October 2008


Okay, I am really sorry. I know I haven’t talked much lately about my own writing. Please, you get no argument from me. I know I said this blog was about my writing and my writing tips. Lately, I have been all about writing and teaching tips and not so much my personal writing. I don’t have an excuse, but I do have an explanation.

 

Ever since the writing conference, I started revamping my own webblog (www.mwittle.wordpress.com). My theory with having that blog was to just let that be a place for my rejection letters. But then I got jealous. Everyone on the blogging panel had a blog and I didn’t. I mean, I have this one and believe me I love writing about writing. However, they had blogs that they just wrote about what was on their minds. I wanted that, too.

 

So, I went back into my webblog and started just emptying my thoughts. I am having a lot of fun and it is like training for memoir writing for me. Of course I am sticking to the strict diet of writing everyday and picking something funny to write on. Because I know I want to be the writer that tells funny stories like David Sedaris, this blog is really good practice for me.

 

But, I will admit, it is taking a chunk of my time. I log into my blog every hour to see if any new people have “come to call.” As of yet, I am still comment free and hating it. From writing this writing blog, I have learned that just because you post something doesn’t mean that fifty million people will show up that day to read it and comment. Sometimes it takes my blogs a few days on the web before people come to read it. Sure, I want to get to the point where it’s posted and everyone rushes to read it. I can wait though. Hell, in the height of the Cabbage Patch Kid Doll craze, I was willing to wait forever for my Polly Ann doll. My mom was the one who couldn’t wait until Christmas to tell me she got it for me. I have mentioned my mom was odd, right?

 

Again, I am sorry for neglecting you. I promise that I will be more vigilant with my blogs. Keep in mind that I am working on the compare and contrast teaching blog now (okay, not right this very second, but after I proof this blog and post it, I will be writing that one) so, I haven’t forgotten to do what you asked me to do.

 

If you are seriously going through Michelle Wittle withdraw, then remember you have options. I am on twitter and you can read my other blog. Okay? Good.

That’s right, I am on twitter. It truly is the most addicting thing on the web. I check it like twenty-five times a day and I post notes about twenty times a day. If you don’t have a twitter account, I suggest that you get one.

 

What’s that? You don’t know what twitter is? Let me enlighten you on this new social network on the web.

 

Twitter is basically like a myspace or facebook. The thing that makes it stand out is that the whole premise is that you tell people what you are doing and then you can follow people and they can follow you. It’s nice because it is like posting a bulletin on myspace or updating your status on facebook. Your profile is only three questions and you can add a cute little pic of yourself or your dog (whatever you do, that’s your business).

 

They give you 140 characters to let everyone know what you are up to that day. You know how you are walking around the house, having an A.D.D. moment and this cool thought pops in your head? You think, I don’t want to deal with myspace or facebook, I just want to share this cool thought. Well, enter twitter.

 

This is such a great place for writers. Think about it, you are writing a piece and you can’t get this one part to work. So, you can now go to your twitter account, briefly state your frustration, and then your followers can either help you with advice or share in your pain.

 

Or maybe you are trying to promote your new blog or your novel. Now you can just go on twitter and within 140 characters, you have made your announcement.

 

I would like to thank Ms Purple Car for explaining this new social network and bringing it to the audience of the blog panel. I had a twitter account for a while before this event and I didn’t understand what it was or how I was supposed to use it. Now, I can’t stop checking my page and making announcements.

 

Again, if you don’t have a twitter account, I suggest you get one. You will be thanking me (and Purple Car) for letting you in on this new outlet.

 

Also, don’t forget to come and follow me! (http://twitter.com/MichelleWittle)

 

 

http://twitter.com/

If you don’t know the basics in anything, then you can never grow. You can’t write the next great American novel, if you can’t sustain an audience in a simple five-paragraph essay. It is just that simple. You can’t write well without knowing the “science” behind writing.

