How to Achieve a Writing Goal (kind of)

It’s summer! If you’re in the midst of making writing plans, I hope this entry helps you meet your goals.

During the month of May I wanted to write 25,000 words of a novel I started last summer. I began very mathematically, noting that with the 14,346 words I already had, my goal was a total of 39,346. I counted up all the days I could feasibly devote to writing, and concluded that if I wrote 1,055 words every one of those days, I would reach my goal.

Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way, though I have to say that I was pretty dogged about my word requirement in the first two weeks. Then I got a little sidetracked with some work for my forthcoming poetry collection, a conference where I was presenting, having my parents stay for a short visit, getting a twitter account, and having my  computer break down for almost a week.

I reassessed on June 19th, and realized that I needed to up my word count/day to 1,355. That’s a crazy amount for me, but I tried. The result? By the end of May, I either surpassed my goal a little to bring me to a total of 40,071 words, or I underachieved with 36,059. I’m a little pissed at myself that I can’t really make the call. The discrepancy is that I cut and pasted some pages from a former failed novel into this one. While I think they’re going to be amazingly useful to pushing me forward in the plot, it’s kind of cheating and they’re not completely integrated into my current draft yet. The larger number includes them, and the smaller number does not.

This month of writing has instilled the importance of detail into my writing. And by detail, I mean word count, not imagery or metaphor. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t know all the things you need to know to write a novel–like who your characters are, where they come from, what they desire, and what’s their conflict. I’m saying that writing a novel is hard, dedicated work that you have to make time for in your impossibly full day, and that keeping a clear-sighted sense of the word count helps you move towards your goal in a purposeful way.

At the beginning of each morning, I wrote my current word count and the word count I was supposed to achieve by the end of the day on a piece of purple post-it paper. Then I stuck it on the edge of my laptop. When my mind would start to wander, I’d look at it and realize one of two things:

1) I had already written way more than I thought and that I should keep going because I had almost made my daily goal

or

2) I hadn’t written shit, needed to stop screwing around, and get going.

The important thing was that whether I had under or over-achieved, seeing the word count pushed me to keep going. I never looked at the paper and thought, ah screw it. I’ll just quit early for the day.

I didn’t get any exercise this month, didn’t eat healthy, and drank too much beer, so this month of June, as I give myself a little space from my novel, I’m going to work on health. I just went to my first ever public exercise class at an amazing yoga studio this morning. I’ve been doing yoga privately at home for the past two years but kept putting off going to a studio because I said I didn’t have the money or the time. What I was really saying to myself was that I was afraid of the changes I would have to make to have it happen. What I keep trying to tell myself is that everything’s changing all the time, and that reaching out for what you want is always worth it.

 

 

Writing Progress Report B+

In my last post I made a 25,000 word writing goal for the month of May. I want to have a draft of the novel I started last summer and had to put away for the teaching year done by the beginning of fall semester.

It’s the 19th. How am I doing?

Well . . . first . . .

These are things that happened that affected my writing time this month. Is this a cop-out? No. This is a reminder that things always get in the way of your goals no matter how much you try to protect them. This is a reminder to myself that when things go wrong or need attention that these problems are momentary. Acknowledge and then refocus on the goal.

May Problem #1

My computer crashed. @#R%$T%^&. On a Saturday morning when no computer repair shops are open until Monday. @#$%$&^$$*&. They backed up my data, reinstalled Windows, and 6 days later I had an empty computer back that I had to refill.

 

May Problem #2

My cat, Lucy, is on a rampage.

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In less than three weeks she has broken three water glasses and dumped water all over the book my son has been working on for school. I spent several hours of writing time one day blow drying each page separately to save his magnum opus, “The Terrorizing Spring.” It clocked in at 24 handwritten and illustrated pages + a 12-page rough draft. All completely soaked.

