“Painted Ocean” by Lynette Aspey

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, April 13, 2018

Have you ever wanted to write science fiction? I have. It was always a kind of dream ambition — like other kids wanting to be rock stars, actresses, or football players. I took a creative writing course in high school, and another in college. I never really work hard at writing though. That’s what it takes, hard work. Like I said, the ambition was more of a daydream fantasy. Then in my fifties, I got serious and started an MFA degree, eventually producing about thirty short stories, and two novel drafts. I even got into Clarion West, an intensive six-weeks writing workshop for would-be science fiction writers. I had to save my vacation for years to take off that much from work.

After Clarion I went back to work and eventually stopped writing fiction. Without a class requiring me to write stories, I just didn’t. I discovered I loved writing essays. Yet, I still yearn to write fiction. It’s damn easy to write crappy fiction, and damn hard to write good fiction. Also, there is something psychological to fiction writing that I haven’t worked out yet.

Clarion West was a significant experience. Going to Seattle for Clarion West was especially interesting because I got to meet sixteen other people with that same daydream. Most of my classmates were young, in their twenties, a few in their thirties, and three of us old guys who were just into our fifties. I guess some dreams never die, no matter how old you get.

Writing fiction is hard because good fiction blends real-life experiences into made-up stories. And with science fiction, you have to speculate about possibilities that could exist, but don’t. The best fiction mixes in philosophical insight with artistic creativity. And like they taught us at Clarion West, good writing is the accumulation of significant details.

Lynette AspeyLynette Aspey was one of my classmates at Clarion West in 2002. I just read her new story “Painted Ocean” and started thinking about Clarion again, my time in Seattle, and what it means to write fiction. Her story is an excellent example of all the elements of why I wanted to write fiction.

Sixteen years ago, seventeen of us hope-to-be SF writers moved into a twelveth floor dorm for those six-weeks, attending writing lectures and critiques Monday through Friday. Our teachers changed every week. They were Kathleen Alcalá, Pat Cadigan, John Crowley, Gardner Dozois, Joe and Gay Halderman, and Paul Park. We also had special guest authors visit us on the weekends (Octavia Butler, China Miéville, Lucius Shepard) and we attended local science fiction parties getting to meet even more writers. It was an immersive experience.

We asked Gardner Dozois how many Clarion West students went on to publish science fiction. Gardner told us he expected a few of us to get published in a couple years and a few more five to ten years after that. That scared some of us. Lyn got a story, “Sleeping Dragons” accepted by Asimov’s Science Fiction and published in September 2004. I thought for sure I’d be reading a lot of her work soon. That didn’t happen. Several of my classmates went on to publish stories and novels. I didn’t. Gardner was right.

Lyn, her husband, and the daughter she was pregnant with at Clarion West became world travelers, lived in the Carribean for years, did a lot of sailing on a 43-foot ketch, including crossing the Atlantic. Lyn lived the adventures most people just read about. I was always envious of her because I love to read about people sailing around the world. I hoped she’d eventually write a nonfiction memoir about her life on the ocean. “Painted Ocean” is fiction, but does contain a lot sailing images and details.

Aurealis-109-cover-Space-landscape-683x1024

Recently, I’ve been hearing from Lyn on Facebook, where some of our 2002 alumni occasional post. She’s back living on land, in Australia, and writing stories again. Her new story “Painted Ocean” was published in Aurealis #109, a science fiction magazine from down under. Unfortunately, I can’t give you a link to read it online. I bought a copy of Aurealis #109 for $2.99 through Smashwords. I wished it had been on sale at Amazon for the Kindle because that’s the ebook platform I’m locked into. However, this situation has taught me how to deal with non-Kindle ebooks. Smashwords offers its downloads in several ebook formats, and I put a pdf copy on my Dropbox to read with my iPad. In the last couple of months, I’ve bought three books from non-Amazon sources. I think it’s important we support these alternative publishing platforms.

As I read “Painted Ocean” I was amazed by how good a writer Lyn has become, even after laying off for all those years. On her blog, she wrote, “A long time in the making …” about the writing of “Painted Ocean.” Go read it, especially if you want to become a writer. She says this story was started the Joe Haldeman week at Clarion West, but I did not remember it. To be honest, I don’t even remember my six stories. Each week we read and critiqued 17 stories. Lyn says Haldeman told us to write something hard.

“Painted Ocean” is an ambitious story. It blends AI, simulated reality, sailing, climate change, betrayal, and the love story of two older people. There is also a lot of allusions to the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, evidently a favorite poet of Lyn’s.

