R.S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Tag: Teaching

Notes from the Past

Twenty-three years ago today, I sat in a University of Georgia classroom taking brief end-of-term notes on final portfolio requirements. The seminar instructor, Dr. Christy Desmet, remains one of my all-time favorite professors.

No, I don’t know how I managed to save this notebook for over two decades.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Last Day of School, 1981

On this day in 1981, I finished 1st grade.

Last summer, my mother found in her attic this worn, yellowed sheet of Blue Horse tablet paper. I’m not sure how it survived 37 years of moves, heat, and humidity. Check out the black Sharpie smiley-face at upper right. Somehow, Mrs. Reba Taylor even managed to check everyone’s work before first-grade cookout pandemonium descended upon her classroom.

Friday, May 29, 1981
Today is the very last day of this school year. We are going to have a cookout to celebrate. I hope all of you have a nice summer!

At first, I thought the oversized-pencil handwriting was my sister’s. It looks like the pre-3rd-grade-cursive, little-kid version of her grown-up print penmanship. But Val reminded me that in 1981 she hadn’t yet learned to write, and wouldn’t until the fall of that year.

This is unexpected. It’s also the cutest thing I’ve seen in a long time.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wherever Someone’s in Need

Three years ago today, I submitted final grades for the last time—and, to celebrate, posted on Facebook this photo of my 1960s neon Pabst Blue Ribbon bar sign. While I miss my former students, my friends, and the steady (if small) paychecks, I don’t miss teaching. At all. Ever.

In some ways, though, I’m still teaching. For example: Most of this week has seen me helping people figure out how to do the things that confuse or frighten them—and figure it out through writing. I’ve helped people’s ideas take shape on the printed page, whether in plain text or as part of a graphic layout. I’ve talked people through the stories they’re afraid to write, when their dreams literally point them toward taking greater creative risks. In a sea of disinformation, I’ve helped people find the knowledge they need to make hard decisions.

In 2015, I walked out of the classroom, and I haven’t looked back. But when I think about my own writing, and how I’ve used what I know to help others, I know that the classroom isn’t always in a school building. The classroom is wherever someone’s in need.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Can I See a Doctor’s Note?

Here’s another story from my many years of teaching college English. I wrote it down a decade ago, and somehow forgot about it until just the other day.

*****

My morning class was finishing an in-class practice essay. One by one, the students completed their essays and walked to the front of the room to turn in their papers. After they’d handed me their practice essays, they were free to leave.

One fellow, smelling of cigarette smoke and some kind of antiseptic, made his way up to where I was sitting. He folded his paper in half lengthwise, handed it to me, and gave me a sheepish little smile. “Just wanted to warn you: that’s probably not very good,” he said, motioning toward his paper on the top of the stack.

Writing students say things like this all the time. “No worries. That’s what this class is for,” I said. “We have individual conferences next week. That way, we can sit down and talk about any essay problems you’re having.”

“Well, no, that’s not it,” he said. He reached under his FREE MARY JANE trucker hat to scratch his head. “I, uhh—well, I spent all weekend in the hospital.”

“Oh no! I’m sorry to hear that! Are you all right now?”

He paused, and grinned again. “Well enough, I guess.” A long pause. “It was, umm, ya know—” He made the motion of turning up a bottle to his mouth. “A little too much, ya know.”

I didn’t get it. “Umm—”

“Alcohol poisoning,” he said. “Went in early Saturday morning, and they just released me at 7:00 this morning to come to class.”

It was Tuesday.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Exam Week Solace

Thinking this morning of all my friends still slogging through the end-of-semester grading storm. Teacher pals, I love you.

“Exam Week Solace”
LaGrange, Georgia – 6 December 2014

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Disappearance

They haunt me, the ones who disappear. We meet a few times, and then they vanish. I half expect their pictures to show up on so many milk cartons: HAVE YOU SEEN US? CALL 1-800-ENG-1101.

Two, eight, sixteen years later, they still shuffle around the classroom of my mind. Was it an emergency? The syllabus? The circus? Addiction? Epiphany?

Maybe they remembered something that they’d tried to forget. Maybe they fled after an early round of Fail ‘Em All & Let God Sort ‘Em Out. Maybe it was a terminal case of the I-don’t-wannas, metastasizing through their transcripts like fire ant hills in a spring pasture. Or maybe—bound by need and love, by duty and blood—they turned back, toward home.

I’ll never know. But I think of them often, and pray they’re all right. Over the years and across the miles, I wish them patience, wisdom, and a chance to reappear.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

My latest, at Columbus and the Valley Magazine

Many thanks to publishers Mike Venable and Jill Tigner for running my short piece “Reverie with Coffee and Hash Browns” in the June 2017 edition of Columbus and the Valley Magazine. (The piece is on page 72.) My fellow contributors have really outdone themselves this month—so I expect you to check out their delightful articles, as well.

Photo: “Waffle House, 12:19pm”

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wherever someone’s in need

Two years ago today, I submitted final grades for the last time—and, to celebrate, posted on Facebook this photo of my 1960s neon Pabst Blue Ribbon bar sign (a lucky eBay purchase). While I miss my former students, my friends, and the steady (if small) paychecks, I don’t miss teaching. At all. Ever.

In some ways, though, I’m still teaching. For example: most of this week has seen me helping people figure out how to do the things that confuse or frighten them—and figure it out through writing. I’ve helped people’s ideas take shape on the printed page, whether in plain text or as part of a graphic layout. I’ve talked people through the stories they’re afraid to write, when their dreams literally point them toward taking great creative risks. In a sea of disinformation, I’ve helped people find the knowledge they need to make hard decisions.

I walked out of the classroom two years ago. I haven’t looked back. But when I think about my own writing, and how I’ve used what I know to help others, I know that the classroom isn’t always in a school building. The classroom is wherever someone’s in need.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

“At free safety, from the University of Georgia…”

Mid-September 2013. My afternoon English 1101 class prepares to write their second essay of the semester. (Students’ identifying details have been changed.)

ME:  All right—in the Week 8 folder online, you’ll see some good, A-plus sample essays from former students.
STUDENT 1:  Can we see some bad essays?
ME:  No.
STUDENT 2:  Why not?
ME:  Because I want y’all to do well on Essay 2. I want you to follow what the successful essays are doing.
CLASS:  Awwwwwww!
ME:  I’m serious. We learn by studying strong examples—by watching people who are good at what we want to do. [turning to Student 3, a football player] What position do you play?
STUDENT 3:  Defensive end.
ME:  Perfect! [turning to class] Think about it this way: I can show you how to tackle, or [Student 3] can show you how to tackle. Whose example is going to be better?
CLASS:  [Student 3]’s example.
ME:  Right! Because [Student 3] knows what he’s doing, and has for a long time. He plays college football. I don’t know anything about football. Why follow my tackle demonstration? I’d be terrible at it.
STUDENT 3:  Aww, don’t say that, Professor. I bet you’d make a good free safety.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Fragment of an Ordinary Day Long Gone

When I taught at the University of West Georgia, my campus office was about 200 feet from the building where many of my classes met. My walks to class were never long, but they were beautiful. The thoughtfully landscaped campus always gave me something to look at, even in winter. Bare cherry and maple branches silhouetted against the sky, glossy holly and magnolia leaves defiantly green in the cold, silvery bark shimmering in the morning light, sweetgum leaves and seedpods clustered like so many haiku next to the sidewalk—I loved them all.