May Problem #3

School is never over when it’s over. I’m currently doing work for Sweetland, spent today at the AAEEBL conference, spent yesterday writing my conference presentation and writing a proposal for CCCC. There are also four students who haven’t gotten my written feedback for their work yet. (#shameface #imtrying)

May Problem #4

I joined twitter! If you need somewhere to go, you can follow me there: @babcockjwords

Belated Report: I’ve written 12,805 words. That means I have 12,195 to go. Not in the best of shape considering I can’t write on Sundays or Memorial Day because it’s Ambrose time all the time. So, I really have 9 days left. 1,355 each day. Do it.

(also, an empathetic xoxo to myself and to you if you need it)

 

 

Time to Write, Time to Make New Plans

In less than 24 hours it’s going to May! It’s the month I look forward to most every year because it is the most time I have to devote to my writing. My son is still in school, and I’m not teaching. This is my time, and every year I need to focus to make the most of it. Last year, I didn’t take much time to do this, and I underwhelmed myself. The year before, I spent more time planning, and got more done. Did I accomplish everything that I wanted to? No! But I cut a swath. This May, I want to cut another one.

What I have to do in the next 24 hours to get started by the evening of May 1st. Go! Go!:

Evaluate and give paper feedback to 13 more students, attend a 3-hour Minor in Writing Commencement Ceremony, Print off and send my second poetry manuscript to a few contests, write a synopsis for my first poetry book that’s coming out this Fall! (more information about that another time), feed Ambrose some kind of dinner and help him finish his book about a talking cat named Scarf and his owners who are battling “The Terrifying Spring.”

Then–it’s my writing time! What am I going to do? I’m going to draft 25,000 words of a novel I began last summer. I haven’t had any time to look at it since I left off in mid-August, though the opening of the novel is also a 23-page short story that appeared in The Rumpus this January.

Why 25,000? Because it’s half of a nanowrimo word count for a month. As a slow writer and an only parent who is also participating in conference in May, 25,000 words is plenty challenging. I’m already excited and anxious. I’m writing this and already wanting to fudge the numbers. How many words do I already have? I don’t know . . .let’s count this up . . .

14,346.

39,346 by May 31st. That’s the goal.

I was reading a friend’s blog entry today about passive-aggressive compliments people who aren’t doing anything give to people who are. It’s smart and funny, and Amy, who is one of the kindest and most thoughtful people I’ve met, seems uncharacteristically and delightfully pissed.

It’s hard to make things. And it’s worth the time.

 

Four Things to Know About Making Chapbooks at College

Chapbooks are opportunities for writing students to locate obsessions and curiosities in their writing and to give themselves permission to take these obsessions and curiosities seriously. In yesterday’s post, I talked about the pedagogical value of making chapbooks. Today, I’ve listed the top 4 things I wish I had known last month.

  1. Word options on PC and Mac are not the same! I have Word 2010 on a PC. On that platform, it’s really easy to format a chapbook through the printing settings by choosing “Print” →”Page Setup” → Set “Gutter” to about .3 (the inside crease of the book where you’ll staple) → Choose “Landscape Orientation” → Choose “Book Fold” under pages. That’s it! Unfortunately, it won’t work on a Mac.
  2. There are two other easy formatting options. If students have free access to InDesign, encourage them to use that! There are some really easy and clean looking design templates. If they don’t have access to InDesign, they can make a PDF of their document, go to “Print” → and then choose “Book Fold.” This is as easy as it gets, though after the students see what it looks like, they’ll have to go back in and change the margins and the font to something that looks better and doesn’t just look like they shrunk their book with a magic shrinking gun.
  3. Printers all operate differently, which means one person might be able to print double sided in the way it would work in the book, and one person might have to be manually flipping pages in the correct way so that things aren’t upside down or out of order. Even worse, there are very few students who have access to a printer where they can load the paper themselves or even get someone to do it. After making a bunch of calls at University of Michigan, I found this amazing Media Center resource on North Campus in the Art and Architecture building where students can choose from a great collection of book weight paper and cardstock and have their book printed right there. If you don’t have a facility like this, it might be easiest for students to just go to a local printing shop to get there book done.
  4. Use a long reach stapler to staple the books. Not even the Media Center had one of these. I bought one at Staple’s for $31. It’s pretty cool, though I ended up stapling my finger in front of the class because I didn’t know the top of the stapler has to be reset after every staple. A little blood on one student’s chapbook adds to the whole chapbook-as-a-unique-artifact thing.