As I read about Annie Janssen, a woman with her gray hair in a bun and a brilliant hacker, I wondered if Lyn had created Annie by projecting her own self into the future. Reading her blog after finishing the story, it let me know she had read there weren’t many older female protagonists, so that challenge inspired her. Theodore Janssen is based on Lyn’s father, who had died seven years before Lyn attended Clarion West. Theo is trapped in an artificial reality on a sailboat name SaltTrader:

As Storm lashed out in fury, Theo’s yacht coalesced; broken pieces fitting together like a movie played backwards. The cockpit rebuilt itself around him, the decks with their fittings, the mast, boom and shrouds. Theo heard the rapid ching-ching of halyards hitting steel and, finally, her tattered sails came together like a soul re-knit.

SaltTreader heeled violently as the wind snagged her sails: a call to action.
Jumping forward, Theo released the mainsheet, spilling the wind in the mainsail. The sudden release of pressure brought SaltTreader upright. Her unrestrained boom swung dangerously but Theo was already at the mast, releasing the mainsail’s uphaul and letting the heavy layers of canvas drop to the deck where the wind clawed at but couldn’t fill them.

The foresail backed, bringing SaltTreader’s bow about. Just as she pointed into the wind, Theo released the foresail’s uphaul so that the sail could drop down the forestay, and raced to the bow.

He wrestled the heavy, flapping canvas as if it were a beast until it finally fell, defeated, to the deck. The well-worn ties that Theo always left in position on the guardrail for just this purpose re-materialised. He quickly secured the big foresail before scrambling back to the mast to begin tying down the mainsail.

SaltTreader wallowed dangerously.

Without the time to go below and find the tiny scrap of sail he used as a stormsail, Theo thought it on.

Storm howled. A powerful gust pinned him to the deck.

Using that power, Theo realised, was the equivalent of leaving an error message in the code.

But that little scrap of sail made all the difference. SaltTreader heeled and the wind drew her up the waves.

With the canvas secure, the banging and flogging abruptly disappeared. Now he could hear the hiss of breaking seas and the whine as wind whipped through his rigging, but she crested another mountainous wave. Theo became the master of his vessel once again.

The action of the story switches from the real world to the artificial world. “Storm” is the rogue AI which has gained control of a vast system of weather monitoring and controlling computers. Annie is on the outside, and what’s left of Theo’s personality is on the inside. Annie communicates with Theo with Coleridge like imagery.

Throughout the story, I wonder what is personal to Lyn’s life, what is science fiction, what is remembered from her sailing experiences, and what comes from her fears of the future. All of this wondering, and thinking about story construction makes me think about trying to write fiction again. So, Lyn, thanks for reminding me of old desires.

I really enjoyed reading Lyn’s story and her essay about writing it. Essay writing is all about describing real events, thoughts, concepts, and capturing them honestly as possible. Fiction goes into another realm. I’ve been thinking more about that realm again. I wonder how many of the Clarion West classmates still think about it too.

JWH

Writing Goals at Age 66

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Writing is focusing thoughts. Herding your thoughts into an essay reveals the chaos of thinking. When I was young I wanted to be a science fiction writer but that was not meant to be. Now that I’m retired writing is the hobby that keeps me sane. It’s vitally important to have at least one hobby when retired because the purposelessness of waiting to die can get existentially challenging.

fountain pen

Having goals in the last third of life can be tricky. The primary goal when aging is staying healthy. Working at maintaining health can be both time-consuming and energy draining. Any other ambitions depend on mental and physical vitality. Some days my batteries are so low all I can do is daydream and listen to music. But when I do have extra energy I want to make the most of it, and that means writing.

When I first retired in 2013 I had a long list of hobbies I wanted to pursue. I’ve since learned I can only get better at one skill. I can piddle around with many interests, but if I want to see actual progress requires focusing on what I know best. Because I’ve stuck with it, that’s writing. However, at 66 my writing ambitions are tiny compared to what huge dreams I had in my twenties. Anyone young reading this essay should heed this advice: Do it now.

I’ve written over 1,500 essays in the last ten years, and most of that was piano practice. I’ve improved but my progress has been slow. Theoretically, there are magnitudes of possible improvements left to achieve, but it all depends on my health. Realistically, I know I’m not going to start pounding out bestselling novels. I have to match my goals to my vitality.

For years, I’ve been content with blogging and writing for a few other websites. I’ve recently started a new series, “Reading the Pulps” at Worlds Without End that’s got me excited. On the other hand, my efforts for Book Riot have declined as I’ve realized my perspectives might not be suited for a site where the readers are so young and mostly female. For the last few months, I’ve struggled to find something to say that would appeal to that audience. That struggle has led me once again to think about my writing goals.

Writing for this blog is easy, maybe too easy, and not challenging enough. Writing for another site requires thinking about the audience. This blog allows me to write anything I want. I write to please myself. I’m happy if others want to read it, and I try hard to make it read-worthy, but its primary purpose is to let me think out loud while practicing my writing skills. My goal has always been to write at least two essays a week for this site.

