Monday, April 30, 2012

My Unplugged Weekend

This past weekend, I went on a technology fast of sorts. It wasn’t preplanned, and yet it wasn’t accidental, either.

On a typical weekend in our house, when my little one has his lay-down after lunch and my older one is either playing the Wii with her father or playing outside with friends, I bring out the laptop and get to work. I peruse social media, news sites, entertainment sites, and eventually (hopefully) do some writing on my work-in-progress du jour. It’s a fairly routine carbon-copy of the other five days of the week when my daughter is at school and the house lulls itself into a mid-afternoon sleepiness.

But this weekend, when my daughter and I arrived home from a morning dodging snowflakes and running errands, I decided to let the laptop sleep. Instead, I decided, I would read a book. And not on my Nook, either, because I knew if I awoke the Nook, I would be lured onto Twitter and Words with Friends via my Wi-Fi connection. Nope, instead I cracked open an actual paper book (The Likeness by TanaFrench, if you’re curious—quite good so far). I read for several hours while my daughter visited at her grandparents’ house, while our little guy took his rest, and while the hubby enmeshed himself in a season of hockey on the Playstation. Such a tranquil way to spend a chilly, gray afternoon.

I kept the trend going that evening, and taught myself how to de-code crocheting instructions for a scarf while watching old episodes of Northern Exposure on Netflix. I felt so relaxed and decompressed by the time I went to bed Saturday night that I decided to treat myself to another unplugged day on Sunday. Ahh, bliss.

This morning, after taking my daughter to the bus and practicing some flexibility-centered yoga, I sat at the computer to catch up on everything I had missed over the weekend. Interestingly, it wasn’t much. To my mild surprise, nothing earth-shatteringly important was announced on Facebook over the weekend that managed to elude my attention. No life-altering tweets went unread. No time-sensitive updates hit my accounts in Good Reads or Figment. In fact, I barely missed a beat.

In this age of constant information overload, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we must always be connected to our electronic media in order to stay relevant, stay in touch, or stay informed. But the truth is, the world won’t stop spinning if you disconnect for a few days. In fact, if you do, you may find yourself far better able to deal with everything the world throws at you when you jump back in.

So after a successful and peaceful weekend of truly connecting with my husband, my children, and my interests outside the “virtual” world, I’ve decided to make all of my weekends “unplugged.” Who knows, maybe I’ll actually finish this scarf I’ve started.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Ten Things I’ve Learned from Teaching a Writing Workshop

As some of you know, I’ve been teaching a writing workshop to 5th through 8th graders at a local private school. It’s my very last task on the path to earning my Master of Fine Arts degree. Initially, I thought this would be a fun-filled romp through the creative process with eager, motivated students. But my experience thus far has taught me…well…

1.      Students at this age are often reluctant to voice their enthusiasm for any topic, particularly to the person in “authority” whose job it is to teach it to them. And especially if they happen to be among friends at the time. Let’s face it, most of the time it’s not cool to like school.

2.      Students at this age have no problem expressing their apathy, or complete hatred, for an academic topic—even to a nervous, brandy-new teacher—as discontent is always cooler than enthusiasm.

3.      Students at this age like to eat. If you want them to be creative (and even moderately enthusiastic), feed them.

4.      Much like giving instructions to a preschooler, specificity is key. Just like you can’t tell a preschooler to use the potty without including the instructions to a) wipe, b) flush, c) pull up your pants, and d) wash your hands—e) with SOAP—you can’t expect your students to write creatively without some sort of direction. In fact, the more direction you give, the cleaner the results. (Just like with the preschooler.)

5.      Even reluctant talkers become chatty when they get on a topic they truly love. I’ve found orcs and zombies to be of particular interest to my group.

6.      Students at this age (or any age, really) aren’t so big on take-home assignments, no matter how fun you make them sound. I allow time at the end of each workshop for in-class writing instead.

7.      As a novelist, I had grand plans for my students to chip away at large writing projects during our workshop, crafting characters, settings, and plots over the course of several weeks. Surely they’d be just as interested in creating epic stories as I am! Not so, actually. Short, quick-hit assignments work best.

8.      When you’re dealing with reluctant writers, throw out the criticisms for the time being. Tell them all the things they’re doing right. You’ll see smiles emerge, chests inflate, and fervor grow.

9.      Imagination in students at this age is boundless. Encourage them every way you can to unleash it.

10.  Students can be taught to love writing. I didn’t always believe this to be true, but it really is. Teach kids how to have fun with writing and they will respond with gusto.

We’re only halfway through, but already I feel I’ve gleaned a semester’s-worth of knowledge from these students. I can’t wait to see what other discoveries emerge in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Parting Thoughts

Easter weekend is my favorite weekend of the year. Not only does it encapsulate the promise of rebirth and renewal that surrounds us in nature each spring, but it reminds me, more than any other season or event throughout the year, of what awaits me on the other side of this life. Over the course of four consecutive days of services at my church (the Mass of the Last Supper, the Good Friday veneration and adoration, the blessing of Easter foods on Holy Saturday, and of course the glorious Easter Sunday celebration), I am reminded over and over of my personal beliefs regarding death and rebirth. It leads me to think about my own eventual demise in a hopeful and optimistic light.

That is, until a classmate had me list the things I hope not to think about during the last minutes of my life. This creative exercise got me worrying (as many things do). What if, as I’m lying in my bed fighting for those last minutes, instead of thinking fondly of family vacations and the births of my children, I’m wondering if I’ve left the oven on? What if, rather than peacefully tallying my well-made choices, fruitful paths, and accomplished goals, I am instead wondering how I’ll ever find out who will win the current season of The Amazing Race? What if the thoughts in my head at my death are the ones that will remain with me throughout eternity? And what if those thoughts are centered around the tacky nylon track outfit my husband threatened to bury me in if I didn’t stop complaining about my wardrobe? (It hasn’t happened yet, but I assure you, one day it will.) Perhaps, instead of donning the dazzling white vestments of the angels, I’ll be doomed to shlump around eternity in navy blue with gold racing stripes down my arms and legs, swish-swish-swishing as I traipse across the clouds as an everlasting tribute to my dissatisfied human self.

I don’t want to lie there, fading in and out of consciousness, concerned that I won’t be meeting my editor’s latest deadline, as if words submitted to a disinterested party should matter more than words spoken to my children, or grandchildren, or husband. Nor do I want to think about the debts I’m leaving behind, and how, in those final minutes, I might be able to do something to earn something to shave some small percentage off the top of the mountain of dollar signs accumulated over a lifetime. I don’t want to think about the things I regret not doing, the chances I didn’t take, the risks that might have paid off, the “what ifs” or “if onlys.” I want only to think of the joy that is, the happiness that was, the glorious forever that awaits.

And then I wonder why it is that I taint the vast majority of my day-to-day thoughts with the exact things I pray I won’t think about when I’m dying.

So here’s to populating our thoughts with the things that really matter, today and every day. (And to making sure my husband never buys me a navy blue track suit. Ever.)