One cold February morning, I was on my way to class when I saw a spot of light jade-green in the brown bark mulch along the sidewalk.

Green Dish Fragment Found at UWG in Feb 2012 (21 June 2012)

Barely an inch long, the dish fragment bore the crackles of age and the freeze-thaw cycle. This wasn’t anything recently produced (or recently broken). The color was popular for dishes and kitchen accessories in the 1930s and 1940s. The subtle flutes along the bottom reminded me of Fiesta dishware.

I’m always finding interesting dish fragments on walks around my beloved Hillside neighborhood. But in all my years of university teaching, I’d never found anything like this on a college campus.

So I e-mailed Suzanne Durham, UWG’s campus historian. “What used to be where the TLC building is today?” I asked. “I found a small piece of an old dish behind the building, and thought it was out of place.”

Before it was a college, Ms. Durham told me, the campus was a 275-acre cotton farm owned by Bluford A. Sharp. College trustees purchased the property from him in 1907. That July, 12,000 people witnessed the cornerstone ceremony for what’s now the Academic Building.

Sadly, Special Collections didn’t have any pre-UWG photos of the north-central part of campus from back then. However, the farm did feature many sharecropper families. Their small, plain houses were likely on the edges of the farm, along dirt roads and the edges of pastures, far away from the main house. The main house still stands—except it’s now called Honors House. The sharecroppers’ shacks, demolished over a century ago, weren’t so lucky.

Almost nobody thinks to preserve poor people’s homes.

I thought of the hundreds of meals eaten on the jade-green dishes, of which the little fragment was once a part. I thought of the tired, cracked hands that washed those jade-green dishes in hundreds of dishpans of hot, soapy water. I thought of the accidents (or maybe the on-purposes) that shattered those pretty dishes, a shard of which lay before me. I thought of the woman who swept up the sharp broken dish pieces and tossed them beneath the house into the crawl space, where many country families discarded their broken glassware before the days of landfills.

I thought of the hundreds of people whose homes stood where the campus is today. I thought of the Native Americans who lived here long before that—and of the animals and trees that lived here centuries before the first humans ever arrived. In another 300 years, what will stand where these buildings and sidewalks and streets and trees do today?

The little green fragment stays tucked inside my purse. I keep it there in memory of an ordinary day long gone.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: This piece, since revised, first appeared here on 23 June 2012

 

Throwback Thursday: A Teaching Story

My first job out of school was at a small technical college. The previous year, as a University of Georgia graduate assistant, I’d taught all of four first-year English classes. I knew I could handle small-town students with finesse and aplomb.

Oh, yes. I would be the one to bring them the Good News of the Gospel of Literature. My students would gladly, hungrily devour all that my newly-minted American Lit MA and I could serve them. By midterm, their comma splices and run-ons would be a sad but fading memory. By finals week, their effortless prose would flow like the waters of the mighty Jordan. Hallelujah!

Fall Quarter 1999 found me thoroughly prepared. I’d done everything I was supposed to do. My textbooks had come in weeks before. I’d long finished my syllabus by the time I made thirty copies of it in the faculty mail room. I was so prepared that, days in advance, I’d chosen what to wear that late August evening. I’d even ironed my dress, and used extra starch. With a haircut, a little makeup, a manicure, and a pedicure, I was set. A new professor can’t be too careful.

On the first evening of the quarter, my students trudged into the musty classroom. Most had arrived directly from work, and looked a little bleary. A few, dressed in standard-issue Dickies uniforms, would head to late-shift jobs after class. Tired, sure, but overall a solid bunch. Half a dozen recent high school grads sat together in the back row. Everyone else, ages 25 to 70, sat as close to the front as they could. (As one near-retiree explained weeks later, the older students had long ago stopped caring what their classmates thought.)

The Showing of Books and The Reading of the Syllabus went smoothly, but the class still seemed nervous. (It would take me several more years to realize this is normal for the first class meeting—and even the first three or four weeks of the term.) I wanted to get to know them a little before the red pen and I became their sworn enemies.

Ah-ha! Perhaps an icebreaker game would help. I explained to my students that I’d go around the room and ask each person to introduce him- or herself. Students would tell us their hometown, where they worked, what they planned to study in tech school…and one thing that most people didn’t know about them. This would be fun.

Starting stage left, I worked my way across the front row. Grocery store cashiers, carpet mill workers, pulpwood cutters, receptionists, telemarketers, cable TV techs, and delivery drivers all introduced themselves, revealing cute, funny, yet safe personal details to their new classmates:

“My favorite foods are marshmallows and pickles. Together.”
“Growing up, I wanted to be a hip-hop astronaut.”
“I collect pink ceramic unicorns.”

The last student on the front row smiled as he introduced himself. Dressed in a polo shirt and khakis, neatly groomed, the earnest late-twenty-something probably had a job in customer service or sales. He told us his name, his hometown, his job title, his major—and stopped.

“Thanks, that was nice. But how about that one thing most people might not know about you?”

He hesitated, then mumbled an answer.

“Pardon?” I cupped my hand to one ear.

His face flushed carmine. “I—umm. I—I have—a foot fetish.”

One, one thousand.
Two, one thousand.
Three, one thousand.

He reddened more, cleared his throat. “I get turned on by ladies’ feet.”

I looked down. Against the nubby gray institutional carpet, my perfect candy apple red toenails peeked out from new shoes.

Black patent leather.
Open-toe pumps.
Three-inch heels.

I wore sneakers the rest of the quarter.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

This post first appeared here on 28 February 2014. It appears today with revisions.

 

Wednesday Photo: 9/9/15

PunctuationIssues1892_COPY_2015-08-28_20.15.15

ME:  Check out that plaque. Notice anything?
MOM:  [after a moment] The apostrophe -s is wrong. “Commissioners” needs just an -s.
ME:  Yep. And only some of the initials have a period after them.
MOM:  Wait—1892. Wasn’t that back when people supposedly had this stuff drummed into their heads in school?
ME:  Supposedly.
MOM:  Mmhmm. Right.

“Punctuation Issues, 1892”
LaGrange Art Museum
LaGrange, Georgia – 28 August 2015

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Dreaming School

No matter how long you’ve been away, the saying goes, you’ll still have the occasional dream about school. They come out of nowhere, for even less reason than most dreams do. They’re almost always bad.

