Saturday, January 23, 2021

Bad Input

 Growing up there was a movie called SHORT CIRCUIT. It was a classic story. A military robot is struck by lightning and it erases his programming. He escapes from the military and goes on a quest for "input." In many ways, like the robot in the movie, writers are seeking input. People are a lot like Johnny Five (the name the robot gives himself). We need input. 



I've been having trouble writing lately. I just can't seem to get traction on anything. It happens periodically. I'll take something for a test drive then scrap it. I'd love to give some big, writerly reason, but truthfully it's that the project just isn't working for me. I was discussing my troubles with my friend Brian and I mentioned that 2020 wasn't a great reading for me. Brian agreed and it got me thinking about a connection between the two. And there is. 

For you to have good output, you need good input. 

It's not rocket science. Stephen King says that you can't be a good writer without being a good reader and he's right. Unlike previous years, nothing in 2020 grabbed me in a way to move me. I can't remember the last book that did that. But it's not just reading, it's everything. I didn't even write a year in review post, because who wants to review this year?

The pandemic shut EVERYTHING down, drastically reducing our input. Movies and televisions shows screeched to a halt. Even sports for the most part were gone. There was nothing new coming in. I mean you can only watch The Mystery of the Abandoned and make sourdough so many times. With that in mind, it's not hard to see why I'm struggling with good output. My input has kind of sucked. 

So how do I fix this? 

I don't know. I mean I have ideas. Do I revisit what inspired me before or do I keep trying to find things to inspire me? I don't know if there's a good answer. I keep saying to myself that I want to write something that the thirteen-year-old me would've liked. I'm still hunting for the input to inspire that. 

For now, I just have to keep grinding and maybe I'll find it. 

Friday, January 15, 2021

Stop Arguing. No Seriously, Can We Stop Arguing?

 I'm so tired of arguments...more accurately argument writing. As a "writing teacher" (or a teacher that writes) I am frustrated by the absurd focus on argument writing in our present writing curriculum. I'm fucking tired of it. All the writing we seem to do in school now is argument writing and then we wonder why kids hate writing. 

The focus on argument writing isn't our decision, I assure you. If given the choice, any writing teacher worth their salt wouldn't use it as the entire basis for an entire writing curriculum but because some expert that likely hasn't been in a classroom in at least a decade declared it the end all, be all of writing the misguided, short-sighted people that run our state education system have decided that it should be the focus for not only English classes, but ALL classes. 


It's especially relevant to me as an English teacher since most years we give the NYS ELA Regents three times a year where the "argumentative essay" counts as 40% of the exam's grade and therefore 40% of one of their English graduation requirements. It's a major concern to many of my colleagues that teach grades 9-11 where much of the focus is preparing them for that state test. They need to focus on it or many of our students won't pass, therefore preventing their graduation and dinging us not just once but twice with the state of New York, as we are judged on graduation rate and ELA scores. It's reduced writing instruction to teaching formulas for meeting the rubric requirements and little else.

I loathe formulaic writing. (To me the words "five paragraph essay" are the equivalent of the f word and the c word having a baby raised by every racial epithet.) It binds and constricts. It also does the exact job it intends to do: create generations of rubber stamps. Everyone writes the same because that is the expectation. There is no deviation. No voice. No audience. Just the form and function. And that's killing me. Slowly. Every day. 

I don't blame my colleagues. They are doing what they need to do so we can stay on the up and up with the state. (And they do an amazing job of doing it.) Our school has so many chips stacked against it we look like poor Mike McDermott facing Teddy KGB in ROUNDERS (the first time). The thought is that we HAVE to teach formula because we have kids that are four or five grade levels behind in reading or ENL students required to achieve an impossible level of proficiency in a language they are just starting to learn. (Along with occasional learned helplessness.) It's worked to get many kids through the test but I can't help but wonder if we're doing more damage than good by doing this. I think the answer is an obvious yes. 

