Sabbatical Notes From Underground: Writing with Power

powerPart of my sabbatical plan was also to read Peter Elbow’s cookbook, which my brother Karl told me years ago was the best book about writing he ever read. Granted, it may have been the only book about writing he ever read, but he was an English major before he went to seminary, so maybe he read others. It is a good book. I’m thinking about having my students buy it.

Did I say cookbook? I did, and that’s Elbow’s own metaphor for what he’s written here. Sitting down to read it straight through is a little like sitting down to read…

a cookbook.

As much as the reading could be tedious, I really like Elbow’s advice to writers. I’ve tried out a few recipes. They’re practical, various, and never the last word. Like he says in the end, “The precondition for writing well is being able to write badly and to write when you’re not in the mood,” (373) (which is my mood right now, but look at me go). Just sit down and write, ya morons!

He says a lot more, so here’s a smattering:


on Power

  • Power means the power to make a difference, to make a dent. (280)
  • “you want the power of the Ancient Mariner to transfix readers and make them hear what they don’t want to hear and give them an experience they didn’t set out to have” (280)

on Meaning

  • Meanings are in readers, not in words”You must walk up to readers and say, “�Let’s go for a ride. You pedal. I’ll steer.”? (315)

on Motivation

  • We are often told to drive defensively; assume that there’s a driver you don’t notice who is careless or drunk and my kill you. Good advice for driving, but not for writing. (xix)
  • How can I get myself to put in the daunting time and effort I need for more consistent good results? The answer, I think, is to cheat — to look for pleasure and shortcuts. (xxi)

on separating Creation from Criticism

  • Writing calls on two skills that are so different that they usually conflict with each other: creating and criticizing. (7)
  • I’m arguing that we can make a better plan if we plan for nonplanning; we can write better if we build in periods where we remove goals from our mind; we can meet the needs of readers better if we sometimes put readers of out mind — especially at early stages. (xii)

on freewriting (Creation)

  • The goal of freewriting is in the process, not the product. (13)
  • Write fast”.If you can’t say it the way you want to say it, say it the wrong way. (27)
  • Who hasn’t had the dismal experience”of sitting there trying to transform one uninteresting thought into an architecture of Roman numerals, capital letters, Arabic numerals, and small letters. (40)
  • …don’t be held back by lack of data. You are mind stretching, not trying to be sure. (80)

on revision (Criticism)

  • You shouldn’t start revising till you have more good stuff than you can use. (10)
  • Now you should read through this draft as a reader. The best way to do this is to read your draft out loud” (36)
  • When it comes to words, ideas, feelings, and insights, there is plenty more where that came from. The more you use and throw away, the more you have available. (126)

on Grammar and Usage

  • I hate following rules. Nevertheless, the important question is not “Should I follow rules?”? The important question is, “Do these rules help me write?”? (xxvi)

on Argument

  • Try hard to find good arguments for your position, but then try even harder to find arguments to refute yours. (201)
  • The best you can hope for — and it is hoping for a great deal — is to get your readers just to understand your point of view even while not changing theirs in the slightest. (203)

on Audience

  • Teachers are not the real audience. You don’t write to teachers, you write for them. (220)

on Feedback

  • When you get conflicting reactions, block your impulse to figure out which reactions are right. Eat like an owl; take in everything and trust your innards to digest what’s useful and discard what’s not. (264)

on Voice

  • “the attainment of real voice is a matter of growth and development rather than mere learning. (302)

Perhaps he says it best in his final chapter about the intangible magic of the written word when he writes, “Use the truth whenever possible. Real events. Real names. In addition, however, practice lying whenever possible.” (370)

Any questions?

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at age 15

Guest poet Kylie writes in honor of Maia’s fifteenth birthday.

at age 15

maiaorange she does a squirmy dance.
hair of a man on her legs,
on her head; of a goddess.
wearer of Chacos,
whose eyes disappear when
she smiles a
grin so wide
her face should split.
heart of a lioness.
squeal of a pig.
skiing peals of laughter
come from deep within
a soul untainted.
no anger over petty fights.
no tears over split milk.
if you squeeze her,
she may pass gas.

proof that Jesus walks the earth.


