What if I started a podcast?

I do a lot of writing in my work life (emails, course announcements, more emails, course revisions, more emails) and my regular human being life (planner, Bible study notes, text messages, social media posts, and the occasional non-work email). When I am writing, I constantly, reflexively revise, which both slows down the process and makes it more mentally taxing than it would be if I could manage to do the kind of one-shot, pristinely untouched writing that proponents of “silencing your inner editor” seem to be envisioning. I enjoy writing, I think writing is important, and I will never stop writing. But I’ve noticed lately that writing can burn me out in a way that talking usually doesn’t (the exception is teaching in front of a classroom, which, though I love it, can be draining for me).

So lately, I’ve been finding ways to substitute talking for writing–sending a Marco Polo to a friend when a text would be too long and complicated, video-recording grading feedback for online students so they can hear and see me and know that I’m not mad at them, etc. This has got me wondering what it would be like if I started a podcast.

So I’m thinking about it. I have a topic (it would be essentially the same as that of this blog, maybe a little wider-ranging) and a name (keeping it secret to increase the hype–actually, the truth is that I’m not sure if I like it yet) and am working on a logo. Beyond that, I got nothin’, except a mug I prematurely bought that says, “Proud to be a one-woman show,” with a little microphone on it. (I figure it can apply in a broad, metaphorical sense even if I don’t start the podcast.)

I should make clear that the podcast would not replace this blog. I’ve maintained this blog for 10 years as of this past December (most of those years it was called Penelope Clearwater), and I see no reason to fold it now. I would probably alternate blog posts and podcast episodes, or do what the influencers do and create coordinating sets of posts and episodes (and Instagram stories–I need to learn how to make those).

I’d like to ask for your help. Would you answer the few questions below to help me figure out how a podcast could best serve you, my readers? (And if the answer is by not existing, that’s okay!) I appreciate your help. You can also feel free to make non-anonymous suggestions in the comments down below.

our teaching and learning preferences

The idea for this post came from a confluence of three factors: 1. I noticed that several of my new students started following my blog after I shared the link (welcome!). 2. I had a Twitter conversation last night with a former student about the conditions for a good discussion in an English class. 3. I am working on my goals for 2021 and have been thinking about ways to be more available and approachable to my students.

So I’ve decided to open up a discussion, in which I hope you will join me, about your teaching preferences (if you’re a teacher) and your learning preferences (if you’re a human being, because we all learn). I’ll start with a few observations; then I’ll ask some questions and give my own answers to begin the conversation.

Observation 1: The idea that there are three learning styles–visual, auditory, and kinesthetic–seems to have been largely debunked, or at least marked with a large asterisk noting that the concept pigeonholes students, is overly simplistic, and isn’t research-based. Anyone can learn in any of those three ways, and the dominant style may have more to do with the world we live in than with an inborn disposition. (For example, I meet few people today who call themselves auditory learners, but if we take this concept anachronistically into the past, I bet there were a lot more auditory learners back in the 19th century when people where accustomed to listening to long political debates.) When folks in the education field talk about how students learn today, they look at a whole constellation of factors that may include cultural and language background, classroom environment, sensory processing modes, past learning experiences, personality factors that may influence when and under what conditions a student will speak up in class, etc. But the best methods for finding out how a student learns are still pretty old-school: observation (which is harder in an online classroom, but not impossible) and asking the students themselves.

Observation 2: Teachers tend to choose their teaching methods based on their own learning preferences. For example, I usually enjoyed the wide-ranging, open-ended discussions we had in the literature classes I took in college, so I often attempted to conduct these types of discussions in the classes I taught. This isn’t a bad starting place, but good teachers are willing to try different methods when they see that the ones that worked for them as students, or even the ones that have worked with previous classes, aren’t working with a particular group of students. (Of course, this doesn’t mean giving up the first time a method is met with dead silence or confused looks–the students might need time to figure it out and warm up to it.) Also, a technique that works for most of the students in a class may leave out a few students who, for various reasons, can’t get into it. Teachers often talk about “teaching to the middle,” and sometimes that’s what you have to do in a live classroom setting, but that doesn’t mean neglecting the students who fall outside that average clump.