There’s the one where you’re back in ninth grade and wake up naked in the middle of PE class (or AP English, or Typing II, or wood shop). Everyone has those. There’s also the less-common one where it’s your college graduation day, and your family’s sitting way up in the gym bleachers waiting to see you walk, but you just found out about that elective you didn’t know you had to have. Now the course is meeting under the dais where the governor and the college president and all the other bigwigs are sitting, and you don’t know how the hell you’re supposed to be two places at once, and then Waylon Jennings (who’s served as The Balladeer for this entire scene) suddenly breaks the fourth wall and calls your name for you to come up and get your diploma, which turns out to be an angry water moccasin.

Yep, school dreams are like that.

In mine, though, I’m rarely a student, and usually the teacher. Even though I’m no longer teaching, I’ll probably always have these nightmares—like the one with an enthusiastic student who looks entirely too much like my hell-raising four-foot-nine Polish great-grandmother, and who comes to class in a circa 1963 fox-fur stole and toting a moldy squished-flat pineapple cake in her backpack. Or the one about a class I forgot to teach that’s now been meeting without me, in a barn that I cannot find, for three years. Or the one that woke me screaming, in which a rabid half-human, half-cow administrator will stop at nothing to make a Biblical burnt offering out of me in the middle of the library.

Sometimes, though, I have a classroom dream worth remembering…

The classroom was the smooth, flat, sandy yard under the red oaks at my grandmother’s tiny Methodist circuit church. My English 1101 students were turning in their most important essays of the semester. It had just rained, and the moss around the red oaks’ roots was slippery. I could smell the arborvitae in the cemetery, and the oil soap scent of the church wafting out from under the crooked old front doors.

“Watch your step,” I called to my students. “It’s slick over by the clubhouse.” One by one, bleary-eyed yet relieved, they said hello to me, set their essay packets on the concrete block picnic tables, and walked back down the dirt road toward Mr. Mac’s store and the paved road back to campus.

Except for one student.

“Professor, I need an extension,” he said after shaking my hand. We had all been in this class together for the last thirteen weeks, yet this dream-student acted as if we had just met.

“You know my late paper policy,” I said. Exhausted from a long day, I began stacking the other students’ papers and sliding them into my canvas tote bag. “This essay is worth 30% of your grade. We’ve been working on it for three-and-a-half weeks. Why don’t you have it?”

He sighed and waved toward the grass beyond the clubhouse, toward the ball field where both my grandfathers and most of my great-uncles played baseball almost a century ago. “When I was in Afghanistan, my unit got hit by a mortar attack one night, and a bunch of IEDs exploded under my Humvee—”

—and with those last words, the ball field ripped itself from the earth and into the air, sweeping us into a whirling dirt-filled dream-tornado that set us down just outside Kabul, in the middle of the night, with APCs and tanks and gunfire and artillery and God-knows-what else making me think this really might be the end, and my student getting severely wounded and losing a leg that was somehow reattached in the field and looked more like a plastic human-sized Barbie doll leg than that of a grown man.

After his leg was reattached, my student kept narrating the story of his return home from Afghanistan. The dream-tornado picked us up and set us down yet again, this time in Mobile, Alabama, where he would have to walk all the way home to Los Angeles. In El Paso, he grabbed my wrist and yanked me shrieking along with him onto a freight train back to California.

In the rail yard, the dream-tornado picked us up again, setting us down at a bus station in L.A., where my student was gunned down by a car full of gang members and left to bleed to death in front of the 7:18 to Albuquerque. But he pulled the bullets out of his own torso with his own hands—I watched all this in horror as he narrated—and he lost a lot of blood and almost died yet again. This was why it took him a really long time to get back to campus, he said as the wind grabbed us anew…especially after he had spent a summer in Alaska working on a fishing boat, and nearly drowned when the Queen Susie II capsized in stormy seas.

“So, you can see, it’s been a rough semester,” my student said as the dream-tornado plopped us back under the red oaks. “I’ve been through a lot.”

“You sure have,” I said. “But I still need your paper.”

Then I woke up.
Laughing.
For once.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Exam Week Solace

2014-12-08 10.41.56

LaGrange, Georgia – 6 December 2014

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Seeing the Seer

Last night, I dreamed I was traveling through the Randolph County, Alabama, countryside of my childhood. It was a cold, rainy morning, and I was a field trip leader for a group of college students I had just met. In Rock Mills, the bus stopped at what used to be Bennett’s Grocery (closed since 1984). The students milled around the store, buying sodas and snacks for the day.

As I waited near the entrance, someone handed me an English 1101 essay, done up as an 8½” x 11” newsletter. It was a proud newsletter, too: set in fancy glossy colors, letterpress-printed on heavy paper, full of bravado—but, overall, a shoddily written big fish in a poorly designed little pond. The frustration disengaged my brain-mouth filter.

“Dear God, this is awful,” I almost shouted. “Just awful. It reads like ten miles of dirt road after a hard rain.” I handed the newsletter to another trip leader and walked outside.

By the door, one student stared intently at me. She had icy-blue eyes.
Three icy-blue eyes.

I swallowed my fear, gazed directly into that middle orb, and spoke again. “There isn’t a single documented fact in that essay. It’s all poorly supported opinion—the weakest content I’ve seen in a long time.” I took the newsletter back from the other trip leader, and pointed to the most egregious parts. “And the typos are thick as fleas. Readers deserve better. In my class, there’s no way it would pass.”

When I glanced at her again, the third eye had disappeared. She still stared at me, but less intently. The notepad in her hand looked nearly full. She scrawled another note or two, nodded deeply in my direction, and took her seat on the bus.

I awoke thinking that it takes tremendous courage to tell the Oracle of Delphi she’s full of shit.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

46 Miles

Sometimes, I walk out of the classroom and think, “I didn’t do a bit of good today.” The familiar, sinking feeling snuggles close. Maybe, just maybe, it really is impossible to teach people how to write well. Maybe writing well really is like breathing—you either do it, or you’re dead.

I cry the entire forty-six miles home.

Later, though, I recognize the sinking feeling as a good omen. If I had all the answers, I’d also probably be full of shit. There is no way to have all the answers. There is only trying and failing, trying and failing, again and again, until something sticks.

And so I try again, try explaining it a different way, with the next class.
And the next.
And the next.

 

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

33 1/3 Kinds of Wrong

One bonus of country music research—and of teaching a survey course titled “Country Music and Southern Culture: Beyond Drinkin’, Fightin’, and Cheatin'”— is the material students find on their own for class.

Years ago, after a great discussion of how country music often ignores African-Americans’ contributions to the genre, one student brought me this 25¢ yard sale gem. “Since we talked about DeFord Bailey, Charlie Pride, and Ray Charles last week,” he said, “I thought this might be interesting.”