When I write for another site I realize I have to write content that helps that site achieve its goals. Other websites build audiences to make money. Their readers want reading satisfaction or they won’t return. My job as a content provider is to be so useful that readers will remember and keep coming back.

Book Riot makes money by showing ads or getting readers to buy books from an Amazon affiliate link. It takes a lot of page hits to make money from ad views. It’s faster to make money from link sales. Thus, my essays need to be either very positive about books or about something that inspires many page views. I know how well I’m doing because I’m paid a portion of what the page makes. I’m not making that much, so Book Riot isn’t making that much off of me. One writing goal I’m considering is to write something more appealing to their audience. This has become hard, but I haven’t given up completely. I love the challenge. I contracted to write two essays a month for Book Riot but I’m not sure I can keep that up for a third year. It would help if I could find an ongoing gimmick or angle.

Worlds Without End is slightly different. Right now it’s mostly a database system for readers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror to find new books to read. WWEnd’s appeal is seeing how many books you’ve read on over fifty notable lists. It’s quite fun to use but users tend to come use the database for a while and not come back. The creators of WWEnd want to attract a community of fans that routinely participate in a growing list of new features. They want content contributors like me to help attract science fiction fans to that community. Like Book Riot, WWEnd’s audience is hardcore bookworms, but the age and gender demographics are wider. They do narrow reader interest to the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres, and science fiction is my main interest.

Most people who write about books write about new books. I’m more interested in old books. That limits the appeal of my essays. Currently, I’m having a lot of fun writing about stories that came out of the pulp magazines in the 1930s and 1940s. I have no idea how many readers are interested in that topic. (It’s pretty damn narrow, don’t you think?) However, one of my sub-goals is to get better at writing about the details of history, even if its a very tiny slice of history. That involves a lot more research. Lucky for me, that research coincides with what I love reading at the moment. I’m actually quite anxious to write two essays a week for this project.

If you’ve mentally kept a tally, you know I’m committing myself to 4.5 essays a week. I can actually do that if my health holds up. On bad weeks I’ll be behind 4.5 essays. However, I have two more goals. I want to try writing fiction again. Just short stories, but even that is probably way too ambitious. I have thousands of hours of momentum behind essay writing, but except for thirty unpublished short stories and two novel attempts from about twenty years ago, I have little experience writing fiction.

Writing fiction might always be a pipedream for me. However, I’m mostly reading short stories these days and that’s making me want to try writing one too. I think this goal goes beyond the limits of health. I’m finding it extremely difficult to start a new discipline as I get older. I feel like a fish in an aquarium. I’m reminded of my all-time favorite short work of science fiction, “The Star Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. It’s a story about limitations. Delany was a young black man becoming a writer in the 1960s, so he knew all about overcoming limitations. You can read it here.

My last goal, and probably the least obtainable of all is to write a book about science fiction. There are countless books about science fiction and few people read them. I believe I have a unique slant on the subject. Mentally, I can’t imagine working on a project as large as a book, but I can imagine writing fifty blog essays. Each essay could be a chapter in a book. If I added one more essay to my weekly goal I could finish a book size project in one year.

There is a reality to making plans in the last third of life. We’re on a downward slope, and it’s hard to plan for erratic ever-shrinking vitality. In the first third of life, it feels like we have unlimited potential. Even in our middle work years we still feel we could do more if we could only find the free time. But now that I have all my time free I’ve discovered it’s not all useful time. Sixteen hours a day does not equal sixteen hours I can apply myself.

There’s one last factor. I think it’s age-related. The desire to make an effort. That desire fades more and more as I get older. Often now I tell myself I should be doing something and I mentally reply that I don’t want to. It’s so pleasant to just sit and daydream, or hang with friends, or read a book, or watch television, or listen to music.

The sirens of small pleasures are more alluring than ever.

JWH

 

 

 

What Writers Influenced Heinlein, Twain, Kerouac, PKD, and Alcott?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, January 29, 2018

I need some help. I’m trying to find out what writers influenced Robert A. Heinlein, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Philip K. Dick, and Louisa May Alcott. Bookworms love to talk about their favorite authors, but do we ever research our favorite writers’ writers? I especially want to know what they read before their first successful books.

5-authors

I believe much of my thinking was shaped by what I read. The five writers above are the authors I’ve read about the most. I’ve read many books about each of them. I don’t necessarily mean these are my favorite authors, but their lives have become compelling reading for me. I even wrote about these writers before in “The Ghosts That Haunt Me.” My poor memory has not retained exact details from their biographies. I do have some vague memories of what they read, but instead of spending a lot of time rereading those biographies I thought I’d post a query here. I assume some of y’all might know a lot about these writers.

