Sit and begin

I read a statistic stating a high percentage of people believe they can write a book. If ability were the only factor in completing a novel or nonfiction book, then there would be a lot more books (especially ebooks) flooding the market right now. Unfortunately, the other factor in writing–and it’s probably the biggest factor–is finding time to sit and begin.

Once a person has begun a project, the next hurdle is to keep writing. This is where longevity comes into play. If you’re going to produce something, especially the creation of a book, it takes long, solitary hours typing away at a computer.

But this goes for any endeavor. Doing something well takes time. FInishing any type of project takes time, and it’s the people who are willing to put in the long hours that will reap the reward of completion–and completion is a wonderful reward. In some cases, it may be the only reward; and for the artist, that should be all that’s needed.

On Writing Well

If you want to sharpen your nonfiction writing skills, look no further than On Writing Well by Willian Zinsser. This book provides the reader with invaluable information to build a piece with simple, clear, and concise words.

Tidy thinking is greatly encouraged by tidy writing. The best writers create linearly, building one idea upon another. The words are vibrant and useful, and ambiguity is banished for hacks to pick up*. Deliberately choosing meaningful words when writing crosses over to effective speaking. One of my hopes for writing everyday is to become better at speaking with lucidity.

Here are some helpful hints from On Writing Well off the top of my head:

  1. Use “however”  at the beginning of a sentence, not the end.

  2. *Don’t worry about ending a sentence with a preposition; especially if doing so makes the writing sound less stilted.

  3. Use humor (something I’m really trying to get better at wielding).

  4. Build and maintain a personae.

  5. Edit and trim. Then edit and trim some more.

Becoming a better nonfiction writer helps in many areas of life. With all the emails, texts, blogs, tweets, and memos that are ubiquitous in our personal and work lives, developing good communication skills has never been more important.

A brave new classroom

Satya Nadella is Microsoft’s new CEO, and he sent a letter to the employees. From what he wrote:

 Our industry does not respect tradition — it only respects innovation.

Yes, the technology field truly does respect innovation more than tradition. I think the field of education should follow suit. Things are changing extremely fast. What we’re teaching kids today may not be the same tomorrow. As such, teachers, administrators, and professionals in the curriculum and technology departments need to continually adjust strategies, lesson plans, and procedures to help better aid our students.

I’ve been working on a book off and on for the last five months entitled A Brave New Classroom. It’s directed toward teachers, but anyone who’s interested in education can read it. I’m posting it here as a work in progress. There are some reasons for this:

  1. Once I finish my next novel, The High Places, I plan on spending more time writing about education.

  2. Posting a book you’re writing online is a great way to inspire motivation to finish it.

  3. I welcome advice and ideas from others. Sharing while I’m writing may foster a discussion that otherwise wouldn’t happen.

  4. I like the idea of having a book in a Google Doc because education is changing rapidly, and writing a book–even an ebook–doesn’t allow for the speed needed to make changes, additions, and subtractions from the manuscript. Maybe I’ll keep A Brave New Classroom as a Google Doc forever. Education’s not going to slow down anytime soon, and I’ll need the agility of changing the document when necessary.

(On a side note, what is a book? Does it have to be bound anymore? Does it need a cover? How many pages constitute a book? Can a collection of information in a web browser be considered a book?)

I’ll also include A Brave New Classroom in the Books Tab at the top of Rise and Converge. Whenever there’s a new and substantial addition, I’ll post it here. Some of these additions may include chapters, pictures, quotes, and ideas I receive from readers of this website.

 Our industry does not respect tradition — it only respects innovation.

This is so true. We all would benefit from trying our best to not rely on aging tradition when innovation can lead to positive change in others’ lives.

Let them hit you

Displaying your art for others to view is a daunting prospect. Whether it’s a painting on the wall, a story on a website, or a song on iTunes, once you put what you’ve created into the public sphere, interpretation is up for grabs. And trust me, everybody is a critic.

Initially, you’ll hear the work is good. This is because the first people who critique it love you. Soon, you’ll display the art for others to examine. Then you’ll produce more. After some time of fighting the resistance, you’ll have a body of work that garners more attention–either because it’s good or for the simple fact that there’s more of it to be seen.

At this point, you’ll experience some criticism. This is natural and beneficial. Everyone wants the positives and (some delicately worded) negatives.

Here’s the thing: Many of the negative comments will not be delicate. In fact, they’ll be uncomfortable.

This reminds me of Fahrenheit 451. A man named Faber warns Montag that making mistakes is OK–even when other people call you on it. Here’s an excerpt:

‘Listen. Easy now,’ said [Faber] gently. ‘I know, I know. You’re afraid of making mistakes. Don’t be. Mistakes can be profited by. Man, when I was younger I shoved my ignorance in people’s faces. They beat me with sticks. By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me. If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn.’