The next day, I showed it to the class. “Based on our discussion the other day, tell me what’s going on with this album cover.”

At the back of the room, one student raised a hand. “Well, Professor—how much time do you have?”

 

The Tender Side of Ray Charles (front cover)

 

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)
Album cover © 1978 Suffolk Marketing, Inc.

 

Not an April Fool’s prank

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Dear Students and Colleagues:

Your kindness and generosity bring me to tears. Thank you for granting me a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, I’m doing something right. Thank you for honoring me with this year’s Stanley Parkman Excellence in Tutoring Award.

Love,
Me

Photo courtesy of Sean Jepson

Blog post text © R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

A teaching story

My first job out of school was at a tiny vo-tech college. The previous year, as a University of Georgia graduate assistant, I’d taught all of four first-year English classes—so I knew I could handle small-town students with finesse and aplomb. I would be the one to bring them the Good News of the Gospel of Literature. My students would gladly, hungrily devour all that my newly-minted American Lit MA and I could serve them. By midterm, their comma splices and run-ons would be a sad but fading memory. By finals week, their effortless prose would flow like the waters of the mighty Jordan. Hallelujah!

Fall Quarter 1999 found me thoroughly prepared. I’d done everything I was supposed to do. My textbooks had come in weeks before. I’d long finished my syllabus by the time I made thirty copies of it in the faculty mail room. I was so prepared that, days in advance, I’d chosen what to wear that late August evening. I’d even ironed my dress, and used extra starch. With a haircut, a little makeup, a manicure, and a pedicure, I was set.

A new professor can’t be too careful.

On the first evening of the quarter, my students trudged into the musty classroom around 5:30. Most had come from work, and as such were a little bleary around the eyes. A few, names embroidered on their shirt pockets, would head to their late-shift jobs after class. Tired, sure, but a solid bunch, overall. A few 18-year-olds, not long out of high school, sat together in the back row. Everyone else, ages 25 to 70, sat as close to the front as they could. (As one near-retiree explained to me weeks later, the older students had long ago stopped caring what their classmates thought.)

The Showing of Books and The Reading of the Syllabus went smoothly. Everyone still seemed apprehensive, though. I wanted to get to know them a little before the red pen and I became their sworn enemies. Perhaps an icebreaker game would help. I’d go around the room and ask each person to introduce him- or herself. Students would tell us their hometown, where they worked, what they planned to study in vo-tech school…and one thing that most people didn’t know about them. This would be fun.

Starting stage left, I worked my way across the front row. Grocery store cashiers, carpet mill workers, pulpwood cutters, receptionists, telemarketers, cable TV repairmen, delivery drivers all introduced themselves and revealed some cute, funny, yet safe personal details to their new classmates:

“My favorite foods are marshmallows and pickles. Together.”
“Growing up, I wanted to be a hip-hop astronaut.”
“I collect pink ceramic unicorns.”

The last student on the front row smiled as he introduced himself. Dressed in a polo shirt and khakis, neatly groomed, the earnest late-twenty-something probably had a job in customer service or sales. He told us his name, his hometown, his job title, his major—and stopped.

“Thanks, that was nice. But how about that one thing most people might not know about you?”

He hesitated, then mumbled an answer.

“Pardon?” I cupped my hand to one ear.

His face flushed carmine. “I—umm. I—I have—a foot fetish.”

One, one thousand.
Two, one thousand.
Three, one thousand.

He reddened more, cleared his throat. “I get turned on by ladies’ feet.”

I looked down. Against the nubby gray institutional carpet, my perfect candy apple red toenails peeked out from new shoes.

Black patent leather.
Open-toe pumps.
Three-inch heels.

I wore sneakers the rest of the quarter.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Why I do what I do

Late last Tuesday, after an exhausting day of teaching, I came home to find an email (paraphrased below) from a student who failed my course last semester.

Even though I didn’t do well enough to pass your class, I wanted to tell you that the way you had us write our papers and how hard you graded them has made me a better writer. I’m taking 1101 again this semester, and I can tell that what you taught us really works. Last week, I made an 80 on my first paper. Thank you for helping me become a better writer. Sincerely, [Student Name]

Sorry, I—I’ve got something in my eye. I’ll be okay.

On inspiration

When I write, the worst part is when I can’t figure out my emotions, when I feel numb and disaffected. Of course, I know from experience that it’ll pass. It always does—otherwise, you wouldn’t be reading this. But the fear that whispers close behind the numbness can be mighty persuasive: “Give up. You can’t do it. You can’t make it happen again.”

Eventually, I do make it happen again. Always. However, this is not and has never been a matter of low self-esteem, poor self-image, or any other pop psychology cliché.

It is a matter of writing for a living.

At some point, every professional writer experiences this unreasonable doubt and fear. Every professional writer works around and through it. The key here is acknowledging the whispers while continuing to write, instead of waiting for them to go away first, or for a brilliant idea to pop up before writing again. Taking action—that is, writing while we feel deeply uninspired—leads us out of the darkness and toward something worthwhile.

Do not wait for inspiration.
Write, write, write.
The ideas will thaw, melt, and flow your way.

I doubt this process every time.
It saves me every time.

There is no such thing as “waiting for inspiration to strike.” It’s just waiting, and it produces little of consequence. Most people who are not professional writers fail to realize this. As such, they become dilettantes along the sad, sorry way. My students teeter at the edge of dilettantism. It’s my job to pull them back.

Where they are is not their fault. After all, their ideas about how excellent prose happens have been shaped by romantic, highly unrealistic beliefs about writing. They are completely enamored with the idea of Being A Writer. They are passionately in love with the Idea Of Writing. And inspiration, they are sure, is what fuels this searing, delicious tinderbox of an affair.

For all his promises, Inspiration is a lousy lover, more wet kindling than lighter fluid. Inspiration is full of tease but never delivers: “all hat and no cowboy,” as a Texan friend says. Inspiration is sexy, charming, mysterious, compelling—on the outside. Get inspiration home and in the sack, though, and all we’ve got is a whiskey-dicked frat boy who, for all his looks and talk, gives our crotch half a clumsy rub before rolling over, puking in his own shoes, and passing out.

Well.

Wake him up. Don’t let him put on his clothes. Don’t give him a chance to rinse out his penny loafers. (Because you know Inspiration still wears penny loafers with his Members Only jacket.) Slam the door. Bolt it shut. Do NOT open it again, no matter how he begs. Don’t call him a cab. Call him what he is: a dud. No, no, he’s worse than a dud: he’s a charlatan. Kick his drunk ass back out in the street with the amateurs, where he belongs. As Carl Sagan explained years ago, “Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.”

