2.45. Begin Again

In starting this new outline I decided to start with the basics of story. Any story is about character. Specifically, story is about what a character wants and the journey to get to that want. My story is going to be about two characters (thus far). They are Tharsis and Ikrivain. I ought to credit the names to two childhood friends. When we were all little and playing D&D we had a party of characters and two of them were those characters mentioned. There was a third, a Knight named Garen, who may appear at some point in this story, but I am not entirely sure. The idea is to tell a story about a world where the two major powers are divided by a chasm. The only landbridge across this chasm is through a narrow earthen chokepoint. At the center of that chokepoint sits a city. This place belongs to neither power and is practically impenetrable due to its location. As the only remaining passage between the two powers, it serves as a trade hub and a diplomatic hub.

What intrigues me about this idea is the fact that science is usually driven by circumstance. With these being the two major powers and them not really being able to threaten by land, sea and air technology has become the focus. Both sides have amazing naval fleets and have begun work on air ships and airtowers to reach the enemy.

Our story is about uncovering some of the hidden history of this world through the lives of Tharsis and Ikrivain. Both characters originally hail from the (yet unnamed) chasm city. However, Tharsis is thought to be from one of the (5?) major houses of one of the lands. Ikrivain is younger. He’s a street rat who gets scooped up by the city’s secretive power and trained to be a spy.

So, what do these characters want? Tharsis wants to forget his past and his responsibility to Chasm city in order to maintain his status and freedom. Ikrivain wants security and stability and ends up having to decide if those things are worth his freedom.

It isn’t much, but it is a start.

 

Some Thoughts:

  1. Took the youngest Talislegger to his first professional football game. The Raiders–specifically he was there to see Marshawn Lynch–lost the game, but more interestingly, the way the media handled Lynch was special. A photographer caught Lynch sitting during the National Anthem. FYI, he always sits. He sits and keeps to himself for most of that pregame process. It is his method. However, in the media it was about him disrespecting the anthem. Of course, it became an issue big enough that his coach had to sit him down post game. Lynch explained his… Lynchness… and the team moved on. Let’s hope the media does too.

2.17: On Writing and the Self

Looking at my office walls I can see that I’ve become a version of what I always thought a writer was as a kid. The walls are covered with pictures and cool framed passages of writing–some of it my own. There are magnetic strips in the places where I sit to collect my thoughts and there they are, collected in scribbled blacks and reds and blues on little yellow squares of paper or on the backs of things that weren’t meant for notes and suspended from the walls on colorful round magnets.

Here I sit, sipping on a sugary mess of coffee, wondering what if anything I have to say next. I came to this place last night. I was holding a beer (the remains of which I pushed aside to plant my coffee on the solitary coaster) and grading papers. There were tortilla chips and music in the background and the whole thing felt different. It lacked the reverence of the morning session and even that kindling of desire to be in the space producing something more. I don’t know what that means–if it means anything. Here is what I do know:

Louis Pasteur said (loosely translated), “Chance favors the prepared mind.” I believe he meant to express that inspiration and intuition are cultivated through practice and, ultimately, by creating the conditions that allow for such things to flourish. Lately I have been focused on learning what that preparation and those conditions look like for me. By that I mean the ‘me’ of the present. Often I feel like I am restricting myself by relying on–catering to even–the me of the past and the me that, then, I believed I would become. I can often fall into a set of idealized behaviors and beliefs based upon an outmoded value system. Or, to quote Doc Dre, ‘Trying to turn me back to the old me.”

But he’s dead. He’s a fixed part of history and the new me has new goals, patterns, beliefs, etc. The new me takes his coffee with less cream and drinks the occasional beer. The new me wants different things out of his writing and thinks in different ways. The new me loves differently.

So, if this is to have some warm ending message then I suppose it would be that the way you do things ought to be based on who you are. Not were.

