figure out what I even think. And to top it all off, I’m a damn scholar. There. I said it: I research everything. And I know how to. (See previous post.) This is a curse, these days, folks. And I’m quoting a much fancier blogger than I am to bolster my case.

Reading Jessica Livingston’s ‘Sound of Silence‘ struck so many resonant chords it was like she was playing my song. A soundtrack to a current dilemma I’m waffling over. Which is…to FaceBook or not to FaceBook.

Back story: I use my FB as a kind of ersatz progressive news outlet. One entire side of my family is evangelical Christian, in the least progressive of definitions. They are anti-choice, homophobic (in my eyes, at least; they would say they’re ‘pro-Christian marriage’), filled with white privilege (which they would say was ‘anti-special treatment’), and extremely pro-Christian (to the extent of being highly suspicious of other religions). We don’t have ANYTHING in common, politically.

But they’re my family, folks. MY. FAMILY. So I keep trying to point them to unbiased news sources (‘they’re liberal rags’ — the Washington Post?? Reuters??). Look up government docs (‘it’s an Obama conspiracy!’).  LInk them to actual video of what was said, or what happened. So they can see with their own eyes.

And it has as much impact as rain in Africa. Their beliefs are grounded partially in religious propoganda from the pulpit (think Franklin Graham, or Pat Robertson), and partially in the visible changing of the colour guard of American culture. Gays! Brown people! Muslims! And while my family will say they harbor no ill will towards ‘them,’ they will also find reason after reason why such groups should be watched/ listed/ disenfranchised.

It’s enough to put you off reunions entirely.

I have worked diligently to learn ‘the other side.’ There are excellent articles available on why so much of economically depressed, blue collar white America voted as it didd this election. Against its own interests, progressives would say. But in  line with history & the pulpits of evangelical Christianity.

Did I mention I’m also a Buddhist? And a socially engaged Buddhist, at that…I’ve revisited the 14 precepts of socially engaged Buddhism, as defined by my beloved (never met f2f, but always there as a mentor to me) Thich Nhất Hanh. What I’m struggling with is how NOT to be angry w/ such boneheadedness. How NOT to dislike narrowmindedness, even as I realise (with no small sense of the irony!) that my family thinks I’m the boneheaded one.

This is when I wish I had a teacher present to ask a question of. But in the meantime, I guess I’m going to have to learn, as Sharon Salzberg (another beloved mentor) says her own mentor told her, “The Buddha’s enlightenment solved the Buddha’s problem, now you solve yours.”

I just wish it wasn’t so damn HARD! Any suggestions?


Why scholarship (& science, and all that logical stuff) matters ~

Why scholarship (& science, and all that logical stuff) matters ~

There’s a lot of media attention these days to ‘false news sites.’ I taught research for more than 20 years, and I used to call such sites ‘underwear sites.’ Because anyone can set up a website. You don’t have to be knowledgeable in anything much: you can do it in your underwear. And the information is worth about as much.

For the most part, students HATE research papers. They’ll kid you that they like research (and to be fair, a few actually do…a very few). Then they’ll whine (A LOT) about the research paper itself, how it’s artificial (yes). How it has to be done certain ways (yes again). And how they’ll never write another research paper (possibly true, although not nearly as true as they’d like to believe; we just don’t call them research papers at work…)

But here’s the deal: only in the research paper process do you have the opportunity (indeed, the moral obligation) to teach students about source evaluation. And hold them responsible for being users of credible reearch. Something it’s evident most voters — on both sides of the aisle — are woefully incapable of. Because it’s NOT ‘credible, authoritative information/research/evidence to support your argument’ if you can ONLY find it on personal blogs. Or on only one news source (whether that’s For or democraticunderground). At the very least, in such cases, the ‘news’ is highly suspect — usually downright false. You must be able to locate the same information in multiple sources, none of which are what I taught my students to call ‘agenda-ed.’

Because we don’t tend to think of sources WE respect as ‘biased.’ Even if they are. I was horrified when I realised that 2 websites I quite enjoy aren’t totally objective. They have liberal agendas (which isn’t exactly the same as bias, as I used to explain to my students). The KKK is NOT a reliable source of information about civil rights, or African American history. Or much else, honestly. They are overtly biased against African Americans, and against anyone who isn’t, no matter how they pretty their racism up with euphemism. They also have an agenda: they want to return the US to a whites-only country (the fact that it never was is apparently not relevant).

