On Writing and Testing

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You might have noticed I’ve been away for a while.  I’d like to tell you I was on sabbatical, traveling the world and learning all kinds of amazing things.  The truth is, I’ve been more like Ross and Rachel: on a break with intermittent surges of writing, some of which were blog related and others not.

I have been working on my book project, though I have to admit, not with the intensity it deserves.  Once the manuscript was complete, the fun part was over, and I was faced with what Terri Hendrix would call “the part that ain’t art.”  Trying to figure out how to get the work from my computer to the outside world, beautifully presented, on a limited budget, using technology far outside my comfort zone is intimidating to say the least.  For a time, the enormity of the task became overwhelming, and I turned my attention to other things while I gathered my inner resources to start again.  Luckily, I have some incredible “outer” resources who provided much needed encouragement and direction.  As it has before, Big Magic also stepped in and uncovered some hidden resources at exactly the right time.

I have also been teaching writing.  To fourth graders.  In Texas.  Where they will take a high-stakes standardized test very soon.  Few things bring me greater joy than writing with children. And few things can destroy that joy faster than high-stakes testing.  We are working on revising and editing skills: punctuation, grammar, word choice, and such.  It’s tedious work, beyond their developmental level if you ask me.  Of course, no one asked me.  My students are frustrated by a task that would, under different circumstances, help them find their voices and express their ideas to the world.  Luckily, children are resilient.  While they are not thrilled with the almost constant repetition of comma rules, they humor me, searching their mental data bases for why we should use a comma here instead of there.  In a few weeks the test will be over, and the mechanical workings of the English language will fade into the background.  Until they are in seventh grade.  When they take the next writing test.  Big Magic, if you’re listening, we could use some help here.

Which of the following BEST explains the frequent use of sentence fragments in the previous paragraph?

a) Rhetorical emphasis

b) Passive aggressive behavior toward high-stakes testing

c) All of the above

If you can answer this question correctly in the comments below by midnight CST on March 8, 2016, your name will be placed in a drawing for a $10 Starbucks gift card.  Low-stakes.  As it should be.

If you are an educator, I hope you survive testing season with your sanity and passion intact.

No matter who you are, I hope the approaching spring brings you warmth, joy, and renewal.  And blessings.  Many, many blessings.

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A “Selfie” Interview

chin selfieMy October writing challenge has ended, so I thought I’d spend some time reflecting on this month-long adventure.  An interview format made sense to me even though it might seem weird.  Yes, I am talking to myself.  And yes, I am even answering myself.  Please just humor me and resist any urge to call the authorities.  Your willingness to play along is greatly appreciated!

Me: Why did you decide to participate in the Writer’s Digest October Platform Challenge?

Myself: It’s kind of a long story.  Luckily you can read all about it in my first blog post, “Stories.”

Me: Oh, yes, serendipitous emails, stars aligned, etc. Tell us about the writing goals you were able to accomplish during the month.

Myself: The biggest goal was simply to get started, and I did accomplish that.  I have a website, my own domain name (idabethgeschke.com), and a blog.  I am particularly proud that I have been able post consistently.  I was worried I might get busy with other things and drift away from writing blog posts.

I: Don’t get too cocky.  It’s only been four weeks.  Still plenty of time to get distracted by other things.  You know how that goes!

Me (ignoring I): What goals do you still hope to accomplish?

Myself (also ignoring I): I want to increase traffic to my website and blog.  That will take a lot of PR work which is difficult for me.  I’m not a big fan of self-promotion or social media.  Learning to navigate beyond Facebook is quite a challenge.  I also want to spend more time as a participant in the writing community.  There are so many great writers out there, and I know I can learn a lot by interacting with them online and in person.

I: As long as we’re talking about goals, let’s not forget about cleaning out the garage and saving more money.

Myself: We’re talking about writing goals.

I: Hey, goals are goals.  Just sayin’.

Me: Speaking of money, do you think you will eventually make money with your writing?