 

Some Thoughts:

  1. Call. Coffee. Post. What comes next?

2.14: The Creative and the Created

I’ve started to wonder if Minecraft is draining my creativity. I must admit there is some logic to the argument. The game is an act of creating. In the latest iteration I’ve created an underground city, a mock Wayne Manor complete with Batcave, and now I find myself walling off a small village into some type of keep. I haven’t decided what it will look like, but I know there will be a Batcave deep beneath the surface. This tells me two things: I still love batcaves (secret rooms of all sorts, in fact) and I’m pouring creative energy into things that are not writing.

This is not to say I am not writing. I penned the opening paragraph of a story just two days ago and then stopped. Lately it has been more of the stop and go and slow process of trying to get to the page and make things happen. I am taking outside advice and pulling back from the closed-in drama in my own life to try to reach outside of that and create a situation for myself that gives me the material from which to write. I am trying to do all that without looking like a creeper, which is hard when your entire goal is to observe people in their element and from those brief observations glean character and story.

So, maybe I am a bit of a creeper. What writer isn’t? I am no Stephen King—an admission that deeply pains me—but I do seek out terrifying and interesting characters to populate my imaginary worlds. Which brings us back to Minecraft.

The fact is Minecraft allows me to build structures and, to a lesser extent, worlds which are forged around the principal of discovering, enhancing, and exploiting what already exists and what was already created via randomized seed. Stories are populated by characters. Minecraft is populated by things. So, when I do craft I am feeding a version of the creative need, but I am not telling stories and I am not shaping identities. Still, I’ve long held to the Minecraft excuse. That means that it is a smokescreen for what is really going on.

While I am still uncertain of what that is exactly, I now recognize that it has to do with characters.

2.13: On Process

I spent the better part of the last 48 hours thinking about and planning a lesson for this morning’s class on AI in science fiction. The lesson planning was more like lesson learning for me, as it allowed me to advance my own understanding of the no-longer fledgling field of research and the possibilities inherent therein. I suppose from a philosophical perspective the planning was my largest leap in understanding since I began reading Simulation & Simulacra after watching the Matrix all those years ago. I mean for my teaching to be reflective of my own learning process in a way and to ignite the process of others. Movies are meant to cause conversation and discussion and to promote more than entertainment.

One thought that continually stood out throughout the process of creation was the idea of process itself. For example, I have been on the path to ‘habitizing’ this process of how and when I write the blog (2.0) for 13 days now. It takes on average 66 days to form a habit and 21 to break one. I don’t believe I lasted the full 21 in my brief repose from the talisblog, but the formation of this new process should subsist for the entire timeframe. In fact I plan to make the number, 66, something of a goal of mine moving forward academically, personally, etc. 21 is likewise to be part of my process.

I am engaged in a number of transformative processes at this point in time. One is the breaking of my reformed soda habit. I’d like to quit entirely, but I like Jack and cokes and the occasional Red Bull, so the best I am willing to allow is a great moderation. 21 days from now we will see if I’ve broken the habit of simply reaching for a soda in the ‘soda fridge’. In truth, the best option there is to remove the stimulant and replace it with a better substance for me and my jazzed up boys.

In the end it all swirls back to the idea of process and the comfort and security of that. Each morning I wake up, say good morning to my love, go downstairs to prepare coffee and languish in the stages of that process. Then my coffee and I are here at the desk writing for the next ten minutes. That process–that familiarity is extremely grounding. If my kids are with me, they become a part of that process. However, they are not always here and will eventually grow and move on, so the core process remains love, coffee, and words. There is a simplicity and a wonder in that which warms my heart and lightens my soul.

Some Thoughts:

  1. A friend asked me if I was a jealous person. I said no. I don’t think I was lying, but I feel like the answer is incomplete. In matters of the heart I am jealous to a certain extent. That extent is less physical than emotional. I don’t understand how to share love. That continues to be a problem.
  2. I don’t believe my writing days are over. I don’t think the stories are gone from my mind or that my access to the stream has been revoked. I believe it is clogged the way a drain clogs from too much rough use. I know this because in moments, in flashes of shadow and movement I see stories.