For kicks, I went back and pulled out the Regents I took when I was in 11th grade. (For official purposes, it was the June 1990 exam.) I can't tell you right now what I got on it and I'm not going to go to my old school to get my transcript to see. We can assume that I passed (I only took it once) and for now we can leave it at that. (Seventeen-year-old John was a different creature than forty-seven year old John, so I may not have been as successful as I think I was.) The test was vastly different and I would say that while it was more vigorous, it wasn't as constricting. I also remember that English 11 wasn't Argumentative Test Prep 11. 

There was a listening part and three reading comprehension passages....not too different from the present test.  There was a spelling section and a vocabulary section. (I would imagine that vocab was an integral part of our 11th grade material.) But it was the writing where things diverged. You were given choice in what you wrote. A respectable 55% of your grade came from writing. You had to essentially write two "essays" of about 250 words. The first writing part was a straight up literary analysis, but you were given two choices of how to frame your analysis of something you read, presumably during the school year. (I don't remember what I wrote about.) This was worth 25%. A whopping 30% was dedicated to what was basically a free composition of your choice. You were given eight options...EIGHT! They ranged from a position piece (close to an argumentative essay but not quite) to an assortment of personal narratives. (Again, I'm not sure what I wrote about, but I have a notion it was something out of the ordinary.) Not to sound like the "get off my lawn" guy, but there was an emphasis on writing that the student chose. Writing that the student wanted to do. I don't know what our students would do with that much freedom. I don't know, maybe pass?

Why did we move away from choice? Why did we hem students in with just two essays to write with absolutely no choice in what they are writing about? It's about conformity to a system. 

Last year I read a phenomenal book called WHY CAN'T THEY WRITE and it's a mind altering (if not life changing) book. One of the suggestions the author makes is  letting student write what they want. That's not to say we can't assign specific types of writing, but freedom of choice is paramount to a student's success in writing. We pontificate about differentiation and culturally responsive teaching yet when it comes to writing we will square peg-round hole our students for the sake of a stupid test meant to shape everyone into a round hole. It's beyond frustrating. Teachers are handcuffed by the belief of whichever member of the Board of Regents decided this was the most efficient way to measure student success in writing. Again, it's no wonder our kids hate to write. 

Most of my colleagues think I'm nuts. I can HEAR their eyes rolling when I open my mouth during online meetings. Maybe I should just follow the advice I've been given most of my life and just shut my mouth. 

Yeah, I doubt that too. 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Goulash-Pierogi Cold War

I didn't have goulash until I got married and my wife made it for us. The ingredients are simple: onion, ground beef, tomato sauce and pasta (elbow preferred). This is where the cold war begins. With these ingredients. 

It started about 18 months ago when we served goulash for dinner. My father, who was in town, grumbled something about how it wasn't goulash but a red meat sauce. He contended that goulash was a meat stew. This after scarfing down two plates and practically licking the plate. Nothing more came of it and we went along with our merry lives. Then a hot spot flared up thanks to my daughter and some pierogis. 

My sweet daughter has a habit of calling things by different names and long ago called pierogis "potato dumplings." She's not entirely wrong but this isn't the time for food anthropology or semantics, so I never made a big deal of it. While my parents were in town, we had them for dinner one night. This is where my daughter fanned the flames with this conversation:

"Yay, potato dumplings!"

 "What did you call that?" my father asked. 

"A dumpling."

"It's a pierogi."

"I know, but I call it a dumpling."

"It's a pierogi."

"Yeah, a dumpling."

This Abbot and Costello like exchange went on for about a minute more. I could sense my father's rising ire from the sink where I was washing dishes. He walked by me to go to his room and growled, "When you get a minute, I want to talk to you."

I looked over to my wife who shrugged her shoulders. 

I went to the senior apartment attached to our house and sat down on the couch across from my dad.

 "What do you know about our heritage and where we came from?"