The American Cancer Society, on the other hand, has an agenda — to cure cancer — but isn’t biased. It won’t tell you lies about things that cause cancer. It will publish what it finds, however, including new research. The KKK will tell you lies about various African American historical figures; the American Cancer Society will not lie to you. There’s a caveat here: research unearths & re-evaluates current knowledge. So what the ACS told us about cancer 30 years ago may not be at all what today’s research reveals. That’s the whole basis of science: it reflects the LATEST data, parsed by experts. Hence climate change.

This is a very difficult concept for many people to get their heads (& hearts) around. Entire political campaigns have been run on bias (if you’re anti-immigration of all Muslims, that’s not an agenda; that’s bias). You may think you have good reasons. You may even have read ‘research’ on your position(s) in various media outlets, from TV news to newspapers to websites. However, it has both bias (Muslims=bad) and an agenda: to ‘rid’ America of Muslims. And the people behind these websites are pretty obvious. IF you take the time to dismantle the ‘About Us’ section at the top of most sites.

Digression: most Americans under the age of 50 (and many well over) consider themselves tech-literate. Yeah, maybe. I’d have to disagree when it comes to evaluation of online sources, however. As noted, I’ve taught research for years, and have been a heavy computer & Internet user since the first linked systems. I still get hoodwinked by fake news sites, primarily humourous ones, but still…! A LOT of satirical websites want to fool you — they think it’s funny. Unfortunately, many of us are believers before skeptics. So we (unknowingly) ‘buy’ fake news. And it’s now such a common occurrence that we have entire articles devoted to it.

I love research. Always have. I read science & nature writing for fun, untangling the braided skeins of data that go into studies taking place over years. I continue to try to unravel ‘real’ news from ‘fake,’ even when the fake stuff comes from (ostensibly) American ‘leaders.’

So I’m repeating this for folks who believe that religion, or faith, or what’s said in a religious text, overrule science & reason: No. They call it ‘faith’ because you have to believe it. It isn’t ‘prove-able.’ I can no more prove the miracle of the loaves & fishes than I can disprove it. Same with miracles credited to other wisdom traditions (and every religion has them): I can’t prove Buddha’s reincarnations (no weirder to contemplate than heaven), or Krishna’s magic powers (no stranger than powers attributed to relics of the saints) or the mercy of Allah.

You may want desperately to believe that X politician is a crook, because another pol you adore said so. But chances are, unless you can find that info on credible, reliable sources lacking ANY agenda or bias (Reuters isn’t bad), it’s false.

You may agree w/ it. It may even be your innate faith. That does NOT make it true. (That’s why they call it faith: you have to BELIEVE it.)

Sorry — scholarship has spoken 🙂

blogging, blue fish, connection ~

blogging, blue fish, connection ~

I read in a book on journaling that it’s impossible to write about a single, solitary ‘thing’ or ‘place’ or even ‘person’ w/out a host of other things, places and people clamouring to be included. It’s true. It’s all part of the blue fish conspiracy, I suspect. I start off on bees, and end up back in ViệtNam. I think I’m going to be writing about Thanksgiving and family foodways and end up on bees and animal rights. In other words, I’m not a linear writer. Or thinker. Or driver. I may not be a linear anything!

So it worries me sometimes that readers will be hard-pressed to follow me, to read this blog.  Heck, most of my own friends and family don’t read me! (And if you are reading this right now, bless you!) I used to blog for a national website. Still do, actually, although I intend to put most of my writing efforts into this space, and a manuscript project. Because there’s something slightly wild about being on my own, about not having to worry about my politics, my lapses into profanity. My non-linearity. (Non-linear moment: did you know that use of profanity is tied to higher intelligence? Hooray!)

The New Year’s startup brings all this to mind, as I consider my time this next year. Reflect on goals, priorities, all that I see upcoming: a move halfway across the country, to a brand-new house. Leaving this home where we’ve spent the past 20+ years raising a family, making lives and careers. If Buddhism is about anything, it’s in large part about intentionality ~ how we train our intentions, our motivations, to be compassionate to all. Even our own flawed & fragile selves.

Blogging for a website is different than doing it on your lonesome. I’m no expert on why we blog, but surely it’s closely akin to the journaling impulse: the writer Alexandra Johnson names a book after it, Leaving a  Trace. Although I’m not sure that’s all of it — or even much of it — for me. Mostly I want to see what I think. Like E.M. Forster,”How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” It seems the reverse side of the coin of Forster’s life, the other half being “Only connect.”