The writer I remember best talking about the books that influenced him was Heinlein. He often mentioned H. G. Wells and James Branch Cabell. But then, Heinlein wrote a book Job: A Comedy of Justice (1984) which riffs off of Cabell’s Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice (1919). I also have to assume Heinlein loved Edgar Rice Burroughs and L. Frank Baum because of The Number of the Beast and his other “World as Myth” multiverse novels. Finally, I also have to assume Heinlein loved Jerome K. Jerome, because he includes references to Three Men in a Boat in my favorite Heinlein story, Have Space Suit-Will Travel. But this is a lot of assumptions. Does anyone know different about Heinlein? I have to wonder if Heinlein was influenced by Upton Sinclair or Ayn Rand.

Philip K. Dick is even harder. PKD was a voracious reader. My friend Mike found “List of Influences on Philip K. Dick” for me, but I’m not sure I trust it. The list cites quotes from Dick, but it seems like he’s putting on airs. I can believe A. E. van Vogt, because van Vogt was a major science fiction writer when Dick was growing up. And I might buy “The novels that influenced my writing when I was in my late teens and early twenties, were the French realistic novels…Flaubert, Stendahl, Balzac, et al…” because he mentions them more than once. And I can readily believe “I liked the short stories of James T. Farrell very much. They had a tremendous influence on me in the short story form” because of PKD’s short stories. He also said, “I was very very very influenced by Nathaniel West for a while…” which I can believe because I’ve read West. But why doesn’t he mention more science fiction writers since he wrote so much science fiction?  If you know more about what PKD read let me know.

I just can’t remember anything about Twain’s reading. Since he was born in 1835, his formative reading years would have been the late 1840s and 1850s. I know he skewered a lot of writers like James Fenimore Cooper. I don’t think Twain and Alcott liked each others’ work. We might assume Twain admired satirical writers like Swift, but I haven’t found anything to verify that. Alcott grew up knowing Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne, but did they influence her? She loved the pulp fiction of her day.

I’ve read many biographies on Kerouac and I think I remember him liking Proust, Thomas Wolfe, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. Again, I’m not sure. I can’t imagine Kerouac not being influenced by Ernest Hemingway and Joyce. Wasn’t the Beat Generation in reaction to the Lost Generation?

Searching Google for these answers is annoying. I have to constantly rephrase my query. When I finally asked: “What books did Jack Kerouac love to read?” I got Kerouac’s Top 40. But most of the other results were about the books Kerouac wrote. The same search didn’t work for the other writers.

I’m hoping this will reach fans of these writers and you might know what I want to know. Please leave a comment if you do. Thanks.

JWH

Creative Blogging

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, January 7, 2018

Events in my life are leading to a perfect storm for writing about blogging. I’ve been discussing blogging with my friend Laurie who is a professor of reading. She plans to include blogging in a course she’ll teach this spring. Laurie introduced me to the idea of multi-genre research papers, which is an alternative to the five-paragraph essay used in high schools. She was asking me about blogging because she wanted her students to use a blog for their progress reports. When I heard the concept of multi-genre writing I immediately thought of blogging because blogging is at heart multi-genre, or at least in the way these academics are defining the term. Blogging is both multi-media and multi-genre. I’ve been trying to convince Laurie that her students’ multi-genre research papers should be blogged.

Michel_de_Montaigne

Concurrent with this I’m reading for my nonfiction book club How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell. Michel de Montaigne is legendary for developing the personal essay, and he has inspired countless readers and writers for centuries. Montaigne should be considered the Patron Saint of Bloggers. Montaigne retired early and became a contemplative, developing a personal philosophy by writing about his experiences. [Here’s an excellent essay, “Translating Montaigne” to help you find a copy of his work to read.]

And I just got The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker. Pinker is a cognitive scientist and approaches writing and grammar through studying how the brain works at communication. Pinker realizes that we all read and write differently since we’ve all moved online. I’m anxious to dive into this book because I want to scientifically and systematically improve my blog writing.

Then there’s the book I read last year, The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. She combines teaching writing with understanding memory. Writing the personal essay is all about recalling details when our brains are very poor at remembering. We constantly trick, lie, and delude ourselves, and learning why is both psychologically rewarding and artistically challenging. Contemplating the limits of memory is a fantastic tool for understanding how to write.