"Astoria, Queens?" I responded. (Kinda hard to figure out where my daughter gets it from/)

 "I know you are raising your kids Italian but they know nothing of our heritage."

I was speechless. What culture? Blue collar? Middle class? American? I was seriously confused. The accusation stung. Our family heritage is murky at best and down right swampy on my dad's side. But I let him talk and nodded then went back to doing what I was doing. 

Cold war flare up subsided. My peaceful reaction worked. Maybe I really have matured. Then a few nights later, we made goulash again. My father once again walked by while I was once again doing dishes. 

 "What do you call that?"

 "Goulash."

 "Hmph," followed by the same glance I remembered from being a kid that was about to get in trouble. I said nothing and let him go along his way. 



A few days after that someone put up a meme about this very topic and I reposted it on my Facebook page to discover if I was not alone. Nearly all of my friends said they called what we make (B) was goulash and that A (what my father calls goulash) was stew. I felt vindicated. However, one friend that travels to Eastern Europe quite a bit pointed out that A is actually goulash, so I consulted Google and it turns out we're both right. B is known as American goulash. I never did tell my dad but I felt pretty good about it. I'd rather keep the cold war simmering instead of a full out nuclear assault. 

                                    

    

Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Maradaine Saga

I like supporting good people that create good art. (Hell, I'll support good people that create so-so art.) Especially people that are nice to me and come from the same place I do, Central New York. Even though he's a Texan now, you never quite lose being a CNYer. So I'm here to support my friend Marshall Ryan Maresca (friend might be a stronger word, but it sounds better than Internet acquaintance), the author of the Maradaine Saga.



Today is Sunday August 30th and I've decided to embark on a quest and I'm inviting you to accompany me to the Archduchy of Maradaine. We're on a tight schedule since the final book of the Maradaine Saga, THE PEOPLE OF THE CITY, comes out on October 26th. I've come up with a plan for us to finish the eleven books that make up the Saga and smoothly transition into the final book. 

I've preordered my copy, you should too, preordering is important. Like all quests, we need a map, so I've created a pacing guide (I'm a HS English teacher, I can't help it) for you to follow to get you there. I'll post something here on Fridays where I'll discuss what I read and any of you can respond. So, here we go and I'll see you on the other side. 

So you understand, the number is the last chapter you should read for that day. 

Here's the link to the pacing guide.


Friday, August 21, 2020

Hey Netflix, How About This?

 A few weeks back the Internet was ablaze with the rumor that Netflix was looking for the next "family friendly fantasy story" a la Star Wars or Harry Potter. I sort of read it as they were looking for something original and I have ideas. As as joke (but not really) I posted an "ad" on Facebook about anyone wanting to work with me on creating said project. A few nibbled by bringing up IPs they were interested in and one grabbed my attention. I was initially opposed but the poster convinced me that it could work thanks to THE WITCHER. So I set about planning the seasons for said IP. (I spent a whole day planning and casting two seasons of a fictional OFFICE-esque series about where I work and it's amazing.) So, without further adieu and gilding of the lilies, may I show you my plan for DRAGONLANCE: THE WAR OF THE LANCE.


So, I always felt as formative as DL was to me, reading it as an adult left me wanting. There was so much potential for the books that a TV series could bring back. We'd need three seasons, one for each of the book. The first season should be 8 episodes, second and third 10, with some expansion of what happens in books 2 and 3. So, using the chapter epigraphs, I came up with the titles. So, away we go.