So, here are my questions: How do you prefer to learn? What classroom conditions (online or in-person) make you most likely not only to meet the learning goals of the class but also to enjoy yourself while doing that? What do you want teachers to do to help you learn and enjoy learning? (The answer could be “just leave me alone, thanks”–that’s a legitimate learning style.)

If you’re a teacher (and this could include a Sunday school teacher, a tutor, someone who gives private lessons, a parent, etc.), what are some of your favorite ways of delivering content and connecting with students? Why do you think they’re your favorite?

I realize this post is getting long (I say that a lot, don’t I?), so I’ll just give two quick examples for myself. First, as a learner, I find it hard to concentrate when I’m doing nothing but sitting and listening. I prefer to be doing something with my hands or feet (taking notes, washing dishes, walking) while I’m learning. I think I’ve always been like this, because I have this embarrassing memory from fifth grade: One time I was doodling during class; I don’t remember what we were learning about, but I’m positive it wasn’t a music class. And I raised my hand and asked my teacher if he could show me how to draw a treble clef. And bless his heart, he stopped what he was doing and drew one for me on the board.

As a teacher, I’ve had to adjust my methods since I’ve moved to teaching fully online, but my favorite part about teaching is still connecting with students one-on-one or in small groups. (I used to be a writing tutor, and I loved that because it involved some of my favorite aspects of teaching and none of my least favorite–grading.) I love it when students reach out to me by email or phone, whether they have a question or just want to chat. I’ve said this before: in the online learning environment, it can be really difficult for students and teachers to think of each other as real people, not just writing machines. So I seize on any opportunity to make sure my students know I’m a real person and to learn about them as real people.

Okay, it’s your turn. Go back to those questions in bold and tell me what you think!

Christmas anticipation–online professor style

When I taught on a university campus, the Christmas celebrations began as soon as the students arrived back from Thanksgiving break. (I should add that I taught at Christian universities, so the specific holiday of Christmas–not just a general air of festiveness–was celebrated loudly and proudly.) Everything had to happen early to get all the various departmental parties and campus traditions in before winter break. The maintenance crew had to start putting the lights up early (one of my universities meticulously outlined every tree on the main street of campus) so we could enjoy them for more than a day or two. Christmas music started floating out of various doorways, and colleagues started dropping cards and cookies on each other’s desks.

Even if the pandemic hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have been able to experience all of that this year, my first year teaching completely online. While I’m probably going to get more accomplished this December than ever before because I’m not getting interrupted for things like the faculty Christmas card photo and the office decorating competition, I miss the excitement of December on campus. So I’m making a list of ways that I can make these next few weeks special as I work from home, and I’m sharing that list with you in hopes that it will inspire you to add a little anticipation and jollity into your December, even if you’re not an online professor.