2661. Freewrite

It was like an echo from the past, or a dream that he was only now just remembering. He recognized everything about the room, even though he was sure he’d never been there before. He knew the paintings on the walls, could name the artists who’d painted them. The only thing that puzzled him was the small framed mirror that hung near the mouth of the hallway, just low enough that he’d have to bend to see directly into it. Taro walked over to the mirror, the clop of his boots against the stone floor an all too familiar refrain. He bent. Only a midget could see from this height. Or maybe a child.

The frame was gilded and edged with ornate kanji-like lettering in a language the half-Japanese man did not recognize. It was as if the words were pretending to be Asian script. The mirror itself was large enough that he could see the entirety of his face but little else. That is why he surprised when the child grabbed his leg from behind. He spun and swung out more from instinct than any threat he perceived. He had just enough of his wits to stop from striking the girl in the head.  She stared up at him through almond shaped eyes. Her skin looked porcelain against the pink of her bathrobe. She did not flinch or move at all. She only stared. He said, “Hello?”

Perhaps she hadn’t heard him. After the third attempt he started to believe she couldn’t hear at all.

 

Some Thoughts:

  1. That piece is part of a prompt from ‘Complete the Story’ a daily story book. you’re supposed to finish one page with the starting paragraph already written for you.
  2. Yesterday’s blog was given the wrong title. It has been corrected.
  3. That was the most passive sentence ever.

2051. On Teaching and Writing

I’ve been thinking about my novel writing class and the way I give students little character assignments to do every day without clearly defining why I give them those specific assignments. In reality the idea is to engender thinking about the characters every day and to do so in a way that causes the characters to evolve in their minds to the point where they become a part of the writer’s daily thoughts and activities. There is nothing so compelling as a character demanding their story be told. Characters are like ghosts in that fashion. There is something they want—something that needs to get accomplished, but your pen is the only thing capable of making it come to pass.

I think that when I teach I do so in a fashion reflective of how I would love to write and think and be. It is, in that sense, a bit like parenting. “Do as I say, not as I do.” Meanwhile I rail against that notion in conversation more than action. In fact I would very much like to be the ‘do as I do’ guy both in writing and as a parent, but I am indeed human and often make poor choices. I can Monday morning quarterback the heck out of that situation as a teacher and a dad.

Hindsight is 20/20 (cliché but legit), so it does benefit my students to realize that it is often best to be haunted by your characters. In truth, my best fiction is the result of haunting. As the ghosts grow stronger, their history deepening in my veins, the story becomes a part of me and must be released unto the page. I say this as I am harboring yet another ghost and soon expect to birth his story.

 

Some Thoughts:

  1. No Waiver Wednesday today. I don’t have the internet connection right now and cannot get a sense of who is playing. I’ll put it together in the morning when I post this bad boy.
  2. Tackle begins this weekend and I heard tell that there is a bounty of sorts on my kids’ team. They blazed through the GYFL last year, only being slowed by the top two teams. Well, we kick off the season against one of them and they are looking to lay some big hits on our kids. They apparently are interested in intimidating them to the point where they don’t want to play anymore. I don’t see that happening, but I’m interested to see that these kids are looking for a fight. This is my first experience going to a small town where the entire town is behind the football program and it starts at age 6. I feel like I’m in Texas, but I’m not. Culturally, this is going to be a fun one.

1790. On Grades, Grading, and a new Schema

Fact: Students don’t understand the way I grade. I hear it every semester. What I do is apparently abnormal. To make matters worse, I change what I do every semester. I allow my grading system to evolve organically, sometimes even throwing the whole thing out to build something new. I’m thinking about doing just that again. The problem as I see it is a near complete disconnect between myself and students on the role and value of grades.

The one thing students and I agree on is the final grade. What you get at the end of a semester is supposed to mean something. I think the shared understanding ends at that point. Often students suggest that the final grade should be a reflection of growth (largely stated by low performers who improve) or overall knowledge (stated by those who knew stuff coming in and or worked hard to master content). Grade as a measure of ability and or knowledge is a staple of the academic industry, but it is not a consistent measure or even defined in terms of what it is meant to define. What a final grade means to me is you came in and received one semester’s worth of learning. During that semester you hit (and often exceeded) a plateau. The grade, in that sense, is the opening of a gate that allows you to move on to the next gate, next level, next mini-boss on your way to conquering this game of education.