Swingline® 12in. Long Reach™ Full Strip Stapler, 20 Sheet Capacity, Black

Hope passing on this information helps someone down the line. If you have any chapbook- making information to add, I’d love to hear it! I started the semester thinking we were going to make these small, handsewn beautiful chapbooks from a Poets and Writers link this January, but I couldn’t get past step 3 (I tell myself that maybe it would have worked if I had a Mac?) We did fine without it. The students got wonderfully creative with what they added to the inside of the chapbook and their cover art. There were maps and songs. There were ribbons and invisible ink. There were photographs, quotes, fragments, and erasures along with the poetry and fiction they wanted to showcase. I’m looking forward to reading their creations more closely this coming week.

Why Creative Writing Students Should Make Chapbooks!

Hello after yet another long blog hiatus! This is a two-part piece. Today, I’m writing about the pedagogical value of having creative writing students make their own chapbooks at the end of the semester, and tomorrow I’m writing about a few technical things I learned that might be helpful to other people wanting to incorporate chapbook making into their own teaching.

I just finished the last teaching day of an intro. creative writing class. It’s been too many years since I had the chance to teach creative writing, and I was really interested in how my years of teaching other courses would affect the way I approached this one.

For several years now, I’ve been interested in helping students form their own authentic questions and explorations in assignments. Engaged reflection is an important part of this. When I say “engaged reflection” I mean reflection that’s done to make something new rather than something that’s done to merely summarize a past experience. For instance, my creative writing students wrote writing reflections after both their poetry and fiction workshops that asked them to articulate their experience of the workshop in two ways:

  1. How did the writing and workshop experience influence their ideas about revising the particular piece
  2. What techniques, topics, questions surfaced during their writing and workshop experience they’d like to explore in the future?

My teaching is very invested in process-based instruction, and so the second question was posed to help students locate genuine moments of interest to keep them writing. I wasn’t interested in having the students circling over a couple pieces until they were “polished.” Rather, I was interested in helping them locate where their writing is coming from.

The most sustained, engaged reflection students did was to make chapbooks of their own work at the end of the semester. I wanted them to make something where they had the responsibility of locating a recurring theme, sensibility or style in their own writing that moved across the poetry and fiction they’d written over the semester and to design and arrange a book accordingly. In preparation, they wrote chapbook proposals and met with me for individual conferences. During this time I saw the same things that I see from students in my other courses:

  1. Students are typically skeptical at the beginning of any assignment that asks them to synthesize concepts relevant to their writing.
  2. After confronting and getting over this skepticism, students make incredibly exciting and surprising things that draw not only on the work from my course, but also from other parts of their life that they begin to see in relationship to their current work.

Here’s a photo of what happened:

Creative Writing Student Chapbooks

A New Semester of Creative Arts and Community

Hello! It’s been a long time since I’ve posted an entry, and it somehow seems fitting that this entry is born out of a mistake.

I’m getting ready to teach a course at University of Michigan that I set up last year entitled “Creative Arts and Community.” We started a wordpress site there: http://creativeartsandcommunity.wordpress.com/ which features short documentaries the students did in small groups near the end of the semester to highlight important things they learned about local creative arts organizations. They’re a great group of people. Here’s a photo of them, the one I accidentally posted to this blog and then couldn’t bear to delete:

MCSP photo '12

This photo, along with their documentaries, will be moving to the archive and tomorrow I’ll meet a new class and look forward to what they create and add to this site.

I also hope to be posting more regularly here–posts that intermingle among writing, teaching, and life topics, which are topics I firmly believe should be in conversation with each other.

To new beginnings,

Julie

Another AWP Appearance

Thanks to my brother and his family who drove from Columbus, Ohio to stay with Ambrose for a few days, and my third-grade best friend who opened her Boston home to me, I was able to make it to another AWP conference.