 

For some, they think teaching the five-paragraph essay is a waste of time. I’m not too sure why but I think the argument is teaching the essay format dilutes creativity. Which I feel is utter insanity. I can’t stand when someone feels that in order to be creative you have to go against all the rules. As I see it, being creative means knowing the rules and knowing how to manipulate them to suit your needs.

 

So, I am going to once again reach into my teaching bag and share with all of you how I taught my students the five-paragraph essay. I would like to toot my own horn here by telling you that when I taught in Philadelphia, I taught in a school that had 9th graders for one year and then they went to a different school for the rest of their time in high school. When my 9th graders wrote essays for other teachers, they always knew my kids because they knew how to write an essay.

 

I can’t remember how often they wrote essays, but I know that every test I ever gave had an essay portion to it. Let’s say I gave them an essay every two weeks. I also had them write research papers as well. I was such an evil teacher.

 

The Five-Paragraph Essay:

 

I always equated writing a five-paragraph essay to making a sandwich. The two pieces of bread are the introduction and the conclusion. They look the same, but have minor changes. The middle three paragraphs are always the “meat” of the sandwich. Let’s go with ham, cheese and lettuce. Each of those could be eaten alone and be perfectly fine, but when placed in order produce a powerfully tasty meal.

 

After the students get the analogy and (depending on when you are teaching during the day) when they have stopped thinking about the sandwich (which may or may not ever happen), then you can get into the paragraphs and their construction.

 

We get the brainstorm (I am a big fan of the web) and we find the three supporting details from our brainstorm. Then, we create an outline. Here is where you can get a bit creative. Do you know those cool sentence strips you see the younger grades using? Well, get them. Here is what you do. Somehow get the strips on the board (magnets, masking tape, whatever). When you are making the outline, create the sentences that you will use in the essay and write them on the strips. Now you have a visual representation of how an outline can turn into an essay and it will also save you time because the essay is already written.

 

Tell the kids that the introduction is a diamond and the conclusion is a pyramid. The diamond is because you start out with a general statement about the topic and then narrow it down to the thesis statement. The pyramid is because you restate the thesis and then expand to a concluding general statement about the topic.

 

Paragraphs 2,3,and 4 are just the supporting details that help validate the thesis. Just like the meat in a sandwich helps make the bread taste a bit better. 

 

The concluding paragraph is easy because all that needs to be done is restate the introduction in reverse.

 

Now, as they start to get the format down, then you can start helping them become more stylistic in their approach to writing the essay. Experiment with sentence structure and vocabulary only after the can demonstrate that they can handle the format. Take it one step at a time and build on top of things. If you throw everything at them at once, then you both are done. They won’t pay attention to you and you will want to throw out your eyes because of all the horrific papers you will be grading.

 

I taught this in high school to 9th and 10th graders. I don’t think it is ever too soon to start learning this format. Perhaps in middle school you could do a three-paragraph essay (the introduction, conclusion and one supporting paragraph). But by the time they are leaving tenth grade, they should know how to write a well-developed five-paragraph essay.

 

Also, for compare and contrast essays, you can pick either a four or five paragraph essay. But I will leave that for another time…if you want me to teach you that as well.

I recently met a very feisty woman by the name of Edith. Although we only shared a few words, perhaps a little over a dozen if that, she said something that has been resonating in my mind ever since we spoke.

 

The discussion was about taking risks and not being afraid. She told me how she has never been one to be scared to “put herself out there” or “make a fool of herself”. Then she said, “it’s just a piece of paper” (referring to a rejection letter). How simple is that statement and yet how spot on.

 

Why am I afraid to put my stories and essays out there? It is only a piece of paper. They aren’t saying I am not a good enough writer or that I should’ve have quit my day job. All they are saying is that right now, that particular piece isn’t for them. It’s not like they are laughing at me (and even if they are, I won’t hear it, so does it really matter?). It’s just a piece of paper…nothing more.

 

But in my head, I twist it into so much more. I see it as a failure. Once again, I let everyone including myself down. I freeze because of a rejection letter. I am constantly looking for validation as a writer and that letter says my words are “no good here”.