I’ve written two essays recently about blogging, “Blogging in the Classroom” and “Using Blogging to Accelerate Learning.” What I’m advocating is we start requiring children to blog their school work to teach them about reading, writing, memory, thinking, and history. Essentially what I’m asking is everyone become a Michel de Montaigne to write their personal history. I also expect them to be historians, teachers, preachers, scientists, philosophers, naturalists, and so on, to write about the world at large too. For example, here is Peter Webscott’s “Reading the world – visiting Montaigne’s Tower.” It is an example of a multi-genre essay about visiting Montaigne’s house. This kind of writing is how we should explore our personal experiences and thoughts, and blogging is how we can save those insights for a lifetime.

Creative blogging should be our tool to write our autobiography, one that is preserved, even after we die. Creative blogging is how we should communicate our deepest thoughts to our family and friends. Only the closest people to you will ever take the time to read your blog. Learning who they are is revealing. Blogging has the beautiful side-effect of showing which of our interests bores other people. That will probably scare you. Learning to know what you care about most and how much your friends and family care about what’s important to you is quite enlightening. It teaches how you are unique. It also teaches you how you overlap with other people, and that’s the key to friendships.

I also wrote this a couple years ago, “77 Things I Learned From Writing 1,000 Blog Essays.” Strangely, painful truths are wonderfully educational. I could probably come up with 177 things I’ve learned from blogging today. It keeps growing.

JWH

Using Blogging to Accelerate Learning

by James Wallace Harris, Sunday, December 31, 2017

Last week I wrote “Blogging in the Classroom” but I don’t think I got my intended idea across. I’m going to try again. It’s been almost 60 years since I first learned to read and write. I imagine those skills are taught very differently today. And to be honest, I’m quite ignorant about what happens in 21st-century classrooms. That means my suggestions below could be completely impractical. However, I read several articles a day in The New York Times and Flipboard and often they are about the problems of education. Everyone wants to solve this problem, including me.

blogging in the classroom 2

I am very fond of thought experiments. I love exploring “If I knew then what I know now.” I also love applying technology to problems, including social problems. What inspired my previous essay was “What if I had started blogging when I first learned to read and write back in the late 1950s?” I further refined that thought experiment to include: “What if all kids had to blog their homework, book reports, tests, papers, essays, etc. whenever they wrote something for their teacher that work was open to everyone in the class to read?” My theory was peer pressure would have made me try much harder. And I would have loved having a history of my educational progress. But I’m not sure if that essay got at the heart of what I was thinking. I thought I’d rewrite it and make my intent clearer. (Notice that I’m using blogging to improve my writing, self-expression, and how I organize and present my thoughts.)

A subset of educational goals includes:

  • Getting students to become expert readers
  • Getting students to become expert writers
  • Getting students to master grammar, rhetoric, and logic
  • Getting students to think for themselves
  • Getting students to communicate abstract concepts clearly
  • Getting students to learn on their own
  • Getting students to learn how to teach others

Generally, this is done by a top-down teacher-student relationship. In modern times we work to get students to work cooperatively but the real focus is grades and test scores. Basically, we shovel knowledge at kids and then test them from time to time to see how much they retain. The reason I never liked school, nor was a good student, is because I never felt involved in the process. I never saw why I should cooperate with the educational system. Years later I learned why, but not while I was in school. And pleasing teachers or my parents was never an issue with me. I never had a mentor nor did my parents try to mentor me. I don’t know what percentage of students are like me, but what I’m going to suggest could motivate such kids.

Education has a lot of problems, mostly stemming from declining budgets and political attacks on the system. Plus, we expect children to learn too much. And we’re constantly trying to find one pedagogy that succeeds with all students. Then there’s the problem that we’re constantly experimenting without real evidence. And we throw way too much technology at the problem. Thus, I know what I’m suggesting is probably unwise. However, I would like to see more experiments with basic reading, writing, math, and science. I’m suggesting we use technology to do this. My whole experiment could be refashioned to use only paper and pencils but it would be slower. Humans have developed a symbiosis with computers and I think we need to accept that.

I believe the wild success of social media tells us a lot about educational psychology. We want to communicate. We want to be understood. We want acceptance. We want to be involved with other people with similar interests. For a planet with an overpopulation problem, too many people are lonely. We have a governmental system based on democracy, but we can’t reach any significant levels of agreement. And too much of our social interaction is based on anger, resentment, hatred, and that’s leading to more and more violence. We’re confrontational rather than cooperative. We’re narrow-minded rather than broadminded. We can only see our self-centered needs rather than empathetically understanding the needs of others. And most people have a poor grasp of reality, prone to embracing delusions.

What I propose is we switch students from handing in schoolwork to the teacher via paper and email, and instead post to their blog so that it’s public. I believe learning to read and write based on our fellow students’ efforts will improve our own and make us better human beings. Students should own their own blogs and not use school supplied blogging software. If students used their own blogs they’d be documenting their educational development for life. Students should sign up with WordPress, Blogger, or other international services and give their URLs to their teachers. Teachers should publish these links to all their students and require their students to read and comment on each other’s work.