Myself: I’ve learned that when you do something for money it becomes a “job,” which can often be the opposite of “fun.”  I guess it would be nice to supplement my income with my writing, but it would need to be a happy accident rather than a goal.

I: What?  No money?

Me: I get it.  You want to focus on the joy of writing without the pressure of making it a profitable business.  What was your favorite part of the writing challenge?

Myself: Without question, my favorite part of the challenge was getting feedback from readers.   People have been so positive and encouraging.  Their support has motivated me to keep writing each week and to expand my goals to include new projects.

Me: Please, tell us about these new projects.

Myself: Well, I enjoyed the October challenge so much, I’ve signed up to do another challenge in November.  This one is more about the actual writing rather than building an author platform.  The goal will be to write a nonfiction book in 30 days.

I: Thirty days?  No way!

Me: I have to agree.  One month seems like a very short amount of time.  How will you accomplish such a task?

Myself: To tell you the truth, I’m not really sure.  I’m looking forward to seeing the instructional materials and prompts that will propel me toward a completed first draft.  Revising, editing, and possible publication will happen after the 30 days.  It’s a short book, so that should help.

Me: What is this short book about?

Myself: It’s a holiday book for children and their families.  Stay tuned to the website and social media for more as the project develops.

Me: I can’t wait to hear about your November challenge and to read your new book.  I wish you continued success with your writing projects.  Thank you for sharing your thoughts today.

Myself: It was my pleasure.

I: Thirty days?  No money?  Seriously?

Finding Community

I’ve been calling myself a writer for less than a month now.  To tell the truth, I feel more like a poser than a writer.  Just say you’re a writer, and POOF, you’re a writer?  Surely it’s not that simple, though I suppose other people have found acceptance anointing themselves with labels much more controversial than “writer.”  To give myself a better sense of belonging, I have attempted to participate in activities with other writers, the kind who actually publish works, earn money, provide instruction, and the like.

Today, hoping to feel more a part of the writing community, I participated in Automattic’s online “wwwp5k.”  This worldwide event is taking place this week, October 26th through November 1st with writers and other creative types charting their own courses then blogging and sharing photos of their experiences.  Here’s mine:

I had originally planned to stage my personal 5K at the beach this weekend, but the combination of an altered work schedule and a soggy forecast convinced me to take advantage of today’s amazing fall weather closer to home.  I decided to take my usual route at a local jogging track.  I walk there sometimes, rarely thinking much about what I see or hear, but today was different.  Today I needed to see through the eyes of others, listen with the ears of others who wouldn’t be present themselves.

The mile markers at this track are a collection of boulders mounted in concrete with metal plaques to label the type of rock and the distance from the starting point.  I’m not sure how this idea came about, but I imagine a local geology professor with these enormous specimens in his garage.  Then I imagine his wife, less fond of the rocks than he is.  Maybe he chose to donate them to share his knowledge and passion and to make peace at home.  Maybe not, but it’s a good story.

rock marker

Like many tracks, this one surrounds playing fields for various sports: soccer, baseball, softball, even ultimate Frisbee.  It’s fall now, however, and this is Texas, which can mean only one thing: football!  The stands are filling with parents, grandparents, and siblings who have come to cheer on these tiny NFL hopefuls.  Loud music blasts from the speakers, but even so I hear the coach bark into the huddle, “Gentlemen, I will not tolerate losing today!  Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir!” they respond in unison.  I feel intimidated, threatened even, but they seem to take it as just another part of the game.  I continue my walk wondering how I might have responded to that kind of “encouragement” at age 8.  I’m pretty sure I would have cried.

fans    football

On the far side of the football field, toddlers play on the “Big Toy.”  They spin, slide, and swing showing off their physical prowess to proud parents who stand at the ready just in case.  A man passes by with his German shepherd on his way to the dog park.  Walkers, runners, and joggers approach me from behind, pass, and are gone.  On most days I keep up a little better, but today I am busy capturing images on my phone and in my mind.

big toy

I meet a friend walking the opposite way on the track.  Normally we would stop briefly and chat, but today she is talking on the phone, so we just wave.  I stop to check on the community garden.  Flowers bloom, and vegetable plants are laden with peppers and cucumbers.

peppers more peppers

I take the fork in the track that circles a pond where I stop to watch a stack of turtles lounging on a wooden platform.  They seem oblivious until I take their picture.  Once they notice me, they leave their perch, one by one, diving into the murky water.  I feel bad for disturbing them.  The last part of the track leads me across a small bridge then past the statue honoring a hometown hero.