And a blast from the past. This must be birthday number 10.


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flightSherman Alexie is probably most famous for writing the screenplay to Smoke Signals back in 1998. Since then, he’s been doing some other things, like competing in the World Heavyweight Poetry Bout and doing stand up comedy. But 2007 saw a novel burst. He published both Flight and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

What surprised me was this. I had heard that one of these two was billed as “a book for young adults, ” and when I picked up Flight I assumed this was it. I teach an Adolescent Literature course, so I was interested in possibility including it in the course.

The narrator is a fifteen-year-old in-and-out-of-the-system orphan who calls himself Zits. Native Catcher in the Rye immediately came to mind and I read the whole thing never doubting that this was the “young adult” novel. Never mind that it’s full of excruciatingly graphic violence and more F-bombs than the Sopranos, I’d still call it an adolescent novel, so I’m interested to know what True Diary is like.

It’s a fast read – I read it in one day’s time – but ultimately not a great novel. It’s got good moments, like the joy of Zits finally meeting someone who cares enough to help him with skin care products, but ultimately it’s a “message” novel. Each scene is designed to teach a lesson about the human experience, and at the end, both we and Zits are better people. I’m all for saving the world one reader at a time, but great novels are never like this. They make us think and wrestle with issues that matter, but they never preach.

Ultimately, Alexie is preaching here. That’s a No to including it in my course.

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Three Cups of Tea

CupsFor once I’m on the book band wagon. Duluth’s One Book read this spring is Three Cups, and there have been discussion groups at LSC (one of which I’ve attended), plus Greg Mortenson himself is speaking here in a week or so and Sherry and I have tickets (courtesy of Stacy Johnston and LSC CTL, thank you), so I really feel like I’m in the middle of something important. Mortenson’s work is important, and it is what it’s all about.

Sherry read Three Cups last summer, made me want to read it, and then gave it away before I got to it. The truth is, it’s the kind of book that you want to give away because it’s that good.  It’s the story of this sort of bumbling guy, Greg Mortenson, who by chance commits himself to a rather small but impossible vision of building one school for the children of the isolated village of Korphe, Pakistan, that has now grown to hundreds of schools in the Northern Areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan that are providing a balanced education, mostly for girls, contrasting the fundamentalist Islamic jihadist madrasas schools in the same region that have been the incubator for Al Quada and the Taliban.

There are probably several keys to Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute’s success, but what stands out to me is Mortenson’s commitment to local control and advisement by the Pakistani and Afghani people.  He had to learn it the hard way, but it’s their stake in the process that make CAI’s work legitimate and not colonial.  There’s American money behind it, but it would just be more Americans saving the world without that local stake.  Instead, it’s Pakistani and Afghani people empowered to fight their own poverty and stem the violent forces that would use that poverty for its own murderous purposes.

The other key is Mortenson’s humility.  The human condition is such that power and success so often are accompanied by temptation and delusion (see latest example), but so far he seems to be what he appears to be.  I’m really looking forward to hearing him speak next week.

The books has renewed my belief in the power of a few people to affect meaningful change in the world.  It can and is happening, and I, for one, hope to get more involved.  Stay tuned.

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On stopping by Blackhoof on a sunny afternoon with Keith and Mocha

Winter showed a chink in her armor today.

“I hope you don’t mind dog shit,”? he says.

A rumpled black plastic bag
covers a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.
mSpringer Mocha snuffles modestly.
I shove my skis in the back.

Later under a blue sunlit dome we load
sled to be pulled to the shack behind skis.
Tool bag, oil pan, oil, funnel, plug, filter, shop towels
and mystery revealed.
Ice cream pails full of Mocha grounds.
A winter’s worth mined from
Mocha brewing and dumping on Mocha’s beach.
Forget vanilla.
Forget pralines and forget cream.
Forget Kemps, and Ben & Jerry, too.
Think Mocha Choca Latte. Think Grande.
Do you need a permit to transport these
lovingly processed nuggets?
Clumped, frosty, perfect in the hand nuggets for whipping at ice cream trucks?