  1. Listen to Christmas music. This is obvious, but what if you’re tired of the cycle of the same 50-ish songs that gets played on every radio station? Also, what if, like me, you prefer to listen to instrumental music while you work? Good news: There’s a ton of wordless Christmas music out there, in a range of genres from classical to bluegrass. Just search “instrumental Christmas” on Spotify or Pandora. One of my favorite artists in this niche is Craig Duncan, who has released a whole series of Celtic and other folk-inspired Christmas albums over the years. Also, a fun activity for you classical fans is to repurpose pieces that aren’t normally considered Christmas music. For example, this morning I was listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Greensleeves.” I listen to it year-round, but on December 1, it becomes “What Child Is This?,” like magic.
  2. Start your workday with an Advent reflection. You can take this in many different directions. I’ve never tried this, but I bet you could come up with readings for the whole month of December from Charles Dickens’s Christmas stories. For the past few years, I’ve been enjoying Biola University’s Advent Project: http://ccca.biola.edu/advent/2020/#. You can sign up for free by entering your email address, and every day from now until Epiphany (January 6), you’ll receive a multimedia devotional that includes two pieces of music to listen to, a work of art to look at, and a scripture passage, a poem, a reflection, and a prayer to read. Biola also does a Lent Project in the spring, and if you sign up once, you’ll get both series of devotionals every year. And they are very good about not sending junk emails; you’ll only receive the devotionals. I love this because it’s a moment of reflection and worship that comes right in the middle of my morning email check–a time when I very much need it!
  3. Upgrade everyday items. On December 1 or slightly earlier, I bring out my Christmas items. These are not just tree ornaments, though my husband and I do have three trees to decorate this evening! (That’s what happens when you get married after living alone for years and accumulating a lot of stuff.) I have Christmas mugs, Christmas coasters to put them on, Christmas socks, Christmas sweaters, Christmas earrings, Christmas candles, Christmas hand towels, Christmas notepads, Christmas soap and matching-scented room spray, a Christmas tablecloth, Christmas cookie cutters and tins, even a Christmas salt and pepper shaker set. I realize that to some people, bringing all this out every year and putting it away a month later probably sounds horribly stressful. But for me, a person who loves ritual and tradition, this is one of my most dearly anticipated activities every year. And you don’t have to go all out; even one or two special items can do the trick. Try it–a grading session is more fun (or at least more bearable) when you’re drinking tea out of a mug that says, “Have a cup of cheer.”
  4. Have your own office Christmas party. I haven’t tried this yet, but because my husband and I are both working from home right now, I’m hoping we can take some breaks during our workdays over the next few weeks to do something seasonal like watching a short Christmas movie, working on our cards, or taking a brisk walk in the frosty air (or the snow, if we ever get this lake effect snow shower they keep talking about). Our activities this year will not be centered on food because we’re doing the Whole 30 right now (great timing, right?), but if you’re working from home with someone else, you could have a cookie-baking party or re-create the classic office potluck (i.e., each of you searches the pantry and fridge and puts something yummy on a fancy plate). This is also a great time to listen to your favorite non-instrumental Christmas music.

I hope you got at least one idea from this post, and I hope you’ll share your ideas for making December special with me in the comments!

Jesus was busy.

Last week, I told you about Forest, an app that helps with productivity. I’ve been using it again this week, and it’s helping me a lot. I have quite the little forest going. Actually, it’s more of a meadow; I’m currently planting grass tufts instead of trees.

This week, I want to tell you about something infinitely more important than productivity: a quiet heart. I would like to quote at length from a book I am rereading, A Praying Life by Paul E. Miller. Here is what Miller says about the integrated nature of the praying life:

Many assume that the spiritual person is unruffled by life, unfazed by pressure. This idea that the spiritual person floats above life comes from the ancient world and, in particular, the Greek mind–although we see it strongly in the Eastern mind as well.

But even a cursory glance at Jesus’ life reveals a busy life. All the gospel writers notice Jesus’ busyness, although Mark in particular highlights it. At one point Jesus’ family tries to stage an intervention because he is so busy. “Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him,, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind'” (Mark 3:20-21). Given the sacredness in the ancient world of eating together, Jesus’ life seems out of balance. But he loves people and has the power to help, so he has one interruption after another. If Jesus lived today, his cell phone would be ringing constantly.

The quest for a contemplative life can actually be self-absorbed, focused on my quiet and me. If we love people and have the power to help, then we are going to be busy. Learning to pray doesn’t offer us a less busy life: it offers us a less busy heart. In the midst of outer busyness we can develop an inner quiet. Because we are less hectic on the inside, we have a great capacity to love…and thus to be busy, which in turn drives us even more into a life of prayer. By spending time with our Father in prayer, we integrate our lives with his, with what he is doing in us. Our lives become more coherent. They feel calmer, more ordered, even in the midst of confusion and pressure.

Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life (NavPress, 2009)

I feel both a longing and a conviction when I read this. I deeply crave this life of inner quiet. But I recognize in myself the misguided pursuit of external calm. I can use all the focus apps I want do yoga in the middle of the afternoon but still feel frazzled and worried and bitter toward people who (as I see it) demand my attention. Quietness of soul is not about tools or resources, though those can help. Miller concludes his book with a section on prayer tools, and he acknowledges the importance of having a literally quiet place to pray (though he never says that’s the only appropriate environment for prayer). Quietness of soul, though, comes from acknowledging my need for the Lord from the outset—not waiting until my day is falling apart around me, but even when I wake up feeling pretty smart and together (which sometimes happens).

I’ll conclude with a quote from Emily P. Freeman that nicely sums up what Miller wrote and what I am contemplating these days. (This quote is from the show notes of an episode of her podcast, The Next Right Thing: https://emilypfreeman.com/podcast/the-next-right-thing/59/)

Just like any ordinary practice can be a spiritual discipline if it brings us into the presence of God, so can any ordinary place be a sanctuary if we will to see it so.