Inspiration stops us dead and cold when we depend on him. Hard as it may seem, we must guide ourselves. We must trust in the process, even when we’re angry and heartbroken and numb and completely blank. When we rely on inspiration, he’s a no-show. And suddenly, we’re all dressed up and dateless at the Winter Formal, stuffing those racking sobs back inside our ribcage as we pretend to enjoy ourselves. We’re scared, humiliated, devastated that The One We Love has crapped out on us at such an important moment.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. Inspiration is out back of the Teke house, blasted on Thunderbird with our potential and our creativity. He’d much rather get schnockered on the cheapest poison around—and steal our dearest friends—than deliver what he promised. He lives for this. He controls us when we depend on the illusion that we cannot create without him.

How, then, to work around the seductive, greasy charms of inspiration? By listening—listening to everything and everyone, listening to tiny flashes of things and people and creatures and plants and moments. The way we get big ideas is by paying attention to the small ones.

Now, ideas are wonderful, but they need a while to grow on us, to get to know us better. By noticing the things nobody else does, we give the small ideas the time and space and care they need to become stronger ideas—to become sentences, images, story lines, characters.

A tuft of fur caught on a hydrangea stem, flapping helplessly in the wind. The daddy longlegs crawling inexplicably up the truck tailgate in front of us as the light turns green. The way Wednesday morning lights up the plastic rain bonnets of old ladies at the grocery store—all small, and all vast, all at once.

Write it all down.
Yes, even if it “sounds stupid.”

After I hand back a set of papers, I ask students to reflect on where they might have gone wrong. They say, “Well, I was going to write about ______, but it seemed stupid.” And I clap my hands in wonder: “That’s not stupid at all. It’s what would make this essay work.”

And they learn, little by little, that Inspiration will not swoop in, all grandiose and deus ex machina, to save our writing asses. Good work happens in small pieces, and often almost imperceptibly.

In my first-year college writing classes, I show students a portfolio of my work, from eighth grade to the present. Professional, academic, creative—it’s all in there, the entire process. Some of it’s under construction, some of it’s pretty good, and some of it is capital-T Trash. “Look, dammit,” I want to shout, “look here and look hard. This is how we spin garbage into gold.”

Look, look, LOOK.
Soak it into your skin.
Soak it into your bloodstream.

This is noticing on the deepest, most profound level. This is where we build creative eye and ear and soul. This is where we begin: in noticing, instead of in waiting for someone or something to save us. In noticing the small, the insignificant, and writing down every last bit of it, we rescue ourselves from Inspiration.

And that is all I have to say today.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Disappearance

They haunt me, the ones who disappear. We meet a few times, and then they vanish. I half expect their pictures to show up on so many milk cartons: HAVE YOU SEEN US? CALL 1-800-ENG-1101.

Two, eight, sixteen years later, they still shuffle around the classroom of my mind. Was it an emergency? The syllabus? The circus? Addiction? Epiphany?

Maybe they remembered something that they’d tried to forget. Maybe they fled after an early round of Fail ‘Em All & Let God Sort ‘Em Out. Maybe it was a terminal case of the I-don’t-wannas, metastasizing through their transcripts like fire ant hills in a spring pasture. Or maybe—bound by need and love, by duty and blood—they turned back, toward home.

I’ll never know. But I think of them often, and pray they’re all right. Over the years and across the miles, I wish them patience, wisdom, and a chance to reappear.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Friday Photo: 5/3/13

Cars Will Be Launched (Louisville, Kentucky - 8 June 2009)

Louisville, Kentucky—8 June 2009

I thought Spring Break would never get here.

Spring Break Kitty (LaGrange, Georgia - 8 February 2013)

Me either, kitty. Whew.

Overheard in the hallway

A: Is it time to go home and drink?
B: When is it not time to go home and drink?

Friday Photo: 2/22/13

Orange and White Campus Kitty, UWG (Carrollton, Georgia - 27 August 2012)

Carrollton, Georgia—27 August 2012

Run-On: Not Just a Really Long Sentence!

Thank goodness for Grammar Girl’s parody of those awful Head On ads to help explain run-on sentences. Some of my students have had trouble understanding what’s wrong with their run-on sentences. Comma splices and sentence fragments are in there, too. Perhaps this will help.

Yes. Please add spelling to that list.

MeetingBoy_LooseWeight_1-1-2013

I don’t care what anyone says—it’s not hard to figure out whether to use lose or loose. If you’re in doubt, try this handy guide, 10 Words You Need to Stop Misspelling, from the wonderfully evil genius of The Oatmeal (opens in a new window).

(Hat tip to @MeetingBoy)

Overheard on campus

In classroom doorway, immediately after lecture.

Instructor: Do you know what we’re doing?
Student:    Yes. I also know I should come to class more often.

 

I am officially old.

ME:  It’s easy. You just have to channel your inner J. R. Ewing.
STUDENT:  Who?
ME:  J. R. Ewing, from Dallas. Played by the late, great Larry Hagman.
STUDENT:  Dallas?
ME:  Uhh—anyway, let’s talk about your paper.

This day in 1963

August 28, 1963: The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivers his I Have a Dream speech as part of the March on Washington.

Nearly 50 years later, style guides point to this speech as Continue reading

Friday Photo: 7/27/12

West Point, Georgia—9 March 2012

A post a day: Looking back at the June 2012 Challenge

Last month, I challenged myself to publish a blog post every day from the 1st through the 30th. It was fun, exhilarating, even mind-numbing—and I posted 34 times in 30 days. While I’ve achieved many goals over the years, I was rather surprised at how satisfied I felt on June 30:

Just look at all those posts! Okay, okay, so there were times when I thought my brain was going to eat itself. But I made it!

Then July 1 arrived:

Up next: Thirty-one days of FAIL.

Although I hadn’t expected it, I learned some great lessons during the June 2012 Challenge. I gained fascinating insights into my writing, my creative process, and how I really can produce worthwhile material under pressure. Perhaps these lessons will help you, too.

Lesson #1: If you post on the weekends, make it worthwhile (of course)—but also make it something that you’re okay with people not reading.

Saturdays and Sundays are incredibly slow for blogs. I found this out, oh, the second weekend of the Challenge, when I looked at my site stats—just three or four or zero hits?!? But I put up some good stuff!

At first, I wondered, “Did my post suck today?” Probably not. It’s just that internet users have lives. On weekends, they’re doing everything except reading blogs (even the ones they enjoy).

I realized that weekend posts needed to be worthwhile, but also nothing I’d busted my butt or brain to put together. People just weren’t going to read on weekends. So I got over myself and posted “good enough” off-day content.

Lesson #2: Daily posting is really, really hard work if you want your writing to be any good.

Even I underestimated how much work this would take—and I write for a living!

In her classic essay “Shitty First Drafts,” Anne Lamott describes the general public perception of what writers do every day:

People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter.

But this is just the fantasy of the uninitiated. I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.

Amen.

At first, I was bursting with ideas and couldn’t wait to get them all out. After ten or 12 days, though, the giddiness wore off. Putting together even a shopping list was too much effort. The words would not come out.