 

Sure, it is because I lack self-confidence. But I think it is also because I have fear. This fear flows into all aspects of my life and stops me from doing all kinds of things. The worst part is, I wasn’t always like this. What happened to the girl who used to join every activity in high school regardless of how much her mother didn’t want her to? Where is that girl who sent out her poetry and didn’t care if she got rejected? When did I stop being the girl who took chances?

 

Here is the answer…I don’t know. As I got older, I just stopped taking chances. I guess I thought I just had to get in line with the rest of the world. Go to school, earn a degree, get a job then die in said job. Along the way get married and have children. Then I will achieve the American dream of the white picket fence and the two-story home. I’ll even bake apple pies and go to yard sales. In the fall, I’ll carve pumpkins and attend the fall festival.

 

But here’s the thing, I don’t know how to bake apple pies. I want so badly to have that safe plan and be able to just fall in line. However, I keep tripping on my untied shoelaces. People trample over me and no one lends a hand to help me get back in line. I guess I just don’t belong in that line.

 

Fear keeps me from accepting that it is okay to not be in that line. Fear keeps blocking my eyes from the other line. The one over there, just a bit out of reach. People in that line are laughing and they have papers all over the place. They smile and hug one another warmly. If I just stretch a bit more, I can make it. But that fear keeps my limbs from being loose.

 

My whole life I thought I only had one chance at being normal. The older I get, the more I see that normal is just a relative term. My normal will never be your normal, and I know, in theory,  that is okay. There is more then one way to be normal, but fear stops us all from seeing that.

 

However, Edith knows all of that already. She was never one to shy away from a risk. Her normal is the type of normal I want to live in. I want to see a rejection letter not as a testament to being an untalented hack, but as just a piece of paper.

 

Ps…I am not saying that there is anything wrong with having a life filled with apple pies and festivals. I am learning how to see that things aren’t always what they seem. Also, one day you and I will sit down and I will tell you all about my life. Then you will understand why I needed to hold on to the possibility of achieving that type of the American dream.    

I worried. I fretted. I got an ulcer. All of that stuff happened because I wanted the best piece of writing for the open mic part of the Push to Publish event. Well, I have some good news and some luke-warm news.

 

First, if you did miss the Push to Publish conference, you missed a really great day. There were so many different types of writers and professionals in the field of writing that it was just an amazing day. I learned so much and talked to a lot of great people. I am really excited about the new connections I made because of this conference and I urge everyone who is interested in writing to go to a writer’s conference. Even though I was there from about 8am to about maybe 7pm, it felt like minutes flew by instead of hours. I can’t say enough about how great this day was and you should be ashamed of yourself for missing it.

 

But enough about that, let’s discuss the open mic. The day was long and filled with back top back information. So, when five o’clock rolled around and people started heading to the exit with a glazed look in their eyes, I wasn’t annoyed. I was a bit tired as well and I didn’t really do all that much, so I could just imagine how tired and full of information people were from the event. However, some people did stay and I am grateful to them (and I would just like to say hey Marc and your wife, thanks so much for staying…oh wait a minute). I read my story and I didn’t die. I may have rushed the story a bit and maybe I wasn’t loud enough, but still, you have to start somewhere, right?

 

What I learned from this open mic experience is this: as prepared as you are, you can’t predict the outcome. I read my story and it will be going through another rewrite. I found two things I didn’t like as I was reading it. An open mic is a great way to test your material out. It’s another avenue to see if that joke was funny or if that subplot works or not. People are very supportive at an open mic, so it is comfortable and safe place to try new material out.

 

I really enjoyed listening to the other people share their work and I was thrilled that they had enough guts to grab the mic and read their creations to an audience. If you are looking for yet another way to improve your written work, I suggest you find the local open mics and grab your own gut.

 

Sure, no editor came after me when I was done reading and was demanding my story for his or her publication, but I got a chance to read my story and see that it still could use some work. Just like with everything in life, you never know what you will learn from an experience. 

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