Cultivating quietness in our lives is less about our stage of life and more about our state of mind. You can be busy and soulful at the same time. The key is in paying attention.

what historical fiction readers really want

Last week’s post on the challenges of writing historical fiction garnered more copious feedback than my posts typically do, including a book recommendation from my uncle; some thoughts on the benefits and challenges of research from my former student Kandy Crosby-Hastings, a historical fiction writer herself (read her savvy observations in the comments to last week’s post), and some comments from my dad, which I’ll return to shortly. I also received a nuanced response and respectful critique from another former student and my occasional Twitter interlocutor (occasional because I’m really bad at Twitter), @Andy__Ford, and it is his epic series of ten tweets that I would like to spend most of my post engaging with today. And that’s because I realized, after reading his comments, that my previous post presented an unfairly generalized portrayal of historical fiction readers. Today, I’d like to complicate that portrayal a bit.

My post last week was directed toward historical fiction writers, not readers. I was also trying to be amusing, which sometimes gets me into trouble. I was also trying to keep my post relatively short. So I fell back on the bogeyman story that I tell the students in my creative writing research class: If you don’t do your research, those cranky historical fiction fans will find all your mistakes and eat you alive in a public forum!!! Although it supports the basic premise of my course—research is important—this story is based on a caricature, and like all caricatures, it is rather unkind. Here is Andy’s response: “I don’t think those Goodreads trolls actually exist, and if they do, they’re probably in the minority….As a reader I am happy to suspend my disbelief so I can enjoy a story, and I think most readers are like that.” In other words, historical fiction fans aren’t waiting to pounce on writers for committing an anachronism; they just want to enjoy a well-told story like readers of any genre do. My conversation with my dad reinforced this point: he sent me a really bad review that he gave a book classified as historical fiction. But he criticized the book for bad writing, not for historical inaccuracy, and so he applied the same standards that he would to any book. As Andy said in another of his tweets, “I don’t think the details matter as much as the feeling”–the feeling, that is, of what it must have been like to live in the world where the story is set.

While writing this post, I remembered something. Last week, I claimed that I had never written historical fiction except for a Civil War story I handwrote in elementary school. But just now, I remembered the short story called “Dinner Party, 1885” that I wrote at the end of the summer between the two years of my master’s program. I had spent the summer maxing out my check-out limit at my university’s interlibrary loan department, reading everything I could get my hands on from and about the Victorian period, including a number of 19th-century health and hygiene manuals, which related directly to the topic of the thesis I was about to start writing. By the end of the summer, I felt like I was a Victorian, and so that short story flowed out of me in a way that no piece of writing has since then (certainly not these blog posts!). I was proud of that story, and it ended up being published in my university’s literary magazine. (P.S. A long shot–If anyone still has that issue of Lamp, could you scan a copy for me? I don’t have the story anymore.) But here’s the key: I don’t think I spent much if any time looking up details like what the exact cut of my protagonist’s waistcoat would likely have been. I wrote the story from the feeling I got from reading all those books, from immersing myself in the period. Yes, if I were to expand that story into a book and/or try to market it to a wider audience, I would probably do some fact-checking. But that would be an afterthought, not the heart of the story. And so we return to the point I made at the end of my last post: no amount of accuracy can make up for a bad story with stilted characters.

I hope I’ve done some greater justice to historical fiction writers and readers this time around. Keep the comments coming!

 

the challenges of historical fiction

I had fun last week interviewing Jordan! Thanks for the questions you submitted and the great feedback you gave me afterwards. If you send more questions, I’d be happy to do a part two (and Jordan will do it whether he’s happy about it or not), so if there’s anything else you want to know about Jordan, please let me know in the comments below or via your favorite method of getting in touch with me.

This week’s topic was suggested by reader Robert Stiles, a prolific writer and a YouTuber at Channel Legendarium, where he explores a variety of historical, literary, and mythological topics. Robert, who’s been doing some research for a new historical fiction work, suggested that I write about the challenges historical fiction writers face. He said, “Stanley Kubrick noted that you have to inform your audience about the period enough to get the story, while still telling a story first and foremost.” (By the way, Robert, if you know the source of that statement, could you let me know? I didn’t come across it in my highly detailed [not] research, which consisted of googling “Stanley Kubrick historical fiction.”)