“My God, this sucks,” I said as I re-read draft after awkward draft. “How can I put my name on this? Why can’t I seem to make it go anywhere?” Panic set in nearly every afternoon. “My students are going to read this. My clients are going to read this. What have I done?”

Then I remembered Lamott’s words, and felt much better. Only “the uninitiated”—people who aren’t writers—believe that fantastic writing flows out on the first try, elegant and effortless. It’s a common and seductive lie.

It’s never easy to write well. It only looks easy because we see the finished product; we never see the awful first efforts. We miss the inaccurate wording and clumsy transitions. We never read the things a writer cuts from early versions or adds to later versions, or the things that had to go even though they were such good ideas.

Think about it another way. In an NBA playoff game, we watch the elegant plays and perfect jump shots and masterful dunks, but we never see the preparation. How many hours of practice has each player put in from junior high school up until this game? Tens of thousands of hours—which, of course, we never even consider. Similarly, we read excellent writing and see the end result instead of the author’s years of frustration and hard work. How many drafts and ideas did the author discard before this wonderful final version? How different does that first awkward draft look from this polished one?

We expect it to be easy, yet we’re surprised when writing well is damned hard, even for really good writers. Case in point: Writing and revising this 2,700-word article took this experienced professional writer 19 hours over 13 days. It spanned eight drafts, the first five of which were embarrassingly clunky. 

Lesson #3: Most days, however, you can write good stuff—if you’re disciplined about it.

I have never been a morning person. If you value having your head firmly attached to your neck, don’t even look at me until I’m fully awake. None of that “rise and shine” crap. And for God’s sake, don’t sing.

For years, I’d hoped that as I got older, I’d become morning-friendly. But no. Forty gets closer every day, and I’m still grouchy before 11:00am. However, the Challenge surprised me—my best ideas actually come between 7:00am and noon! Yes, my “writing mojo” is strongest and freshest then. So instead of lying there half-asleep with great ideas and then griping later about how I’d forgotten them, I learned to roll out of bed as soon as possible and get to my desk. (Keeping a notebook and pen by the bed also helps a lot.)

Now, I know scores of morning people who say they could never do this. These people practically live to wake up at the butt-crack of dawn and drink coffee and be cheerful and whatever else it is morning people do at that God-forsaken hour of the day. I always want to say, “So you can get up at oh-dark-thirty and bounce around the house like a squirrel on PCP, but you can’t write?”

Here’s the secret: When what you write is truly, vitally important to you, you’ll do whatever it takes to capture those ideas. When you value that work highly enough, you will sit down wherever and whenever to get those words onto paper or screen or MP3 file. You have to decide to do it. Until you do, your work remains trapped inside you. It’s up to you, whether you’re a college student or a seasoned professional or even if you’ve never seriously written a day in your life.

I’ll probably never be a morning person, and that’s okay. Having learned to listen to my ideas when they arrive makes the unpleasantness worthwhile. I protect my prime writing hours fiercely. Not appreciating and listening to ideas when they arrive is to revert to Spoiled Teenager Mode: “You can’t tell me what to do! I’ll do what I want, when I want!”

No.

It’s up to me to use this priceless gift right when it’s handed to me. If I put it off, it will disappear. I know this because it’s happened so many times before.

When I work at home, I write steadily from 8:00am until 1:00 or 2:00pm—no matter what. I’ve learned to schedule errands, appointments, chores, and family time around my writing. If I don’t listen to the early-morning ideas and guard that work time, I will not write even the first word.

This discipline pays off many times over. Trust me.

Lesson #4: It helps if you have nothing else to do but blog.

It’s possible to have a full-time job and post good content every day. Notice that I said possible, not easy or feasible.

During the June 2012 Challenge, I spent a minimum of 35 hours a week creating content. Naturally, I spent most of those hours writing and revising. About 20% went toward research, saving hyperlinks, taking and choosing photos, working with PhotoShop to edit my images, and then carefully deciding where which photo needed to appear in which post.

Worth it? Yes. Possible if I’d been working a full-time job instead of freelancing from home? Not if I’d wanted to eat, sleep, or pee.

Lesson #5: When you have a flurry of ideas, get them down—then let them sit. What sounds great now may sound silly after a few days (and vice versa).

An old writers’ saying goes, “You can never know if something is good while you’re writing it.” A similar one says, “You almost never know what you need to write until you’ve written for a while.” Both are true.

In 30 days, I drafted and then trashed at least 50 blog post ideas. I’m serious. I came up with and eventually discarded 50 or more beginnings, blurbs, and short drafts. I spent anywhere from five to 45 minutes on each, eventually deciding for one reason or another that it wouldn’t work.

At the time, the posts seemed like fantastic ideas: Sandwiches that should never have seen the light of day. A bi-weekly analysis of obscure 1980s music videos. The reasons people need to stop wearing pajamas and slippers out in public. An explanation of Taylor Swift’s popularity despite the fact that her lyrics sound like something out of a sixth grader’s Trapper Keeper.

All decent ideas, but ideas I ended up shelving after a day or a week of staring at them in my Drafts folder. And there were so many more where those came from. Most of them focused too narrowly, or said nothing original. Some required more time than I could spare. Others just seemed dumb.

Sometimes that’s a liberating feeling, clicking “Delete Post” on something that’s been giving me hell. Sometimes it’s sad and discouraging. Did I waste my time creating posts that I would eventually discard? No. As Anne Lamott says later in “Shitty First Drafts,” there’s “no way to get to this [the quality stuff] without getting through the first five-and-a-half pages.” Or the first dozen ideas.

Although I ended up tossing out or shelving so many ideas, the time I spent on them helped me see what was possible, and what was not. Taking a break to generate new ideas often gave me unexpected insights into other (publishable, really good) posts that had been troubling me.

Lesson #6: Know when to take breaks. You’re going to need them.

Before the Challenge, I knew this in my head, but not in my heart. As my students begin a new essay, I tell them, “Step away from your first draft for at least 24 hours before you do anything else to it. When you come back, you’ll see it with fresh eyes.” Those who take my advice report that after a day or two away, it’s easier to see what works and what doesn’t. They’re not so close to the words anymore, and can look at them as an outsider might.

With much of my professional writing, I had followed my own advice. Whether it was a conference paper, an English 1101 syllabus, a workshop proposal, a feasibility report, a client’s brochure, or a sales presentation, I could always recognize when I needed to leave it alone and do something else: bathe my dogs, go for a walk, call my mother, stare at the wall—whatever would let my brain relax for a while. Later, I’d be able to see my work more objectively.

Somehow, though, I thought daily blog posts would be different. Nope! It took three weeks for me to learn when I needed to step away. “Save it and walk off,” I finally began telling myself. “Just sitting here isn’t helping. Come back later.” Eventually, I’d go do something else. When I sat back down a few hours or a day later, everything was fine. My ideas returned, and I could see new possibilities.

