All posts by Gwen Jones

Teaching Online Blows

I’ve been teaching college courses online for about ten years now. I started back when there was no Zoom-like interactions, just course modules, dropboxes, and discussion boards. The closest you got to live interaction was email, and the selling point was you could attend college in your pajamas, and at any hour of the day or night. But that was a choice you consciously made, because it was mostly made out of convenience. Not so now.

This semester, I’m teaching what’s known as synchronous  classes, live classes with students as mostly avatars, staring back at my computer screen. Since so many classes are being taught online at once, each class can only handle four student cameras at a time. Mostly, staring at those avatars, I feel like I’m talking to myself, and there’s no way of knowing how many students are paying attention to me at once. I try to be engaging, asking for responses, and we do have live class discussions over the readings, short stories, poetry and such, led by student Discussion Leaders, but it’s a poor, poor substitute. By the quality of their assignments, and the constant barrage of emails, and requests for office visits (also virtual), I know that for many students, I’m not getting through.

Why? Because teaching online is NO substitute for classroom interaction. Students, whether in preschool or college, need face-to-face interaction, and the give-and-take that only a live instructor can give to disseminate information. Yes, if you’re highly motivated, online learning is a wonderful alternative. But there’s more to any educational institution than just coursework, and I can go on for hours just what those things are. But in order to get students back into the classroom, which is what everyone wants, we need to get instructors — ALL instructors — vaccinated. There’s an old story, that if a plane is going down,  and a mother, with a baby, has access to only one oxygen mask, who gets it, the mother or the baby. The first instinct of the mother would be to put the mask on the baby. But who will care for the baby if the baby dies? So the logical answer is  to save the mother, as the baby can’t fend for itself.

The same for the instructors as believe me, no one wants to be back on campus more than we do. Children are the least likely to fall ill if they catch the virus, and college students, if they do, we most likely shrug it off. Not so with the instructors who are more often than not older and more vulnerable. If we value our children’s education as much as we say we do, then please give equal value to the people who spend their lives teaching them who are now at risk. Vaccinate all educators now.

TIPS FROM THE MFA PIT – PART 10

Hey, folks! I know it’s been a l-o-n-g time since I wrote under this banner, but it’s a new semester, and I’ve a brand new crop of students. For those not familiar with this feature of the blog, I’m a mentor in an MFA in Creative Writing program, and what follows here is actual advice given to an actual student under my tutelage. (How lucky can you get!) We were discussing some early writers of the Mystery genre, starting with Edgar Allen Poe and his “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which then segued into Sherlock Holmes, and some observations about genre fiction in general…

Regarding your reading this week: I’m sure that the genre Poe, if not invented, perfected, seems to modern readers a bit trite. But what eventually become cliché does so because it works. Imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery. Last week I talked about the similarities in particular genres that eventually morph into expectations in them. With mysteries, there’s a crime, a body, clues, and the eventual unraveling. With mysteries, as least in what we’re examining here, we see “sidekicks,” at least with Dupin and Holmes. They’re not only assistants but sounding boards, a physical as well as literary device to work their theories out loud. A twist on this, at least from my perspective, is the TV detective, Columbo. He used the perpetrators themselves as his assistants, always demanding “…one more thing” of them to solve the crime. Either way you want to work it, perhaps it’s a technique the protagonist uses instead of deep POV as he works out the crime.

Writing evolves, and as does story form. What seems stiff now was fluid then. Jane Austen’s dialogue, even though a master of story form, seems rigid to modern readers. Where Dupin used what amounts to soliloquies to get his plot points out, she employed The Letter, to me the most annoying form of info dump. But back then the form was new. Since, it’s been used with annoying frequency, especially in YA fiction (but then everythings new when you’re that young!). My favorite technique, which I use in my own writing, is to dispense information on a need-to-know basis, like dropping breadcrumbs on a trail, very much apropos in the mystery genre.

Valuable advice, indeed!

Why we love those bad, bad boys Revisited

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Yes, another revisit. I’ve been busy! I promise, I’ll have a new entry next week! But this is for all you romance writers out there.