N Ryan statue

This hometown isn’t mine.  I consider myself a visitor here.  On this day, however, while trying to make my way into one community, it seems I have found my place in another.

shadow

As I approach my “finish line,” the sun has begun to set behind me.  My shadow is long and narrow, two words that would not normally describe me.  In the distance I hear the football announcer.  The home team has scored a touchdown and the extra point.  There is more loud music and plenty of cow bell.  Everyone is happy.  Except maybe the turtles.

Dudley Johnson, Storyteller

texas stories

“Big Magic” happened again.  If you’ve been following along, you know I’ve been participating in the Writer’s Digest October Platform Challenge.  Sunday’s assignment was to interview an expert for a blog post.  My initial reaction was, “On a Sunday?  Are you kidding me?  Where am I going to find an expert on a Sunday?”  Almost immediately, I dismissed the idea as impossible, at least as far as it happening on Sunday.  Even if I did pursue the idea, I was pretty sure I would need to define “expert” differently than most people might.  And that’s exactly where I left it.  Or at least I thought I was leaving it.

On the way to church I mentioned it to my mother.  Again, I questioned, “Where am I going to find an expert on a Sunday?”  She didn’t have an answer, of course, but she listened as I processed my idea of “expert.”  I didn’t think I was really ready to contact a writing expert, someone who earns a living in the writing/editing/publishing world.  That seemed far too intimidating, and I knew I would have a lengthy wait for a response.  If I was going to maintain momentum in this challenge, I needed it to happen quickly.  So, I shifted my focus.  Since my blog is really a “stage” for stories, maybe I could find a storyteller, someone local who could share something of interest with my readers and me.  I even had a couple of people in mind.  And that’s where I thought I was leaving it again, because, “Where am I going to find an expert on a Sunday?”

As I entered the sanctuary at church, I was greeted by a fellow congregant who eagerly announced to all who entered that another church member, Dudley Johnson, had written a book.   Exciting news to be sure, but then I saw the title, Collection of Texas Stories!  Not a novel.  Not a self-help book.  Not a memoir.  Stories!  I had found my expert.  On a Sunday, no less!

It was clear from the beginning of our conversation that Dudley was not comfortable with the idea of being an expert.  He made sure I understood this was his first book.  “Expert,” it turns out, is a relative term.  I reasoned that if he had gone through the process of telling those stories from first thought to hard cover, glossy dust jacket, name-on-the-front, book in his hand, then he was much closer to being an expert than I was.

While he was not too keen on his sudden elevation to “expert,” Dudley seemed just fine with helping out a fellow writer in need of material and graciously agreed to an email interview.  Here’s what he had to offer about his own storytelling, writing, and publishing adventure:

IBG: Tell us a little about yourself and your careers other than writing.

DJ: I was born in Karnes County, Texas.  Karnes County is about half way between Corpus Christi and San Antonio. I grew up in the farm and ranch business.  My father put me on my first horse when I was 18 months old.  Over the years I did just about anything you can do using horses.

My life in the petrochemical industry started at the bottom and worked my way up the ladder to being a pipeline consultant with customers in Europe and South America.  The last “big” contract was to commission an ethylene pipeline in Brazil. The line is 300 hundred miles long.  I hired a business friend of mine that developed a new process of commissioning ethylene pipelines.  We had no way of knowing if his process would work.  It did, and we were the first in the world to use it.  Today everyone in that industry uses that process.

IBG: Do you consider yourself a writer, a storyteller, or both?