Although my enjoyment of historical fiction goes all the way back to my early elementary school years, when I had the American Girls catalog memorized, I have never attempted writing in this genre myself. (Exception: A short story called “The Considerate General” that I hand-wrote around third grade, at the peak of my childhood Civil War obsession.) In fact, you probably couldn’t pay me to touch it. There’s no way I’m opening myself up to the criticism of fans who really know their medieval weapons or Regency fashions and who won’t hesitate to call out a mistake on Goodreads. Astute readers of historical fiction can catch anachronisms much more subtle than the standard example I give my students–a cell phone in a Shakespeare play. Here’s the thing: I don’t have the discipline to do the research it would take to write a quality work of historical fiction. But I do teach a class on research for creative writing, and I’ve found (well, I knew this before developing the class, but the class has confirmed it) that historical fiction is probably the most research-heavy fictional genre, with only sci-fi giving it a run for its money.

Brief digression: This is not to say that other genres don’t require research. The whole point of my class is that creative writing never just comes out of the writer’s head. For Sam’s Town, a contemporary novel about an improbable event that nobody, to date, can fact-check (the zombie apocalypse), I still had to do research on everything from broken legs to the Ohio Turnpike. I also wanted my novel to fit into one specific strain of zombie apocalypse lore, so I had to research the rules of that body of lore.

So one of the risks of writing historical fiction is that you won’t do enough research and your readers will expose you as a screwup. (I’m only slightly exaggerating.) But the equal and opposite risk is that you’ll get so bogged down in your research and your world-building (what would you call this in historical fiction? world-recreating? world-evoking?) that you’ll forget you’re actually writing a story. I see this often with my students in the class I mentioned, especially those who choose to write historical and science fiction (or both–I currently have a student who’s researching for a project that involves both time travel and the Black Death). Their proposals are full of excitement about the research they’re going to do, but when I ask them what’s going to happen in the story, they’re at a loss. Or they end up turning in a thinly-veiled research paper, in which all the dialogue consists of characters reporting the author’s findings. I hope this doesn’t come across as mean-spirited toward my students; they have only four weeks to pull off the daunting task I’m asking them to do. And many of them do it quite well. But that risk is always there.

If you’ve written historical fiction, what were some of the challenges you faced? Next week, I might look at this topic from a reader’s perspective, so if you’re a reader of historical fiction, let me know some of your favorite books and authors, as well as some of your pet peeves.

Sam’s Town–the paperback

cover

Hi everyone, I’m back with some exciting news: I just submitted the paperback of Sam’s Town to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing for review. If it passes quality inspection (and I see no reason why it won’t, with this fantastic cover by Mike Nair!), it will be available for purchase within about two days. I will post another announcement when I receive confirmation, but in case I forget or am busy (a likely scenario, these days), I wanted to go ahead and give you the news. Mark your calendars for the end of this week! Just search the book title and my name on Amazon.com.

writing for joy

My grandfather, John Vernon Stockslager (we called him Pappy), passed away last week. My uncle preached his funeral sermon on Monday, and he mentioned something I had almost forgotten about: Almost 20 years ago, when Pappy first got a computer, he created a series of comic strips about two birds named Tweets and Blu. Technically speaking, they’re simple and even a bit rough–he used the Draw program in Windows to create them–but they’re funny and big-hearted and short, just like Pappy. Also at the funeral, one of my cousins read aloud a poem that Pappy had written not long ago. (We had also read one of his poems at my grandmother’s funeral nine years ago.) At some point during the service, I was struck by the sudden realization that although it had always seemed normal to me that my grandfather, a retired electrician and farmer, drew cartoons and wrote poems for fun, it’s actually not that common for adults to do these things. Kids do these things, and then when they grow up and decide they’re not good enough to get paid to do them, they get embarrassed and stop. Pappy never stopped.