Season One: Dragons of Autumn Twilight 

Best cover by a mile and the "smallest" of the three books. There's not much I would add to this. The desire to put Kitiara in this part is strong but she belongs in season 2, especially since she's maybe the most important casting besides Tanis and Raistlin. I don't know about casting but if Kelsey Asbille isn't Goldmoon, I might fight people. Anyway, on to the episode titles:

  1. The Old Man's Party
  2. Message In the Stars
  3. The Forestmaster
  4. Smoke In The East
  5. The Broken City
  6. Night of Dragons
  7. The Speaker of the Suns
  8. The Dragon Highlord
Season Two; Dragons of Winter's Night:

For this season we expand a little bit and pull in some stuff from out of trilogy books to bulk up our story. I almost bumped this to 12 episodes, but 10 is enough. We add some more of the infighting and politics among Solamnic Knights, give Kitiara some time to shine and I for one can't wait to see the ice boats. So, episode titles (these are the first batch that contain non-epigraph titles, enjoy):
  1. The Hammer of Kharas
  2. The Blue Lady's War
  3. Tarsis The Beautiful
  4. Waking Dreams
  5. The Song of the Ice Reaver
  6. The Red Wizard and His Wonderful Illusions
  7. The Oath and The Measure
  8. My Honor Is My Life
  9. The Shattered Sun
  10. The Princess and The Blue Lady
NOTE: I'm really proud of 9 and 10. Episode 9 is going to be the "Red Wedding" episode for a lot of people. It's truly one of the more beautiful moments of the series. 

Season Three: Dragons of Spring's Dawning
When I re-read this a few years back, I was so disappointed in this book. It's the shortest by far. The war was over in one chapter. I get that they wanted to focus on the main characters and I'm sure the authors were under tremendous pressure to finish (I'd still love a "director's cut" of the books) them, but I felt this book was rushed. We have another ten episodes for this season and some expansion is necessary. So here's my episode titles and again we've gone off the tracks with episode titles, though most are from the epigraphs.

  1. Flight from Darkness Into Darkness
  2. The Chronicler and the Mage
  3. The Oath of the Dragons
  4. The Council of Whitestone
  5. The Golden General
  6. The Penalty of Failure
  7. The Old Man and the Golden Dragon
  8. The Queen of Darkness
  9. The Debt Repaid
  10. For Good or For Evil
So, that's how I'd break down the Dragonlance trilogy into a three season, 28 episode series. There's more details, but I spared you from them. So, Netflix...HBO...Hulu...whoever, I'm here and available. I think there are parts of Central New York that would be great for exteriors and I'll bet we can get some tax breaks, especially with a CNYer at the helm. 



Sunday, August 16, 2020

The Imposter Syndrome

 A few months back I was catching up with some of my "boys" via Zoom. It was in the middle of the first month of the pandemic and I think our little group was jonesing for some interaction with people we didn't share DNA. One of the things my wife says is that I need to be more social and she's not wrong. (Yet she thinks that my having a writing session once a month with my friend Brian is weird.) She's joked that I've been more social since the pandemic started. 

Conversation from our little group chat moved from what we were drinking to what we've been cooking (lots of sourdough) to how we've been staying in some kind of shape (my complaining about walking stairs 3-5x a day to some of them running 7 miles a day). It was nice to talk to adults about adult things. (Again, not that I don't talk to my wife but sometimes you need more!) At one point in the conversations someone said something about writing and I griped around the malaise I was in related to my writing. This sparked something in one of my friends and he asked me perhaps the most terrifying question you could ever ask a writer: What motivates you to write?

I froze. I never have a good answer. Or at least the way that I feel.

Before I continue, confession time: I always feel that when I talk about writing with people, I bore them to tears. It's the reason I know that I'll never do a TED talk. It's not that I'm not passionate about writing or that I have what I think are interesting things to say about writing, it's just every ounce of self-loathing and self-doubt bubbles up slides on up to the front of my brain and makes me feel boring. (Comically, I don't have this problem with students.)

My friend asked the question earnestly. He doesn't know me very well so he hasn't lived through all my trials and tribulation of trying to be a famous author. The question really crippled me. I'm usually loquacious but I couldn't talk. A voice in the back of my head snickered and whispered, "Yeah, smart ass, what motivates you?"