DJ: At this point I consider myself as a story teller that cannot speak due to being a throat cancer survivor.  So I write.  It isn’t as pleasant as sitting around a warm camp fire with a good cup of coffee on a chilly night at deer camp telling stories.

IBG: How did you become interested in storytelling and writing?

DJ: It has been my ambition to write ever since high school.  There was never enough time to write raising a family and working.

IBG: Share a little bit about how you developed that interest into the beautiful book I held in my hands this morning.

DJ: I love Texas history and consider myself very knowledgeable about early Texas.  Also some of these stories are based on things that I have been involved in.

IBG: You told me you always write two books at once.  Can you tell me a little bit more about that and/or anything else about your writing process?

DJ: I decided early on in writing one story that when I would hit a time that the story just stopped, I would walk away and come back later then start again.  I compare it with working a jigsaw puzzle.  Sometimes you have to walk off and come back later to find the right piece. It is the same with putting words on paper.

IBG: What are you currently working on?  What can we look forward to next from Dudley Johnson?

DJ: The next book will have two short novels. They are longer than the short stories and more detailed than a short story.  I have completed another novel that is about finding a Spanish Galleon that is overloaded with gold and silver that sunk off the coast of Florida. The story starts with the beginning of the ship leaving Spain going to the “New World.” It ends with modern day treasure hunters looking for it.  I am also working on a historic novel about a family that came to America during the time of the American Revolution.  I have just finished the second generation and am planning on the third generation as the family moves across the American frontier.  Right now I am editing the last three books.

I enjoyed getting to know Dudley Johnson, and I am looking forward to purchasing my own copy of Collection of Texas Stories. You can get yours too at Xlibris.com, Amazon.com, or BarnesandNoble.com.  Hardback, paperback, and ebook are all available.

Don’t forget, if you have a story to share, please do so in the comments.  It can be short, long, sweet, funny, sad, with a moral or without.  Every story deserves to be told!

Stories

You should write a book!  People tell me that a lot.  I don’t disagree, but I also don’t write books.  Or much of anything, really.  I should.  Writing is something I enjoy, and other people seem to enjoy reading what I write.  I guess it’s like a lot of things.  When I have more time… When the house is clean…  When I retire…  Finally, in the waning days of September, just as October approached, the stars aligned.

I retired a little over a year ago which means I have more time, and my house is clean, or at least as clean as my house ever is.  To tell you the truth, I probably still wouldn’t have sat down to write except for two emails that showed up, one right after the other.  The first one announced a “platform challenge,” a month-long, task-a-day roadmap to creating a writing platform.  It sounded like the very thing I needed to get me moving from thinking about writing to doing writing.  The second email was an advertisement for 40% off the new Elizabeth Gilbert book, Big Magic.  Even though I don’t write, I do read about writing, and the subtitle, Creative Living Beyond Fear, was the second kick in the pants I needed to get me to this point.  Apparently, Gilbert is some kind of writers’ psychic.  She managed to list every single excuse, fear, doubt, and imagined roadblock I had ever thought or uttered, from, “I’ll write when I have more time,” to “I’m too old to start.”  Coincidence?  Serendipity?  One of Squire Rushnell’s Godwinks?  Gilbert’s Big Magic?  Whatever you want to call it, those two emails moved me to action like nothing else ever has.

So, there it is.  The story of how I became a writer of material for public consumption with encouragement from Elizabeth Gilbert and step-by-step instruction from Robert Lee Brewer of Writer’s Digest.  It is unremarkable, maybe even a little boring.  But that’s okay.  It is a story just the same. And stories are important.  They give us insight to others, ourselves, and the world around us.  They preserve our history, reveal our humanity, and provide shared experiences we might not have otherwise.  They entertain us, soothe us, and inspire us.   

I hope this blog will become a place for stories to live.  A place where those who need a story can find one to read and those who need to tell a story can do so knowing there will be an audience.  So, pull up a chair, grab a cup of coffee or a glass of wine if you prefer, and let’s share some stories.