Lesson #7: Save, save, and save again.

I can’t stress this one enough.

Servers crash. Thunderstorms knock out the electricity. Pets walk across the keyboard. So save as if your life depended on it. Your work certainly does. If you lose six pages just because you haven’t clicked Save in the last three hours, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Lesson #8: Good writers are never really “done” with a piece, no matter how good others may think it is.

Even after I publish a blog post (article, syllabus, student guide, etc.), I still see places where I can eliminate words, or change a phrase so it flows better. While I do go back and make small changes, I’m learning to resist the temptation.

I can’t spend my life tinkering with old work. If it’s been published, on paper or online, I can’t alter it. My words are now permanently out there. There’s no tracking down each copy with White-Out and a pen. And anyone can access the original version thanks to the internet archives.

The secret is to learn when to let go—when it’s “done enough” so that I can live with it. That’s tough, but I’m getting there one document at a time.

Lesson #9: The only way to get better at writing is to do it consistently, even when you dread it.

Sometimes, writing was such tough work that I nearly abandoned the June 2012 Challenge. “I mean, it’s not like I promised anybody anything,” I told myself. “I don’t have to keep this up all month long. If the ideas have dried up, they’ve dried up. No sense in fooling myself.”

But I stuck with it because:

  • I made myself a promise, and wanted to follow through.
  • It wasn’t as if I’d fallen ill or had a family emergency—I was just low on ideas. I’d survived that before, and could do so again.
  • I hated the idea of quitting at the first sign of trouble.
  • What if my students saw that I’d just given up? I didn’t want to be a hypocrite, all “Do as I say, and not as I do.” Writing’s too important for that.
  • Something good might come from my frustration, even if I couldn’t see it now.
  • “Waiting for inspiration” is a load of crap. If I “wait for inspiration,” or until I’m “in the mood to write,” it’ll never happen. Once I sat down and started writing, even if it stabbed at my soul to put that terrible mess onto the page, after a while it got easier—and better.

These reasons and others floated through my mind when I considered giving up. Sure enough, as I sat down every morning, the initial dread wore off, and crappy writing gave way to decent writing.

Lesson #10: Use the Schedule Post feature. It’s your friend.

Let’s say you have a run of great ideas, and then manage to complete a few shorter posts with relative ease. Good for you! While you’re still thinking about it, go ahead and schedule them to appear over the next few days. Doing so will take the pressure off of you so you can work on more complex material.

My longtime readers know that, if nothing else, they can count on two regular posts each week: Nearly Wordless Wednesday and Friday Photo. These posts feature an interesting photo plus a brief caption with the photo’s date and location. They let me showcase my rapidly improving photography skills, and also provide readers an escape in the middle of a busy day.

Scheduling every June photo post ahead of time meant eight days of posts were ready to go—that’s nearly one-third of the month! This was great, especially when time and ideas ran low. Having those eight days out of the way freed me to concentrate on more complex writing and revising.

The June 2012 Challenge was some of the hardest writing I’ve ever done. It frightened me at times, making me doubt my abilities and my career path. But I’m incredibly glad for the experience. I’d happily do it again, too, perhaps next summer. Writing all the time truly is the only way to write better—I know this because I’ve done it. And as long as I live, I’ll continue to write all the time.

© R. S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Kind of the same thing with college essays.

It’s called a dictionary. USE IT.

For the second time this week—and I’m not sure how it happened, so please don’t point fingers, index or otherwise—I happened across this article on Yahoo! News [sic]. Boxer Floyd Mayweather is serving a 90-day jail sentence in Las Vegas for beating up and threatening his ex, with whom he has three children. Continue reading

Web users want to read content. Who knew?

The other day, I stumbled across this Who Knew? article from Yahoo! News [sic] on long-lasting celebrity marriages. Nothing in there surprised me—I already knew about Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, Mark Harmon and Pam Dawber, et cetera.

No, what really gave me a laugh was the comments section.

Continue reading

A post a day in June 2012? We shall see.

One of the greatest challenges of blogging is coming up with new material. Some people might assume this comes easily to me, since I’m a college English instructor. After all, I teach writing. I write all the time. It should be, you know, like, totally easy!

But they would be wrong. Coming up with worthwhile material is hard, even for excellent writers. Coming up with junk is easy (see: Facebook status updates).

It’s nearly lunchtime on a hot Friday morning, and dammit, I was hoping to have achieved a lot more by 11:56am. Alas, no. I’m just now getting to this blog post, having spent the rest of the morning editing photos for future editions of Nearly Wordless Wednesday and Friday Photo. Adobe should have called their (in)famous photo editing software Photowork, because there is no shop. Shop → shopping → fun. Using Photoshop ≠ fun, at least for the minor tinkering I’m doing right now.

Where was I? Right—I’ve spent the entire morning prepping images for future posts. It’s a pain, adding copyright info to the images and file properties, but worth it. And like many blog authoring platforms, WordPress allows me to schedule posts ahead of time. Great! I’ve taken care of six or eight posts for the month of June. But these posts generally don’t include much copy. What do I do for the other 22 days of the month?

I’ve followed other “a post a day” challenges on other blogs, such as Eden Kennedy’s hilarious website. Usually, the authors are exhausted at the end of the 30-day period. Often, though, I’ve been able to track how their writing improves over those 30+ posts. Daily posts force them to consider what’s worth posting and what’s not. And when they post something crappy, everyone knows right away that it probably could’ve used another few hours of thought.

Okay. I’ll take up the “a post a day” challenge. I’m working on half a dozen different posts that require thought and careful revision, so that’s at least a little something. Years ago, I blogged regularly under a pseudonym, and it was great practice and fun to see what I could come up with next for my couple dozen readers. But I never tried to post daily for 30 days. This site is under my real name. Everyone can see what I’m doing, and it had better be good.

Ugh. I think I’m going to be sick.

I posted twice yesterday, but chances are that a two-post day will be the exception rather than the rule. Can I do it? Can I post something worthwhile every day in June 2012? I guess we’re about to find out.

Well, now that you mention it…

Wednesday morning in a computer-enhanced writing classroom.
After taking roll at the start of class, I ask students about their Spring Break plans. (Names and details have been changed.)

ME: All right, so Spring Break is next week, and—  [students cheer]  —and as you’ll recall from the syllabus, Essay 2 is due the last day before break. That way, you’ll be worry-free during your vacation. So who’s going out of town? [students raise hands] Where are you going, Tommy? Continue reading

Yes, it’s Finals Week. Why do you ask?

During final exams, even a “wet floor” sign is game for UWG’s mischievous students. (TLC Building, University of West Georgia, 24 April 2012)

Good thing I wasn’t drinking a soda when I spotted this the other afternoon. Dr. Pepper up the nose really hurts.