“�wait. Don’t touch. Such riddles have limits.
No, dump carefully
not in the garden but
in the woods where
small guys process microbe nuggets
for spring grass.

Springer Mocha, wet nose thrust in the snow,
stub quivering as we ski Blackhoof in our shirtsleeves,
percolates more mystery.

No, I don’t mind dog shit.

(Note: Special thanks to Vicki for the idea.)


Posted in General Musings, Poems | 2 Comments

Go ahead. Calculate your Well-Being. You know you want to.


My friend Greg Connor wrote a masters thesis a few years ago where he explores the possibilities of measuring Well Being – what might be called Happiness – which he also equates with Wealth. Now he’s developing a website (under construction – but the calculator works) where you can calculate your own Well Being. (Google “Connor123”)

When he told me about it I was pretty skeptical, but it was worth ten minutes of my time to check it out. Heck, it was worth 15. Ultimately, Connor123 got me to think about how I allocate my time and money, which is a very helpful thing.

To begin, Greg quotes Thoreau saying, “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.” Greg’s calculator divides that “cost” into the two factors of Time and Money. In Greg’s world, Wealth is only about money in so far as money allows us to do things that are fulfilling or meaningful to us. Therefore, the rich woman who works all the time will score as poorly as the poor man whose time is his own. Balance is the key.

Intuitively, most of us know this to be true, but achieving such a balance is different than understanding it. Knowing me, Greg predicted correctly that I’d come out very short on the Time end of things. I also came up pretty short on Money (you know, teacher), but what’s more important is that the process got me thinking. I haven’t changed my lifestyle, but I may soon. (Geez. Don’t get pushy!)

If you’re interested, see Connor123 in my Blogroll. If you’ve got better ways to spend 10 minutes, Greg and I approve completely!

By the way, you can also find Greg at The Banjo Hangout.

Posted in General Musings | 2 Comments

Sabbatical Notes From Underground: Mina P. Shaughnessy: Her Life and Work

mina1Jane Maher’s biography of Shaughnessy is my second sabbatical read (one academic book of the month club), and I finished it right on schedule yesterday (thank heavens for leap day!). Back when I was planning my sabbatical over a year ago, I wanted to reconnect with the passion of my graduate school experience, and while I remember Shaughnessy as being one of the giants of Comp and Rhetoric, I didn’t remember much more than that. Now I know a lot more about her, and I don’t think I could have selected a better text for recharging my commitment to empowering open enrollment students to become writers. High minded drivel, yes, but I like it.

What I like best about Maher’s book is that, while it’s a biography, the “work” part of her title is more than apt. She concentrates as much on Shaughnessy’s work and ideas as she does Shaughnessy’s life. Both are powerful. Both renew my faith in the nobility of what writing instructors – particularly developmental writing instructors – are trying to do. After reading Paulo Friere, I don’t think I could have done better than Shaughnessy. I plan to read her 1977 classic Errors and Expectati0ns when I can squeeze it in, probably this summer.

The book is primarily the story of Shaughnessy’s leadership in CUNY’s Open Admissions program in the early 1970s. In 1970, CUNY granted tuition-free admission to any graduate of the New York City Public School system. The move was unprecedented and controversial, and was essentially abandoned after five years, though pieces of it remain everywhere, especially where I teach – in an open enrollment community college. A writing instructor, Shaughnessy fervently believed in the ability of under prepared students to be successful in academia when almost no one else would.

One of her battles was with the established English faculty, whose belief was that Open Admission dragged down the entire institution – the lofty Ivory Tower. In her 1975 address to the the MLA in San Francisco entitled “Diving In,” she focuses on the development of writing instructors as follows:

Developmental scale of Basic Writing teachers (pp. 162-63)


  1. Guarding the Tower: protecting the academy from”�those who do not seem to belong in the community of learners.
  2. Converting the Natives: learning is thought of”�as a steady flow of truth into a void. “�it does not occur to [the teacher] to consider the competing logics and values and habits that may be influencing students, often in ways that they themselves are unaware of.
  3. Sounding the Depths: it finally occurs to the teacher that the things he or she is trying to teach the students”�only appear simple to those who already know them”�that sense and nonsense of written English must often collide with spoken English that has been serving students in their negotiations with the world for many years.
  4. Diving In: the teacher”�must now make a decision that demands professional courage — the decision to remediate himself, to become a student of new disciplines and of his students themselves in order to perceive both their difficulties and their incipient excellence.