All too often using blogging in the classroom is about teaching blogging. That by itself is of little educational value. Just another trendy effort to promote technology in schools. What I’m suggesting is teachers require students to take tests, do homework, write reports, all on their blogs, with the results be public. Grading can be private but I’m not sure if it’s even needed. Grades and standardized tests rank students unfairly and inaccurately, so why bother? What we really want is for each student to be the best person they can be by teaching every student that people have different talents and lack of talents. Failing at math doesn’t make you a dummy. It either means you lack a mental facility for math or you aren’t trying hard enough. Learning the limits of either is very important. Seeing how other people work will teach you about your own limitations and how to improve your best skills. We need to embrace the theory of multiple intelligences and recognize we’re not going to be great at all of them.

What we really want is for students to search for their talents and improve them. We want to teach them generalized learning skills that can be applied to any subject, talent, or endeavor. And I believe blogging can help do this. Peer pressure is very powerful. It can be cruel, but it can also be inspirational. If 25 students read what their 24 fellow students were doing it would show them far more possibilities than what one teacher can show them. We need to grow up knowing how other people think rather than constantly trying to figure out how to think for a test.

Let’s use an example. Let’s imagine the teacher posts this question on Friday afternoon: “Why did American go to the Moon in the 1960s?” When students first try this system, most will go to Wikipedia and write up a summary. On Monday the teacher can assign everyone to read everyone else’s essays and discuss the results. The teacher can show how easy efforts lead to simple thinking. The teacher can ask the students to look for unique or deeper interpretations. The teacher can guide the discussion about common ideas and dissenting opinions. The teacher can then assign the students to write another essay challenging students to find source material that no other student is likely to find. The teacher can tell the students to seek out complex and multi-plex explanations.

The goal of this assignment is to teach research and writing history. With every assignment, the goals of improving reading and writing will be involved. We will also be promoting thinking and writing clearly. Students will be encouraged to use statistics and infographics. Students will be encouraged to analyze each other’s motive for expressing a point-of-view. Students will be encouraged to debate each other’s results. Students will be encouraged to combine their research and collaborate. Students should be encouraged to find consensus they can agree upon, but with everyone playing the devil’s advocate. We need to teach about fake and false information. We also need to teach students how not to be intellectual bullies, trolls, and assholes.

Then the teacher should assign their students to write yet another version of this essay so that it competes and encompasses the results of the other students. The teacher should encourage students to write their best version — the one they want the world to read. Most writing classes I’ve taken only urge students to submit one draft. It’s very important to teach students to go through multiple drafts.

Students should be encouraged to critique each other’s writing but taught how to do it kindly. The goal is for each student is to have 25 mentors (24 fellow students and 1 teacher).

Blogging is hard and time-consuming, so I don’t know how practical it is to integrate into a standard curriculum. However, I do believe the 10,000-hour rule applies here. I would suggest one hour a day of essay writing and a couple hours a week reading/critiquing other students’ work. That should accumulate 10,000 hours from grade 3 to grade 12. If computers are available in the classroom I’d recommend typing in tests and other schoolwork and sometimes spending time on discussing other students’ work. A major educational goal is to learn how other people think through reading their work and how to think clearly yourself by writing for others.

Mastering typing and software tools lead to much faster writing and rewriting. I would allow grammar and spelling checkers because they constantly nag writers to improve on the basics. Using them are almost like playing video games because you want to beat them.

JWH

(Goodby 2017 – Hello 2018)

Blogging in the Classroom

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 23, 2017

My friend Laurie who is a professor of reading at a college of education told me she is going to teach a course using blogging as a teaching tool. I found that fascinating. I’ve done a little research on Google and see that there are special blogging platforms for teaching, so the idea is catching on. This backs up a pet theory I’ve had for years. As a kid, I wasn’t much of a student. One of my worse habits was doing exams and papers as fast as I could and then turning them in without double checking my work. If I had only taken the time to reread what I wrote I could have probably changed my mostly C+ grades to B+. For a long time, I’ve thought if they made kids begin blogging in elementary school it would improve their writing and test-taking skills for their rest of their lives.

blogging in the classroom

Knowing that only teachers would see my work meant I didn’t have to try hard because I didn’t care about what teachers thought. Back then, if I knew other kids might see what I wrote I would have tried harder because peer pressure did matter. This is why I think blogging could be a great teaching tool. If kids knew their friends would read their essays I think they’d try a lot harder.

Now we have a system that protects young egos. Children are vicious with each other. So we make schoolwork private between student and teacher. I can understand that, but I wonder if we’re making a mistake. If we want students to learn to write clearly maybe some of their work should be public. Blogging might be a way to start.