I’ve approached grading in a plethora of ways. The most common grading modality as of late is the base 10 method with each class being worth a certain number of points (usually a thousand) and each assignment being a fraction of that figure. Now this leads to students trying to ‘game the system’ working as hard as they can to get points in specific assignments to reach their grade. I layer a ‘gaming system’ on top of this that focuses on the group work and competitive academics. The games give points and those are tabulated at the end of the semester with the top team getting a 10% grade boost based on winning the game. This system confuses students mainly because they aren’t used to games being a part of a grade and because they are often terrified of group work. I get it, having my grade in the hands of someone I’ve known for only 16 weeks is crappy, but the fact remains that collaborative success or failure is a part of the world economic system. Of course, teaching (primarily) teens means that individuality is bursting from their DNA.

Rarely I apply Peter Elbow’s grading contract philosophy. Its a ‘gamed up’ and ‘talised’ version of the thing, but the general idea is that you have a contract to complete specified tasks. If such work is completed it results in the grade you asked for. It also allows for you to ‘outplay’ your contract and for teams (groups) to hold your contract rights. This is also complicated on the surface but is modeled after the NFL-CBA, which a majority of my students (the dudes at least) seem to have a basic understanding of.

I don’t know what is going to happen in the next semester, but I’m still gestating ideas for a new plan. I need to come to a common ground and understanding with students so the focus is on what is learned and not what grade they get.

 

Maybe that is just a pipe dream.

 

Some Thoughts:

  1. 1790 was the year England introduced Chrysanthemums to China. It sounds minor on the surface but it was the first of many invasive re-plantings that would have never occurred in a non-globalized society…

1708. Reflections on a Thursday Morning

These last few weeks have offered me an amazing opportunity for self reflection. I had an opportunity to reflect on myself as a writer, father, and husband, allowing myself space to consider what needs to be done in order to be successful and grow in all phases of my life. The truth is that it comes down to the individual. A person either has it in them to be successful or they don’t. The ‘don’ts’ litter the planet, comprising the bulk of us–unmotivated drones moving through our lives with the motivation to just be happy enough or not to make too many waves or do anything that might put us and thus our skills and attributes in anyone’s spotlight. Others aim to be successful within their own lives and excel at something, be it as a mother, a friend, as scrapbooker, a fantastic employee, etc. I don’t think it matters what drives you so long as you remain driven and allow yourself to create the conditions that stoke that drive–that fire.

In other words, my idea of a fabulous life and a fabulous person is someone who doesn’t get in their own way. In retrospect, I haven’t been that guy in a very long time. I often let doubt and lack of motivation or laziness slither through me, backing me slowly away from the daily life I hope to lead. At one point it got so bad that I was no longer sire what kind of life I wanted, and became convinced that where I’d gotten to this point was enough–not just for now but forever–and I didn’t need to effort to get any further in my personal, emotional, and even professional development.

I’m learning to step away from that ledge. I’m learning to accept that once you accept that ‘this is it’ then the body and mind begin to wither and the heart and soul, once strong and full of lust and pride, shrivels and accepts even the smallest show of courage, or affection, or satisfaction as enough to get you through the day. A long time ago someone asked me, ‘what is enough for you?’ A year ago I would’ve said ‘A good TV show and a bag of chips’. That isn’t enough anymore. I’m reminding myself to want need more to get me through the day. I’m reminding myself each morning, afternoon, and night that we create the circumstances of our own happiness and perfection and that each of us has the fortitude within us to be more.

931. Why Johnny Can’t Write

Fact: The average student cannot write an essay and doesn’t really want to. On the other hand, that same student will write more words in a day than the average length of a college essay.