I like to think that at some point soon I’ll be diving in.

Shaughnessy grew up a Lutheran from western South Dakota, where I have similar roots, so it was also easy to connect with her spiritual struggles and family commitments, too. Tall, beautiful, and a self described “clothes horse,” Maher notes often how everyone around Shaughnessy was in love with her. I’m in love with her, too.

Do you think there’s something wrong with being in love with a dead woman at least half a century my senior? I’ll ask Sherry. She’ll know.

Posted in Books, Sabbatical | 2 Comments

Icefishing: It’s really true

red lake

It’s true. In the winter time, Minnesotans drive out onto lakes, drill holes in the ice, huddle in little houses for hours, and wait. I spent all day last Saturday with my brothers, Dave and Nate, on Upper Red Lake, and then all day Monday with Dave and his friend Bruce on Lake of the Woods. I caught one fish too small to keep, and I caught it about ten minutes before we packed up and left on Monday. I was really pleased.

lowI’m kicking myself that I didn’t bring a camera to supply more documentation, so you’re looking at some generic internet photos used to promote ice fishing vacations. You’ll never see these getaways given away on The Price is Right, but there are thousands of folks out on the ice each weekend in Minnesota.

What are they doing? This is a good question. I think a Top Ten list is the best way to approach this subject:

  1. Drinking lots of cheap beer (Grain Belt is my favorite)

  2. Discussing trucks that went through the ice recently, how they got them out, what fines they paid, and what morons they are

  3. Eating cheesy sausages boiled to perfection in lake water

  4. Grilling venison chops from November’s deer hunt (also done in the cold from small, portable buildings)

  5. Eating venison chops from a “plate” made from an over-turned pickle bucket washed with a handful of snow

  6. Remembering fish that we’ve caught on other trips (necessary because we aren’t catching any on this trip)

  7. Peeing in public under more sky than Montana’s within earshot of the fish house, and commenting on force, volume, velocity, duration, and color.

  8. Privately wishing we’d stayed home to watch the cooking channel and help our wives clean the mini-blinds

  9. Letting go of every gas formerly withheld in polite company

  10. Swearing as if it’s something we do every day without thinking about it

Notice that catching fish isn’t on the list. Dave did haul in a 19 1/2 inch walleye Monday. With that and two smaller ones Bruce brought in, we did feed Dave, Vicki and I Monday night in Warroad. This is about as good as the fishing gets, however. There are other people who do better – who even do well – but these people have never been me or anyone I know. They’re spoken about with reverence and mystery. They’re something akin to Yeti or Sashquach.

Still, it’s a good time. Saturday was a warm day – about 30 degrees. Monday was sub-zero with a wind our of the northwest that made your eyes water after ten seconds.

It was great to be with my brothers and rehash the old days on the farm. What’s more, they provide all the equipment. If you can match their offer, any time you want to go, let me know.



Posted in General Musings, Travel | 6 Comments

The Sun Also Rises


Reading along with my daughter and her AP English class, I picked up another that I have missed.  Twenty six years ago as a high school senior, I read For Whom the Bell Tolls and A Farewell to Arms and wrote a terrible senior research comparing characters.  I had nothing to say, and no idea how to say it.  Mr. Dyrud, who’d had my brilliant sister and brother before me, said, “This is very disappointing.  I was expecting so much more,” as he handed it back to me.  In truth, it was a B (not terrible, I guess), but I knew it was bad without him having to be disappointed.  Ever a people pleaser, I just wanted him to be pleased.  At that point, becoming an English teacher wasn’t within a million miles of my plans.

How did I get here?