We’ve all read about them. Those incorrigible, gorgeous rakes who don’t give a damn about stealing your company, raiding your trust fund, double-crossing the best friend or breaking your heart. He’s the one with the best lines even though they slice to the quick, telegraphed from a mouth crooking sardonic and eyes that flash and burn. He’s always the snappiest dresser with the shiniest shoes and the most expensive jewelry, more often bought with your line of credit. If he gets in a fight he wins without mussing a hair, and that slight nick high on his cheekbone only makes him more dashing. His voice is smooth as silk and it rumbles through you like an electric charge, as he’s talking you out of your clothes and everything in your wallet. He’s on everyone’s A List, is invited to all the best parties, frequents the finest restaurants and clubs, and is only seen with the most beautiful woman. He has the tightest abs and the broadest shoulders, is tall and lean and impossibly gorgeous. He’s the consummate lover but he’ll never fall in love, yet he’s what every woman wants and what every man wants to be. In film he’s Gordon Gekko the ruthless arbitrageur of Wall Street, in romance, he’s the pitiless rake, Sebastian, Lord St. Vincent, in Lisa Kleypas’ wonderful novel, The Devil In Winter. And for all their cunningly manipulative ways, we are unabashedly drawn to them like magnets to metal filings. We worship them, adore them, envy them, lust after them. Only to be cut down and debased and betrayed over and over again. So why in the world are we continually drawn to this bad, bad boys?

Because oh…how we love to see them fall!

And when they do, it’s usually spectacular, a crash and burn of epic proportions. But then we get to witness the most marvelous thing– their redemption–and what a fascinating thing that is, watching these fascinating creatures evolve, scrabbling their way back to the top–and to us. It’s a precipitous climb, full of switchbacks and reversals, but when they finally learn their lesson, we get to wallow in their devotion, their bad, bad ways making them oh-so-good exactly where we need them.

Romance writing is all about the resolution of conflict between two protagonists so love can bloom, and there’s nothing like a rake whose odds are so out of favor, it almost seems impossible he’ll ever end up redeemed. But it also  makes the most compelling reading. Give me a good old bad boy any day, as they’re the most challenging and certainly the most fun. Because as everyone knows, that’s all we girls really wanna have anyway.

When snow drifts into Chicanery

I’m in Jersey, and this week we had a bit of a snow event that dropped anywhere from nothing to two feet in a couple of days, I’m in the middle part of the state, and we fell somewhere south of center with eight inches. (I must refer to my region as “middle” because if you want contention among North/South Jersey natives, just saying Central Jersey will spark a bar fight right up there with Pork Roll vs. Taylor Ham.) Coming off of this storm I can’t help feeling cheated, because as a college professor, I know that even the threat of a few inches will send the school administration into a frenzy on how soon and how long to shut down the campus.

But in this time of pandemic, most all of our classes are remote, unless you’re taking labs on campus for courses in biology or chemistry, or in the nursing or funeral services program. Which mean an English teacher like me is cheated out of the pleasures of a Snow Day, with business as usual. So where’s the fairness in that?

In The Way the World Used To Work, when College was a living, breathing, tangible experience, a Snow Day would mean the campus would shut down,  and there would be no classes for the day.  We would be awakened before dawn by a campus alert via phone or text, find out the joyous news, then scurry back to our warm beds for an extra hour of sleep, looking forward to binging Netflix in our jammies, building snow creatures, or other such indulgences. But now, in the Alternate Universe, instead of staying home we’re already there, and we get to do the same thing we’re doing every day.

T’int right, t’int fair, t’int proper.

Ah well, one more thing to look forward to, right?

Diagnosis: Writer – Five Sure-Shot Symptoms

vintagetypewriter_93579-758x485Okay, I’m being lazy. I’d rather repeat this old post than think of something original. But it’s a good post, and I’m right in the middle of revising something I wrote years ago, so this re-posting an old post fits perfectly into my writing life right now. Even so, it does offer some valuable advice, not only to you, but to those irritable people who keep interrupting you to say, “What is it you do in that room all day’?” Arrrgh! So this should help you answer them. Because the first step to a cure is to admit you’ve got an addiction. But in this case, a very good one. Read on…

No, you’re not crazy, even though your friends and family think you are. Even so, you have to admit that at time, you do seem a bit “off.” Still, how do you measure crazy against what accurately borders on obsession? I was thinking of this last weekend while lunching with some fellow writers, wondering whether they’re afflicted with similarly bizarre affectations, or if I was I suffering in silence. Odd or not, it’s made me realize that dammit, I must be a real writer, because although I’m not cutting off an ear or anything for my art, I sure am suffering some peculiarities. Such as:

1. Post-it Note Addiction – It’s true. I carry them everywhere. I have pads of them on my desk, in my purse, in the pocket of my course binder. I whip them out to jot down lines of dialogue, character descriptions, plot lines–even the premise for this post. They’re all over the place in my office, and when I’m on  the road and inspiration clocks me, I jot down my genius and stick them to the inside of my wallet so I don’t forget. By the way, they’re also good for shopping lists, as you can stick them right in front of you on the inside of the shopping cart.