I am an only parent who prizes sleep, and I still haven’t published a book (though I continue to accrue my yearly trickle of journal publications and writing friends that keep me hopeful), and so, I am well aware that my AWP experience is not the stuff of sensational legend. When I think of AWP abstractly, I imagine two groups of people: the MFA students who are ten or more years younger than me, mostly unfamiliar with serious life circumstances, who sit at the bookfair tables with hangovers and more party invitations. And, the people about ten years older than me who have tenure track jobs and several, award-winning  books and know all the publishing editors, in fact are going to drink with them all (yes, all of them) later that night—a get together that will alter the next ten years of the literary world and will be alluded to in multiple future poems.

Because I belong to neither of these groups and because I have very little available time or money and wasn’t presenting this year, attending AWP doesn’t seem very practical. What purpose does my going to AWP serve? What is my connection to the writing world?

Sometimes it is difficult to take such questions seriously. Sometimes it is easier to misidentify them as brief rhetorical occasions for self-loathing. But they are serious questions, and deserve serious consideration.

I am writing this blog entry on the plane ride back because when I return home, all my responsibilities will meet me at the door and whatever writing inspirations the AWP experience has generated for me will have to wait, for the most part, until the end of the semester (7 more weeks!).

I went to several panels and met up with many lovely friends. The panel that affected me the most, though, was “The Poet Magician: Writing Out of Single Motherhood.” I went to the panel because while I was at AWP I was realizing that I was there as a gift to myself. That I spend so much time working in isolation that I wanted to be surrounded by other writers, and not just all writers in general, but writers who have creatively approached challenges I share and are making multi-faceted and genuine things from them. In short, I realized my AWP attendance was not a search for blanket professional or craft inspiration, but rather a search to see how others were integrating shared personal challenges into their craft, challenges that are rarely spoken of and, though all the personal stories have slightly different variations, are all informed by culture, economics, race, and education. I also went because the title was fun. Fun is a necessary companion to survive struggle.

The panel was a lively mix of struggles and accomplishments, vulnerability and power. Much of the talk centered around both acknowledging the intense solitude surrounding single motherhood (or, “independent parenting,” which we all agreed was a much better, active phrase) and the ways that challenge is also an important writing opportunity, that our unique position to solitude intensifies/heightens what drives most writing in general. Panelist Mairead Byrne, (yet another reason I attended the session–we studied at Purdue together some time ago and I greatly admire her as both a writer and a person) wrote, “When I speak as a single mother, the audience steps away.”

The panel was, perhaps, the most forthright one I’ve ever attended, and also opened up some amazing models for hybrid approaches to writing and new possibilities for the ways our selves and our writing can connect. I was talking to Mairead after the session and she noted that it would be pretty easy for us to just all go have a drink and swap stories, but that it was another thing to provide a suitable critical framework that helps us understand and build. This panel was an important starting point for that.

After my husband died, I continued to wear my wedding ring for over a year. This was partly to continue and honor my connection to him, partly to thwart any dating discussions, but mostly, really, so that I would not be mistaken for a single mother. I didn’t want people to think I was a single mother because I didn’t feel strong enough to carry both my grief and outsider judgment.

Shortly after I stopped wearing my wedding ring, I took Ambrose to a doctor’s appointment. I sat down in the waiting room, and Ambrose started playing with another boy his age. They ran trains around the room and then picked up a play tea set and started pouring cups for me and the other mother. Both of us began drinking from our imaginary cups and as we did this, we also began to talk. The other mother was younger than me and black. I also noticed she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. The ring thing was something I never used to notice before, but now find myself checking all the time.

A nurse called Ambrose’s name and we stood up to go. “Say goodbye to your friend,” I said, and Ambrose and the boy waved to one another. I nodded goodbye to the other mother who smiled and touched my hand. “So you’re a single mother too,” she said. I tensed for a second and almost corrected her, but instead I nodded yes. As I did that I was flooded with a rush of relief. We weren’t ignoring what we both knew. “Yes,” I said out loud. “It’s hard isn’t it?” she said, and again I nodded yes. “He’s a beautiful boy,” she finished.