I see this same impulse to write for the pure joy of it in Pappy’s children and grandchildren, particularly in my own immediate family. The examples range from the short-lived family newspaper my sister headed up when we were kids–The Fine Five–to my brother’s songwriting to my dad’s extensive reviews he posts on Goodreads for every book he reads. I see it in my own blogging and fiction writing. None of us are getting paid to do these things. Maybe we could, if we worked harder at marketing ourselves or knew the right people. But while I can’t speak for anyone else in my family, I can say that I’m content with writing for a small audience of family, friends, and Facebook connections–and for the delight it brings me. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m content with this, like when I see colleagues’ blogs and YouTube channels going viral or when I watch other people in my Facebook writers’ group (which I feel like a poser even belonging to) finding great success in self-publication through a combination of persistent marketing and real writing skill. I admire those people, and what I’m about to say is not, by any means, meant to fault them. But for me, I think it’s a useful discipline to be able to see the value in sharing my writing with the people who matter most to me, even if it reaches no further than that. That’s what Pappy did. I remember there was some talk of looking for a wider distribution channel for Tweets and Blu, but his family was always his favorite audience, whether for his comic strips, his poems, or his music, which I haven’t even mentioned in this post. (And he did get to play and sing in front of a wide range of audiences throughout his life.)

I’m not trying to make the worn-out, false argument that getting paid for doing something makes you love it less. But I do think there’s something to be said for writing–or drawing, or singing and playing–for nothing but joy. I’m thankful that Pappy taught me that.

Where do zombies come from?; or, I suck at worldbuilding.

In a Facebook creative writing group that I belong to, some of us are participating in a worldbuilding challenge. While the other participants are posting these wonderful comments about their historically and culturally rich worlds, I’m struggling to come up with something more profound than, “My characters like to eat Italian food.”

As you may know, I am writing a zombie apocalypse story that I envision as a source text for a movie. (You can read part of it here.) Though I would not go so far as to say that the zombie aspect of the story is little more than a set piece–it is thematically important for several reasons–I imagine that people who complain about The Walking Dead not having enough zombies and being a glorified soap opera would really have a lot to complain about in my storyMy story is about mental health, friendship, American small towns, Italian food…and zombies, roughly in that order of importance. So when people ask me questions like “How did the zombie apocalypse start?” and “Where are your characters getting water?,” my response is usually, “Hmm, I haven’t really thought about it.” (My characters have had coffee, tea, hot chocolate, and lots of Coke, but water completely slipped my mind. You can see where my priorities lie.)

In my defense, part of the reason I haven’t thought much about the origin of the zombie apocalypse is that my characters don’t know how it started, they won’t find out during the course of this story, and they don’t really care. This is partly because they’re too focused on their own problems (survival, relationships, where they’re going to get Coke) to ponder such existential questions, but it’s also partly because they (at least my two main characters) are big fans of zombie movies and TV. Let me back up for a minute: In most zombie stories, the assumption is that zombie lore doesn’t exist, so the characters are kind of scratching their heads, like “Huh, I wonder what’s happening?” So I decided to do something different. My characters may be useless when it comes to wielding weapons, but they’ve seen all of George Romero’s movies and every episode of The Walking Dead (I haven’t referred to the comics, but I assume they’ve read those too), so they at least have a vocabulary for what’s happening, and they know important things like the fact that you have to shoot or stab a zombie in the head in order to kill it. (I mean, kill it again.)

So, to return to my main point: The characters in those iconic stories usually don’t know why the zombie apocalypse is happening (or how to stop it), so my characters have become resigned to the same uncertainty. In Romero’s films, people speculate about why the dead are walking the earth, but they never figure it out. (The tagline of Dawn of the Dead provides the closest approach to an explanation: “There’s no more room in hell.”) In The Walking Dead, some of the characters visit the Centers for Disease Control and learn a theory from the one remaining employee (who could be crazy for all we know), but the only really useful knowledge they take from that encounter is that “we’re all infected”–i.e. everyone who dies turns, so try not to die.

This is my justification for why I haven’t given much thought to the logic of zombies in my story, but part of me suspects that the real reason is that I’m just not very good at worldbuilding. The commonplace is that writers are usually good at either creating elaborate worlds or creating relatable characters. Yet most of the people in my Facebook group seem to be experts at both. This gives me hope: Maybe I can learn, through challenges like this, to create elaborate worlds for my relatable characters to inhabit.