I digress.  This is supposed to be a book review, but I must finish w/ Bell and Arms.   I loved Bell.  Robert Jordan was cool and I felt like I knew him.  The romance and tragedy of the Spanish Civil War moved me.  I was set to head out and fight fascists myself at a moment’s notice.  I was unimpressed by Arms.  I didn’t get Frederick Henry.  The things he would say and do made no sense to me.  In my essay, I was supposed to compare these guys for eight pages.  I used lots of quotes, and have fond memories of a week’s worth of late nights in my parent’s basement with Mom’s manual Smith-Corrona clacking away.  There were moments when I felt like I was saying something.  There were other moments when I’d carefully type, “Ibid.”  Good memories, but it’s no wonder it took me 26 years to Return to Hemmingway.

I’d have to say that Sun kind of falls in with Arms.  Hemmingway’s style is detatched and journalistic, and I  had a hard time connecting with Jake Barnes.  Also 87% of the book seemed to be descriptions of drinking, with occasional eating thrown in.  The whole expatriot scene was foreign.  All of these Americans and Brits are unhappy and hang out together even though they disliked each other intensely.   And where did they get their money?  I guess this was Hemmingway’s point.  They were the Lost Generation (thank you Barnes and Noble synopsis).

I know Jake got his wang shot off in the war, and that he and Brett might have been happy if this had not been the case, but they both were pretty pathetic.  I suppose I was a little in love with Brett.  How could I not be when everyone else was?

I did enjoy the characters of Bill and Romero.  Bill was just a terrifically funny drunk.  He says, “Road to hell paved with unbought stuffed dogs” and “I’m fonder of you than anyone on earth.  I counldn’t tell you that in New York.  It’d mean I was a faggot.”

Romero was just a terribly interesting figure.  Like everyone else, I wanted to know how he got into that green bull fighting suit. 

Finally, the fishing and bullfighting were fascinating.  In these cases, I appreciated the dispassionate but detailed way that Hemmingway presents things.  Jake never acts like he’s excited about these things, but the detail in which he presents things says otherwise.

Anyway, I wouldn’t mind passing around a five liter leather wineskin sometime with some Basques and feeling tight.

Posted in Books, General Musings, Personal History | 2 Comments

Boomerang at 44

Four days ago – a week after my 44th birthday – I moved back in with my parents.  The basement’s cold, and Mom’s cooking experients are as interesting as ever, but all in all, it’s pretty decent.

It’s not really what it sounds like.  I’m lucky enough to be on sabbatical from my teaching job at LSC this semester, and when my dad – turning 80 this summer – ended up in the ER and overnight in the hospital last week, Sherry suggested that I head home for awhile.  Thankfully my in-laws were in town and shuttle me back to TRF.  Sherry’s been looking for a reason to get rid of me for several weeks anyway(with good reason), and luckily Dad seems to be fine.  The leading theory on why he passed out and was disoriented was a reaction to some 30 year old cologne he found and slapped on in a fit of boyish vanity.  Mom poured it down the toilet, and he’s been fine since.  Though there’s been a follow up MRI to check for a stroke with a neuro-psychologist consult coming up, he hasn’t missed an exercise class, and has delivered all of his meals on wheels to the correct parties.

The highlights so far have been:

  • a rousing game of 3 handed Rook, lasting well past 10:00 p.m.
  • hob knobbing with old Zion folk at the Wednesday night Lenten supper
  • watching the Northland Men’s basketball team win
  • devotions every morning
  • a night out with Nate, my brother, at the Evergreen
  • a day as mule/jungle gym/sled puller with my neices, Marryn and Ani
  • Three Amigos and Triple Decker on the sledding hill @ minus 10 degrees, also w/ M and A
  • watching my nephew, Alec, get ready to walk
  • helping Dad figure out how to use Quicken to keep track of the Pennington County Historical Society’s finances
  • working up some piano/guitar duets to play with Mom in church Sunday
  • lunch with Diane Drake – my former teacher and mentor – again at the Evergreen
  • getting a Valentine in the mail from my wife
  • getting another Valentine in the mail from my children
  • shoveling the driveway

This is a hopping place.  Am I getting much sabbatical work done?  Nope.  But that hasn’t affect my happiness.

Posted in General Musings, Travel | 1 Comment