I know I am not citing my sources here, because they are largely anecdotal. I ran several informal polls in my classes in order to figure out how much writing was going on in the span of a day. When I told students to include their 140 character texts, the number of words skyrocketed. The fact is they didn’t see texts as writing, and neither do most professors I talk to. This is where reality and academia generally part ways. See, texting is a form of writing and argumentation. While not accepted by the academic mainstream, it is quickly becoming the primary form of communication among students 18-25. We, as educators, are not doing our part to link the new world to the old thinking of what is an acceptable form of communication. Instead we are desperately swimming against the tide by teaching them that what they spend their hours doing is not the ‘right way’ to communicate. No, it wasn’t the right way to communicate, but in a world that is being broken up into digestible sound bytes, it is likely the new way to communicate. This and other similar revelations have led me to a certain understanding of the world. I am quickly learning that the way I taught can no longer be the way I teach.

Johnny can’t write because of me and the multitude of English professors that came before me. We bored him to death by repeatedly demanding that he complete the same tired tasks over and over again. We tried to jazz it up or even break it down into components/levels, but we taught writing all the same. Take for example the developmental college sequence. 071, 081, 091, 101, 102. Five classes linked by so-called ‘graduated language’ that ensures that students enjoy a deeper understanding of the rhetoric at each level. But what do they do at each level? They write essays. They write college essays and are held to ever narrowing standards for those essays. For a while I broke away from that trend. I taught 071-081 as paragraph writing classes and 091 and 101 as college essay classes with the 102 capstone being a self-directed research seminar.

Crap.

See, I was still doing essays and I was creating artificial constructs to support my desires to  have things be different at each level. People don’t write paragraphs. They write essays. Or they tweet. Or they write to a purpose. These are the things that were being ignored, which led to a student, who went through 081 and 091, becoming bored by the time they hit 101. What if each level offered a truly different style and meaning of writing, one that if stacked atop each other presented a body of evidence of how to write and were threaded together by the spine of the writing process?

If I could teach our tweeters one thing it would be economy of words. Think about what you want to say and find the way to say it in the clearest and most direct language. This is, of course, antithetical to the idea of writing an extended research essay. Students hear 20 pages and actually wet themselves, or they simply surrender. My school found hard evidence that a large percentage of 101 completers were not prepared for and often failed 102. Why? Because 101 was never that transition course that taught them how to expand their reasoning; it didn’t offer them an avenue to take a simplified thought and blow it up into a chain of reasoning that is undeniable by anyone seeking to challenge the argument. That is my new 101.

My new 091 focuses on reflective writing. In order to be successful learners, students need to be able to reflect on what they are learning and the process of learning itself. So in the context of making them aware of grammar and rhetorical strategies, I need to help them to reflect on how they learn and how writing is used. I need to make them more aware of the fact that they are writers and then I need to make them better.

822. Understanding the Apocalyptic

Been wanting to write about writing for a while now. I’m deep into the publishing schedule of a weekly fiction story and this experience is different from any other writing I have done in the past. I’ve published in books and online, but never in a serial fashion. The work is sci-fi but not apocalyptic. I watch a great deal of sci-fi and read even more. I recently finished Wool, an independently published sci-fi series. I am also watching Falling Skies, which brings me to today’s topic: The formula for apocalyptic writing.

The formula changes based on when in the apocalypse the story happens. During the initial stages of the uprising/invasion/rebellion/plague your story will likely swirl around three key groups. There are the invaders (Alien, Zombie, Machine, Vampire, etc.), the people (generally humans like us), and the changed. This third group is the most powerful and pivotal in the story. The changed have been altered by the invaders in some way. They may be immune, may have awakened new abilities, lost their ability to fear, joined with the invaders in some physical way (cybernetics, daywalking vamps, alien hybrids, etc). It is these changed people that walk the theme and tell the true story of this manner of writing. The idea behind this genre is change. It says that change is inevitable and nobody survives change intact. In fact, those who are most altered are those best equipped to deal  with the coming change.

When writing sci-fi stories in this mini-genre be sure to graft this basic formula to whatever story you are telling. Of course, this applies to fantasy as well. Though the two are far  apart in terms of tech level, they are closer in terms of story than you may think.