I could say something poetic like the written word is the very marrow of our souls.

Nah, not me.

I could say that I hate blank paper and I need to fill it up with words.

Closer, but not quite there. 

Because I want to be rich.

Nah.

"Because I can't not write," I answered. It's a stock answer for me. But it's also incredibly true. In the chat, one of my friends that's read my stuff commented that I'm a very good writer. I was embarrassed and humbled. I always feel weird talking about my writing out loud, it's really a sort if imposter's syndrome. 


Imposter's syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize and accept their accomplishment. This is me to a T about just about everything I do successfully in my life. I'm never satisfied when I cook and I'm constantly trying to get better, though my ribs are so good you can't talk loudly about them or the meat will fall off the bone. There's always a voice in the back of my head nibbling at any sense of accomplishment in my head. I always feel like when someone asks about my writing, I always feel like I can see their eyes glaze over as I'm talking. It's hard to see glaze on a computer screen. As I tried to expand on my answer, I heard the voice in my head, so I talked faster so I could think it before they could. 

"You're a fraud."

Two agents, one abandoned the other I fired. A few very close calls with publishers. 

"You talk a big game."

My friend that's read my stuff props me up by earnestly saying how good my writing is and I aw-shucked my way through that. When I said something about it being boring, they said that it's really interesting and that they can see my passion.

"They have to say that."

I don't know if they do or don't but it felt kind of good to talk about it out loud. 

"Usually you have to pay $100 an hour for that, ding dong."

Imposter or not, I write because I can't stop writing, God have mercy on your soul.

"He won't, he made you a writer for Chris-okay, okay, I'll stop there."


Friday, August 7, 2020

A New Hobby

At the start of summer, my son Cooper asked for a birdfeeder. I'm not 100% sure why, but it's not an extravagant or out of left field request, so we bought it for him. It took me a week or so to buy the seed then another week to set it up. Since I put it up, I can't get enough of it, seeing if I can identify the birds that visit my little bird feeder. I obsess over seeds and making sure there's enough for them. I'm not this diligent with my dog. You know it's weird when your wife says that she got you a surprise and when you find out it's a 40 pound bag of bird seed, there aren't enough kisses to show your appreciation.


I'll perch on the front porch as quietly as I can, my writing notebook and pen in hand, though I don't write when the feeder is busy, I'm too busy meeting with my new friends. There's been the requisite robins and at least three different kinds of sparrows. I call them the Jets (Robins) and Sharks (Sparrows). Lately the Jets haven't been visiting as much. Quite a few doves join the mix along with a real gang of grackles  that unsuccessfully tries to intimidate the other, smaller birds. A few couples join the buffet. A pair of cardinals, Ralph and Alice, that visit several times a day while a pair of pigeons, Henry and Karen, show up the same time every day to partake (Bonus points if you get the reference, double bonus points if you REALLY get the reference). On a rainy afternoon the smorgasbord was attended by a pair of orioles. They're aristocrats names Thurston and Lovey. I saw a bright yellow goldfinch and a red crested lark.Then there's Bart the Blue Jay. That little bastard will sit on the power line and squawk at me until I go inside. I won't even go into the mammals that join the group, which has included several rabbits, two chipmunks and possibly a raccoon.

A few days ago, I gave my wife the rundown of what I'd seen that day. She looked at me with something short of incredulity and said, "I didn't know that you were that into birds."

"Neither did I," I responded. 

Bird watching is serious business and I don't know if I'm built for it. This is not a disparagement of the activity. It requires a great deal of patience and diligence, two things I am not equipped for. But I'm trying.

A few afternoons ago, I was returning home from running errands. As I walked up the driveway, I looked over to my, I mean my son's bird feeder. It was in need of a refill. I scanned the remaining area and saw at least 20 birds staring back at me like the movie THE BIRDS. I'm old enough that it still scared me. I moved a little faster as I waddled my way, penguin-like, into the house.