Faber’s not talking about creating art, but he might as well be. Some people are born geniuses, but most of us need to make bad stuff and get knocked around a bit so we’ll learn. Then we’ll make good stuff. The kind comments are swell, but the unkind comments stay with us. The trick is to learn from both positive and negative constructive criticism.

So let them hit you. Put your heart out there. It will make you strong. It will hone your “blunt instrument.” You’ll learn–and most importantly–you’ll get better.

Creating in the moment

Ray Bradbury is one of my go-to authors when it comes to understanding the creative experience. His advice about constructing the plot of a story mirrors many other great writers. Here’s an excerpt from his introduction to Fahrenheit 451:

I sat down to another nine-day schedule to add words and scenes and turn the novella into a novel of some 50,000 words. Again, an emotional process. Again, as before, I knew that “plot” could not be imagined ahead of the event, that you had to trust your main character to live out his time, to run before you. You followed and found his footprints in the snow. Those footprints, after the fact, found in the snow, are “plot.” But they can only be examined, intelligently, after the emotional sprint, or your actors must quit the stage. In ballet, any dancer who asks himself what step comes next must freeze. Any man who takes a sex manual to bed with him invites frigidity. Dancing, sex, writing a novel–all are a living process, quick thought, emotion making yet more quick thought, and so on, cycling round.

I don’t remember exactly, but I think Cormac McCarthy wrote “plotting is death.” I’m pretty sure Bradbury would agree.

Bradbury says you must “trust your main character to live out his time, to run before you.” In trusting your character, you’re trusting yourself. Sketching the whole plot ahead will make the story artificial. Imagine a slightly older person who has undergone plastic surgery. The lip injection or facelift may be unassuming at first, but upon closer inspection, the work is unnatural.

The dancer who thinks about her next step or the man who brings a sex manual to bed are acting unnaturally as well, so the results won’t be dynamic. Better to live passionately in the moment. This goes also for creating.

 

Honing

It’s good to hone the presentation of your message–that is, what you want to say to the world. There are many books about how to write and communicate well (in person and on social media). Twitter is full of people ready to aid fellow tweeters get the word out.

What may be needed from time to time, however, is reflection upon whether the message being honed is itself good. There are many benefits to writing/blogging/presenting everyday. Some posts or talks are going to be better than others, there’s no getting around that. It’s beneficial to take inventory and focus on whether or not what’s being said is a worthy contribution to the overall body of work.

Take TED. Some are asserting it’s becoming too self-helpy and less thought-provoking. I’m not certain this is the case, but TED should take this feedback into consideration to take proactive measures against becoming the internet’s Chicken Soup for the Techie’s Soul.

Keep honing the presentation of the message, but don’t forget to hone the message as well.

Should kids learn how to code?

I truly believe so. In fact, this Wednesday the school where I teach will be participating in Hour of Code, and I’m really excited to be part of it.

There are some, however, who dispute the conventional wisdom that coding should be embedded within a student’s school day. Jathan Sadowski wrote a con-coding piece for Wired. Money quote (via Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish):

The problem is elevating coding to the level of a required or necessary ability. I believe that is a recipe for further technologically induced stratification. Before jumping on the everybody-must-code bandwagon, we have to look at the larger, societal effects — or else risk running headlong into an even wider inequality gap.

For instance, the burden of adding coding to curricula ignores the fact that the English literacy rate in America is still abysmal: 45 million U.S. adults are “functionally illiterate” and “read below a 5th grade level,” according to data gathered by the Literacy Project Foundation. Almost half of all Americans read “so poorly that they are unable to perform simple tasks such as reading prescription drug labels.” The reading proficiency of Americans is much lower than most other developed countries, and it’s declining. We have enough trouble raising English literacy rates, let alone increasing basic computer literacy: the ability to effectively use computers to, say, access programs or log onto the internet. Throwing coding literacy into the mix means further divvying up scarce resources. Teaching code is expensive. It requires more computers and trained teachers, which many cash-strapped schools don’t have the luxury of providing.

In reading the entirety of Sadowski’s opinion, I see his heart is in the right place. I do disagree with him, however, because I believe coding can be taught in conjunction with reading and (traditional) writing. For example, teach a student the basics of HTML and then have him or her write an essay within <p> tags. Voila, the student is on his or her way toward publishing on the internet while learning how to construct an essay.

I’m an educator who’s about to teach a little coding during an enrichment period on Wednesday. This isn’t costing my district a penny (contrary to Sadowski’s piece)–I’m doing it of my own accord because I believe coding is a skill that will enrich my students’ lives. And the kids who may be a little behind when it comes to national literacy scores, well, the knowledge that they can produce their own website by learning how to write sentences and code may help them excel in the more traditional aspects of school.

Learning to program makes the “Why am I learning this?” less abstract. Young people know why they’re learning it: For a better future.