Blogging can be private. Teaching portals can set up blogs to be private between student teacher, public to just the classroom, or public to the world. There are endless reasons to blog, in or out of the classroom. One very important reason is to preserve a personal history. If everyone started blogging when they learned to read or write they’d have a history of their life from around age seven. My father died when I was eighteen and I never really knew him. I’ve often wished that blogging had existed back in the 1920s and I could have inherited his blog. I also wish I had a history of my own early life. But I also think blogging would have made me more self-reflective and concerned about my education if I had started at an early age.

Blogging in the classroom could cause all kinds of important changes in society. We don’t emphasize writing in our culture nearly as much as reading, and that’s unfortunate. Education is focused on learning and not communication. We force kids to sit for years so we can fill them up with knowledge, but we give them little chance of expressing themselves. The rise of the internet is showing how billions of people think, and it’s not pretty. Self-expression on the internet often reveals crude skills of exclaiming emotions (usually rage), but not logical thinking or the ability to cooperatively communicate.

This is why I wonder if forcing kids to interact with their peers via blogging from an early age wouldn’t initiate positive changes. Sure, it might open Pandora’s Box, which is what we’re seeing on the internet today with all the hateful tweets and comments, but if we started sooner and trained children to study their thoughts, organize their observations, write clearly, decode how others think, and to compassionately communicate, it could be different.

I took up blogging in my late fifties. It’s given me a great retirement hobby, plus I’m learning to write and think better at a time when my mind would normally be in decline. I believe I would have been a superior K-12 student, and thus a superior college student if I had started blogging right after I learned to write. I believe I would have tried harder knowing my friends could read what I wrote. I also believe that writing more would have helped me learn more. If I had been taught to explain how things worked through writing I would have learned more from my lessons. Blogging could be a way to teach kids to teach and that’s a great way to learn.

For this to work, we’d have to overcome a lot of obstacles. Most children and adults are embarrassed to let others see their intellectual abilities. It’s like undressing our minds. We’d need to teach kids how to protect their privacy and create their public persona. Most people don’t seem to realize their inner thoughts are already expressed in what they say and do. Children often worry more about what they wear and own than what they say or how they behave. If blogging was required in schools, and part of their schoolwork was public, it might make students more reflective about their thinking and how it impacts others. For example, if school bullies read posts by their victims and how bystanders see their bullying would they change their behavior? I don’t know.

I am constantly reminded of a novel, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. It’s a story of family tragedies, tragedies that could have been avoided if each member of the family would have expressed their thoughts.

I can imagine endless ways in which blogging could be applied to teaching. Currently, we have teachers teachings and students taking tests to prove they’ve paid attention. What if we required students to spend more time teaching? Because blogs can contain multimedia, we could ask students to teach topics on their blogs using whatever media they wanted. I often have to research and study a topic when I write about it on my blog. That makes me realize that I’m my most important reader because I discover how little I know and how much I learn from working on the post.

I also learn how bad I write by using tools like Grammarly and Readable.io. Writing on a blog is like playing a video game, I’m always trying to better my own scores. And I like when I get good comments, not praise, but insights, because learning how other people think teaches me how narrowly I see things. Even when I get hateful rants it teaches me my views are far from universal. I think students could benefit knowing more about how their classmates think and feel, even when it stings.

I wish I had started blogging when I learned to write so I would have a record of all my school years. I wish I had taken a photograph of every classmate and teacher. I wish I had taken a photograph of every classroom and school. I wish I had taken a photograph of every playground and walk to school. I wish I had written about everything that excited me and scared me. I hate that I can’t remember or visualize all those people and places.

Because of this wish, I would recommend teachers have students sign up with an international blogging site that would stay in business the rest of their lives. They need to promote lifelong blogging to preserve memories. It won’t hurt to have a permanent personal blog and classroom blog for a year if that’s needed.

We might be protecting kids too much by letting them hide from criticism. I think teachers need to think hard about whether to let student blogs be public because some children will suffer emotional damage. But on the other hand, it might help them in the long run. It’s like parents who homeschool their kids for years to protect them. In the end, their kids have to interact with society and it’s usually much harder.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

Looking Forwards v. Looking Backwards

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Do you read books about the past, or about now, or the future?

Our Nig by Harriet WilsonThis morning I started work on an essay about African-American fiction in the 19th century. It began with a question that had popped into my head: “Who was the first black novelist in our country?” This kind of fun sleuthing on the internet inspires me to write essays. I quickly came across articles about how Henry Louis Gates, Jr. had discovered a long forgotten book in the early 1980s called Our Nig; or, Sketches From the Life of a Free Black (1859) by Harriet Wilson. That made me want to research a number of other things. Have earlier novels been uncovered since? What were the second, third, fourth, fifth novels? What about short stories? Were any bestsellers in their day. Before long I realized I could spend weeks on this project.