Indeed, it’s Finals Week. Thank goodness the students haven’t lost their collective sense of humor. Bless whoever who saw the laugh potential in this yellow plastic sign. All we need now are parachute pants, a cardboard refrigerator carton, and a huge boombox. Ollie & Jerry, anyone?

Doc Speer’s Place

Green paint on the outside brick wall of Doc Speer's Place, LaGrange, Georgia (14 April 2012)

Today’s post is co-hosted by my other blog, Forgotten Plants & Places.

Like many small towns, LaGrange is full of photo opportunities. The Hillside neighborhood, in the southwest part of town, is particularly interesting. Over the last decade, DASH for LaGrange has rehabilitated several dozen old “mill houses,” saving them from destruction while revitalizing a shrinking community. Doc Speer’s Place, the wall of which is pictured above, is among the buildings DASH has salvaged.  Continue reading

Working from home? Stay on track with a Work Log

Working from home is a special treat for many of us. We don’t have to leave the house or fight traffic or even get dressed when we work at home. However, some people find this freedom overwhelming, and wind up working in circles all day long.

That was my experience when I started freelancing. To stay on track, and to avoid hours of frustration and regret, I began keeping a Work Log. Since my first entry in May 2011, I’ve noticed that the Work Log keeps me honest with myself and in touch with my goals while I’m toiling away in my home office.

In the Work Log, I record everything I get done during my work-at-home days. And I mean everything. If the task a) helps me accomplish more, or b) helps me accomplish it more easily, onto the list it goes.

“Laundry doesn’t count as a work-at-home task!” Evidently, you’ve never struggled to find a clean pair of underwear when you’re running late for a client meeting. Any task that helps me work more or smarter—whether in the short term or long term—goes on the list.

Think of it is as a technical communicator’s version of the standard truck driver’s log book. Professional truck drivers are required to keep their log books up to date and honest. When a trucker stops at a weigh station, the log book must be ready. If a DOT inspector or state trooper sees that a trucker’s mileage, rest hours, safety checks, or maintenance records have been fudged even a little, the law will put that driver under the jail. The consequences of a wonky log book include fines in the five-figure neighborhood, getting fired, and imprisonment. As long as the driver’s log book is legal and honest, though, everything is all right. He or she has nothing to worry about, having kept accurate and detailed records from the very start of the trip.

With a Work Log, the tech comm professional working from home has that same peace of mind. If someone asks just what you’ve been doing all day, you can whip out your meticulously-kept records and say, “Read for yourself.” Even if that someone is just you.

Here’s a screenshot of the first page of my Work Log.

The header on my Work Log. I love Magneto typeface. (7 April 2012)

The header’s big, a 48-pt. throwback to Airstream trailers and Detroit tuna boats with monster fins and bullet tail lights. So there. The secondary headings are Arial Black for my own reading ease. The body text (not pictured) is Garamond, which I highlight according to the scheme you see above.

The color codes let me know at a glance how many of the day’s items have to do with client projects, volunteer work, creative projects, or my Southern Poly graduate coursework. If I don’t see much text highlighted in a particular color, I know even without re-reading that I haven’t spent much time on it.

“So how do you record what you do?”
My current teaching schedule has me working from home on Fridays. The last thing I want is to feel as if I’ve wasted this precious last day of the work week. Here’s my Work Log entry from one such Friday.

Fri 27 Jan 2012

  • 8:15am-8:55am: Browsed stock images; purchased three more to add to [client’s] PPT per his request (0.67 hour).
  • 9:00am-10:20am: Revised [client’s] PPT, per his latest changes (1.33 hours).
  • 10:22am: E-mailed PPT to [client].
  • 11:00am-11:25am: Talked with [client] via phone to clarify content changes, image types, fonts, & colors for the new PPT he requested. (0.42 hour)
  • E-mailed Thursday’s handouts/readings to [student who just enrolled in one of my courses].
  • Updated next week’s readings and assignments in Vista.
  • Checked SPSU e-mail. [Professor’s name] replied to my questions about next assignment & STC conference. 
  • Checked LinkedIn (no new updates).
  • Graded Thursday’s Heart of Darkness quiz in Vista. Quiz grades posted automatically.
  • Shredded copy paper box full of old documents.
  • Created an Excel file of book titles to donate to library,; put all 26 (!) into storage bin in shed.
  • Created sketch & plan for graphics project (due next week).
  • Vacuumed office.
  • Washed/dried/replaced slipcovers on desk chair & loveseat.
  • Posted 500-word entry on [grad course] discussion board.
  • Hung a large newsprint pad on office wall for ideas/planning. Very helpful.

“Well, you’re just a lot busier than I am! I could never get all that done!”
Who said I was all that busy? On January 27, these 17 items sure didn’t feel like 17 items. I felt as if I were plodding along at every step, inefficient as the day is long. Despite that cloud of doubt following me around, I still took 90 seconds to add each bullet point to my Work Log after I finished the task.

Holy accountability, Batman! By the time I was ready for bed that evening, I was amazed at (and proud of) how much I had actually done.

“But I don’t have time to keep a Work Log. I have important stuff to do.”
Welcome to the I Have Important Stuff to Do Club! My name’s Rachael. Punch and cookies are on the back table.

Seriously, I too thought I was far too busy to record everything I accomplish. But I gave the Work Log idea a try anyway. After two days, I realized I was nowhere near as busy as I’d previously thought. That motivated me to get more done: network more, write more on my novel, work more on my first client’s project, get and keep my office clean, and so on. The stars had aligned so that I found myself working at home, which I’d always wanted to try. Why not do this opportunity justice?

“My memory’s not very good. I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast, much less everything I do in a day.”
Technical communicators are an intelligent bunch, but I don’t think many of us have been blessed with an eidetic memory. The same goes for me. By writing down my accomplishments right after I’m done, I save myself the frustration of trying to remember them at 11:00pm, when I’m exhausted and ready for bed.

As I noted above, I take about 90 seconds (maximum two minutes) for each item. If I can’t spare 90 seconds here and there, then chances are I’m trying to do too much at once. At that point, I know I need to reassess my goals.

“What about those days where I work on one project all day long? That makes for a mighty slender Work Log entry.”
Actually, it doesn’t. You’ll note in my January 27 example that I recorded the time I spent on my client’s project. There have been several other days where I’ve done nothing but work on that client’s project, or on an assignment for tech comm class. When my Work Log includes how long I spent doing everything I list for one day, it’s easy for me to look back and say, “Oh, that’s right. I spent ten hours on So-and-So’s proposal that day. Worth every minute.” When I put in parentheses how long I spent doing which tasks—yes, I even record the frustrations and stumbling blocks!—I have a much clearer idea of how I’ve spent my home office time.

Keeping a Work Log may not be for everyone. However, it’s been incredibly helpful for me, and I encourage you to give it a try.

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