They really do seem fingers & thumb of the same hand to me. You connect w/ the world when you journal. And what’s blogging but HTML journaling? So anyway ~ I don’t blog to be read. That’s exceptionally nice when it happens: it helps me feel ‘connected.’ But I don’t write/ journal/ blog to be read, per se. I’m a Forster protogé ~ I write to see what I think, how I feel, to make sense of it all. To record my observations for myself, to use later, or not.

The friend who originally recruited me to blog for the website told me to keep it ‘short & punchy.’ Sigh… I have a feeling no one will EVER describe my writing as ‘short & punchy.’ He also told me to leave the reader feeling good. He obviously wasn’t there when my husband BEGGED me not to read my 2nd chapbook at a poetry reading, saying that people should just slit their wrists and avoid the wait.

Ironically, I think in person I’m reasonably amusing. My friend Carol and I used to laugh so hard on the bus that folks looked at us funny (if we were drinking milk, I guarantee it would have come out our noses). But that’s talking, not writing. There is physical presence involved, the interaction of 2 or more folks. Real humour requires another party — not just me listening to me, or even you listening to you. It’s one of us listening to (or reading) the other. Like how you can’t tickle yourself…

My first, tentative thoughts on blogging were (& remain) that  I don’t have enough to offer folks seeking spiritual comfort or insight. What I do offer is my own journey, begun as a teenager, and continuing still. So since I’ve always learned best by figuring out how to teach something (hence the various classes I’ve taught over the years for adult education), I’m back on this non-linear blog. Hard on folks who might think I’m some kind of ‘expert’, but I’m disavowing that position early on :).

Please join me on the ride. Who knows what we’ll learn, together?

blogging is ~ medicine for the heart

blogging is ~ medicine for the heart

When I was still teaching at university, a student  – let’s call her Amy – told me she wanted to start a blog. Amy is a recovering cutter: for a long time she has laddered her arms and legs with razor cuts, as a way of coping with an overwhelming world.

The first day of class that semester, Amy had come to me in tears after class. She couldn’t do our (mandatory) class listserv, she said. She’d been told by her educational technology professor that she was incapable of learning technology, and she believed it. How could she do my class w/ this requirement?

I gave her a hug while she cried. I walked her through email (she’d never really done email — and yes, there are thousands of kids like Amy). I sat with her and listened. And for the past two months, Amy has posted the required 3-4 entries to the class list.

She also shared, in one of our daily quickwrites, that she is a recovering cutter. Her research project was on cutting, the causes, the treatment, and her own recovery process. It was a strong essay, like the strong young woman who produced it.

Via google

Via google

Here’s the thing: I learned to ‘speak digital’ at National Writing Project. At first I had to do it the hard way (no technology where I worked): manually networking computers  was the only way to get the kids talking to each other. But in addition to the technology, I also learned the research on why it’s important to give our students opportunities to write and learn digitally. And I’ve just been increasing that knowledge since I began, 20 years ago.

Without the training & support I received from NWP, Amy, for instance, would never have had a teacher who has learned (the hard way — through experiencing the learning curve myself!) how to think and read and write digitally. As Marc Prensky notes, this generation (and the one coming up behind it) speak digital fairly fluently. Or at least most of them do (there are still thousands of students like Amy, however). Teachers? Not so much. So when a student like Amy comes along — who was home-schooled for a while, and then in small rural schools w/out access to digital literacy education — how will s/he (the teacher) defuse that fear?

Amy ended up emailing all over the place. And she eventually shared her amazing recovery story on a blog, possibly a precursor to a memoir. Yes — a blog. Which intimidates even many digital natives. But Amy jumped in, before the end of the semesty. Because her teacher had a blog, and was able to discuss it and teach it w/ familiarity. Digital (& blogging) was — for Amy — literally ‘heart medicine.’ Her hard road to recovery may well help others, as well — Just as it has enabled her to move from shame, pain, & guilt to healing.

via flickr

via flickr

Far too many non-teaching ‘education experts’ dismiss digital writing — technology in general — as just ‘business’ training. But for so many of us, it can literally be what comforts us. Don’t ever be afraid to put your voice out there. Someone needs to hear your story. Someone needs to know what you’ve learned.