Men-Into-SpaceI usually think of several ideas a day for researching and writing. I start work on just a fraction of these ideas, and complete work on damn few. Another idea I got yesterday was to write about Men Into Space, a one-season TV show of 38-episodes (1959-60) that worked to be very realistic about space flight. A lady in my online book club mentioned it and I was surprised I hadn’t known about it before now. It’s not available on DVD except as DVD-R sales through places like eBay (because it’s in the public domain). It is available to watch online at YouTube. However, I did find a book, Men Into Space by John C. Fredriksen that extensively writes about the series. I’d love to write a book like this – if I could focus my mind for a year or two.

The Spacesuit Film - A History 1918-1969 by Gary WestfahlWhile researching Men Into Space I came across another book The Spacesuit Film: A History 1918-1969 by Gary Westfahl that covered Men Into Space as well as other movies and television shows that prefigured the space age. Hell, this exactly the kind of book I’d love to write too. But can you imagine the time it would take? But wouldn’t it be fun to watch all those old movies and television shows analyzing them for how they imagined the future? However, how many people read such books? I want to, but the $39.95 price for the paperback stops me. Even the $19.99 price for the Kindle edition is making me think long and hard.

This suggests another idea for researching. How many people buy and read these esoteric kinds of history books? How many people love to study tiny segments of forgotten history? I have this nagging desire to write something longer than blog essays. This month was supposed to be the month I began a book-length project. And I did start on an idea, but once again got side-tracked by too many distractions. But I’m back to focusing my mind on the project.

I have to ask myself, who is going to read what I write and why? Why spend a year, or several, writing something few people will want to read? It occurred to me this morning I could divide books into three categories: about the past, about the present, about the future. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction.

To Be A Machine by Mark O'ConnellI’ve always loved science fiction, which is future-oriented. But when I think about writing about science fiction, that’s past-oriented. Because I write for Book Riot, I can also write about contemporary publishing. I even think about writing books like To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death by Mark O’Connell, which is essentially about how science fiction is affecting our world today.

I also came across this pledge drive for Farah Mendlesohn yesterday. She is writing a book about Robert A. Heinlein and is looking for backers. She’s gotten 143 supportors so far. This is also exactly the kind of book I’d love to write – but is that the rough number of people who would be interested in reading it?

I’m now worrying that I’m spending too much time thinking about the past. Is that because I’m getting older and it’s natural for aging folks to analyze yesterday? I assume that many people who like my blog do so because they are somewhat like me – they are older and thinking about when they grew up, and we all loved some of the same things.

I believe my less popular essays at Book Riot are due to writing about topics that bore their demographic readership, which tilts young and female. This makes me wonder if I should accept that I like to write about things that appeal to a subset of aging baby boomers, or if I should work to write about topics that have a wider appeal across different age groups.

My guess is writing about contemporary subjects or about the future has more universal appeal. I wonder if writing about today or tomorrow isn’t more psychologically positive for both me and readers. But I’m so fascinated by the past, especially esoteric subjects.

I’m currently reading The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman about Paul Erdős, a brilliant mathematician, and The Five Gospels, about the Jesus Seminar, a group of scholars who work to figure out what the historical Jesus actually said. Both of these books are intensely fascinating. Both of these books are about the past and have little relevance to today or tomorrow.

I have to wonder if I’ve given up on tomorrow because I don’t have much hope for the future, either for myself, or the planet, and I’m finding pleasure and meaning by exploring the past.

I’ve always loved science fiction but when I read science fiction today I’m usually very critical of works that are based on unrealistic ideas. I don’t believe in all those far out futures like I used to. As a writing challenge maybe I should work to write about positive futures that could be realistic, ones we can hope to find. Yet, my most popular essay ever is, “50 Reasons Why Humans Are Too Stupid To Survive.” Gloom and doom does sell. Hell, the TV shows my friends and I binge-watch focus on awful people and horrible events.

Writing is about focus. Writing a book is about intense focus over a great time span. I’m wondering if choosing to write about the past isn’t a way of escaping the present or future? I also wonder if writing about the future isn’t a way to give myself hope for tomorrow?

Maybe you can’t relate to this topic because it’s about writing. Think of it this way. Do you love watching old movies and television shows, or new ones? Do you listen to old music or new music? If you’re mentally young, no matter what your age is, you’ll be enjoying whatever is new.

I’m being more and more drawn into the past. 1950s movie westerns, mid-20th-century written science fiction, 1960s romantic movie comedies, 19th-century novels, 1950s jazz, 1940s film noir, 1920s modernistic literature, Victorian scientific romances, etc. Growing up, I always thought about the future…

JWH