2. Drinking Hot Liquids Cold – During the winter months I usually have a cuppa something at my elbow while I’m writing, but I have to tell you, I can’t remember the last time I actually sipped it while it was still hot. Usually the cream’s left a sheen on the coffee, or the tea’s soaked down the string to the tag, an “accident” puddling on my desk, whatever’s in the cup long, gone cold. The opposite effect is true in the summer, when I never seem to sip anything cold: the ice just a memory, the glass dripping condensation. I should probably just yank a bottle out of the cabinet and forget about it. Either way, it all ends up the same place: room temperature.

3. Vitamin D Deficiency – My last routine blood screen had everything come back normal except my Vitamin D level. Apparently deficiencies of this vitamin, which is created by sunshine, can cause depression, chronic fatigue, weight loss (I wish), diabetes, heart disease, stroke and osteoporosis. In addition to a disease I thought went out with the nineteenth century–rickets! “It’s not unusual to see decreased Vitamin D levels in the winter,” my doctor had said. “But yours? Don’t you even step out on the porch?” All right, I guessing the LED glow from my laptop isn’t enough, so I suppose it’s supplements until the snow melts and I’m hitting the sidewalk again.

4. Plot-related Memory Loss – Has this happened to you? You’re driving along, trying to work out what exactly Protagonist A is going to leave on Protagonist B’s doorstep, and the next thing you know you’re sitting in the parking lot at work, with no idea how you got there. Or you’re in the shower and you’ve just thought of the perfect setting for your heroine’s vacation. But there’s this bottle of conditioner in your hand, and you can’t remember if you washed your hair first. Whether you’re staring at blank walls or losing threads of conversations, it’s not early dementia–it’s Plot On the Brain. And trying not to think about it only makes it worse. Better to lock yourself in the closet and get it down and over with.

5. You Do It Anyway – This I have found the most telling. You’ve written a bunch of novels, a dozen short stories, more than a few essays, innumerable blog posts, even kept a journal for more years than you’d care to own up to. And although you’ve had some limited success, though nowhere near where you’d like to see yourself, you keep doing it. You finish one piece then start another, because you know if you don’t your axis will tilt and forget the Vitamin D–you’ll feel a deficiency worse than if all the chocolate in the world suddenly disappeared. You can’t help yourself, even on the days when that rejection shows up in your inbox, you still want to do it. You’ll cry and curse and hate the world for stopping you from doing what you can’t seem to give up. But then all of a sudden that perfect line plants itself in your head, and you’re back to doing it anyway. You’re so pathetic. Maybe. Maybe not. But oh man, sometimes it’s such a bitch being us.

Okay, enough whining. Back to work.

 

normalcy

I’m not looking for the world to change overnight. But I would like a noticeable decrease in the drama. I think we’ve come pretty close to it today, and maybe a few good things will happen along the way. He’s only been in office six hours at this writing, and he’s already got us back in the Paris Accords. Plus it’ll be really nice to have a dog back in the White House, and this time we’re getting two. And I did hear a new Presidential cat is on the agenda. Even better!

Impeachment 2.0

Photo The New York Times

Last week I posted a photo of the melee going on at the Capitol during what needs to be called an Insurrection. I have no other name for it, as “protesters” don’t smash windows, beat cops, and otherwise trash a hallowed temple of our democracy. Seeing that the War of 1812 ended over 200 years ago, I couldn’t see any other reason why they’d be there. So today, Speaker Pelosi was forced again to deal with the Insurrectionist-in-Chief the only way she could, by once again impeaching him. For those who disagree, you’re welcome to your point of view. That’s what First Amendment rights are all about. What they don’t concern is yelling louder than anyone else so you can punctuate your point with violence. We are free to disagree. We are not free to endanger the rights, the lives, the liberty, and the Constitution of this country. You live here, you have to play by the rules. If you disagree, there are legal avenues you are free to explore. But your right to disagree with me ends at the point of your fist.  Because we are a republic, and we’re civilized. Right? Right?

Is it 2021 yet?

Has 2020 all been a bad dream? Or is this a reality I’ve actually been living through? I remember sitting on my sofa around mid-March, when someone on TV said we’d probably be sheltering in place for the foreseeable future. I actually laughed, finding that simply incredible. Well, it was no joke, because after a brief mirage called “summer,” we’re doing it again, and for who-knows-how-long.

And now we’ve come upon the holidays, and there’s nothing about them that seems normal. The only thing that does is the perennial hope the New Year brings, and I don’t think anyone will argue 2021 doesn’t carry extra weight. The next year carries equal measures of portent and potential, and I for one can’t wait to get on with it.

Here’s hoping it’s a good one as I remain, ever optimistic.  See you on the next calendar page.

Writing in the time of pandemic

I haven’t said much about the virus in the months that we’ve been locked down and out of our normal lives. Mostly because I’m not one to give oxygen to something so disruptive, as maybe it’s best to ignore the worst and carry on. But it has been disruptive and it has been the worst. I haven’t been on campus since Spring Break, and teaching college remotely is a bullshit substitute, long lost of it’s novelty of biz-cahz uptown and yoga pants downtown. I miss the the color and variety of campus life, I miss the one-on-one interactions with my students, I miss my zany colleagues, and let me tell you, I even long for those interminable committee meetings. (Even shrinking my Zoom screen to play “Spelling Bee” or Free Cell is dull next to inter-departmental drama.) As bad as my campus being compressed to the confines of my 10 X 12 home office, that’s not the worst. Not by a major long shot. It’s the loss of my writing mojo.

One would think with the shrinking of my social life, I’d revel in the time left over to create. That all those evenings and afternoons I spent in exterior pursuits could now be devoted to the interior ramblings of my imagination. If it only were that easy. After spending the greater part of the spring and summer polishing off and perfecting my latest novel to send it out on the market, I’ve been made painfully aware of the dismal prospects of getting it sold. One would think that editors, locked out of the offices, the cocktail parties, the author events, etc., have nothing better to do than read and revel over each and every one of our magnum opi. But let me tell you, that is an assumption I was a fool to make.  This business is tighter than ever, and with so many people self-publishing, mid-list books are no longer much of a priority. Not that I think selling isn’t still a possibility–oh don’t get me wrong. Persistence always pays out in the end. I’ve sold before, and I will sell again. But the unoccupied mind is a fertile playground for despair, and one imagines all kind of scenarios, and most of them hardly uplifting. And that wreaks havoc on creativity, especially when you’re trying to work on The Next Greatest Thing. You’d be surprised what a frenemy the Pandemic becomes, as a wholesale excuse to flee the dreaded Empty Page for Netflix. (Watched “Queen’s Gambit” in just two sittings last week!) So what does one do when the writer no longer feels like one?

You want answers? Comfort? Companionship? You’ll get none of it out of me. Well, maybe that’s not true–companionship maybe, as I have a feeling I’m not in this alone. Although most fiction writers pride themselves on the ability to build vibrant worlds out of nothing, they still need reality as an engine for creativity. And because of that, we’ve also been known to live too vividly inside our heads conjuring up all kinds of horribleness. I’ll never finish this book. Who am I to think I’m a writer? No one will ever buy this crap. If I send this out it’ll only get rejected. I have writer’s block. I’ve lost my imagination. I can’t write. I never could. I suck.

Yeah, that’s me, and I suppose that’s been you at one point or another, and never more than now. But maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves.  These are extraordinary times. I’ve even heard them compared to World War II in the sacrifices we’ve had to make, the pain we’ve had to endure, the doctors and nurses and essential workers our fighting men and women at the front. It’s hard to concentrate on fantasy when a trip to the grocery store has all the potential of making our worst nightmares come true. Maybe we need to give ourselves a break, redirect all that bad energy into good. Give grandma a phone call. Send a tray of cookies to the local ER. Drop a box of groceries at a food bank. Donate to your favorite charity.  Your writing life will come back to you. There are others whose loss is much more concrete.  In the meantime, between now and the vaccine, there’s still room enough in our heads for hope–and even perhaps a dream or two.