Tag Archives: Writer’s Block

The Great and Powerful Shaz

I’ve been a teacher since 2006 and have had, in that time, about 1,800 students in my classrooms. And yes, they’ve all been wonderful people and I’ve loved them all. But…well, you know…I might have had some favorites over the years.

I know that I’m not supposed to have favorites, but it’s hard not to, especially with the high quality of students that come through my door. And especially when one of those students is the super cute, super smart, super wonderful Shahrazad Sheikhali.

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How cute and smart and wonderful is she?!

Shaz first became my student in August of 2011 when she enrolled in my Composition 2 class; and I immediately liked her. She was quiet but smart, and she always went the extra mile with her work, her discussions, and with the way she treated her classmates. She was one of my favorites that semester, and it could have ended there.

Shaz, far right -- her first appearance in one of my class photos!

English 152, Fall 2011: Shaz is far right — her first appearance in one of my class photos!

But then — but then! — I learned that she was loved to write! Favorite status imminent! Shaz enrolled in my creative writing class for the next semester…

One damn fine creative writing class!

One damn fine creative writing class!

…and then the next semester she joined Writer’s Block, our campus creative writing club. She quickly became a leader for the group, helping to organize author readings and our Bi-Annual Bad Poetry Contest.

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Writer’s Block hosts its first reading with author Sasha Dawn

Shaz emcees a Bad Poetry contest

Shaz emcees a Bad Poetry contest

Because of her work in our creative writing class and with the student club, I enlisted her to be one of my student editors for the 2013 issue of Voices, MCC’s literary arts magazine. She did a wonderful job on the issue, and even had one of her own poems published.

Writer's Block celebrates the end of the year and the Voices 2013 issue

Writer’s Block celebrates the end of the year and the Voices 2013 issue

Although Shaz didn’t need to take any more of my classes, we didn’t stop working together. She came to me with an idea for a project we could work on together as part of MCC’s then brand-new Undergraduate Research Scholar Program. She wanted to do some research on the impact of the teacher-student relationship on student success. We collaborated to design objectives and a plan for the semester, and then she set to work. Shaz did a literature review, observed classrooms all over campus, surveyed and interviewed students and professors, and wrote up her report at the end of her project (FYI: a supportive and structured student-teacher relationship has a positive impact on student performance). I was proud to be her mentor throughout the process, and I was even prouder when she told me that she’d be graduating MCC, transferring to Northern Illinois University, and studying to be a teacher. An English teacher! OMG, dream come true. Favorite status achieved!

She invited me to go to with her to NIU’s new student orientation the summer before she enrolled. I hadn’t been to a new student orientation like that since I was starting as an undergraduate myself, and I loved going with Shaz for a tour of the residence halls, the classrooms, the dining hall…everything! We also nerded out in the book store and I came out of it with a number of NIU pens. (I know, surprise, surprise, I bought pens.)

NIU's new student orientation!

NIU’s new student orientation!

I took a lot fewer pictures of Shaz during her time at NIU, primarily because it would have been weird for me to lurk around her classrooms and newspaper meetings and dining hall, snapping photos. (Although, to be honest, I was tempted.) But we kept in touch, got together for coffees and lunches in DeKalb and in Crystal Lake, and she caught me up on all of her cool studenty stuff.

Last year she did an observation at a middle school near her campus, and this semester she was a student teacher in the same school and with the same teacher. It was the last piece of her bachelor’s degree, and I got to see her in action. For my Adolescence in the Schools class at UIC this semester, I needed to observe adolescents in their natural habitat and the write up an ethnography; so I asked Shaz if I could observe her 7th grade class for a couple of hours one afternoon. She and her lead teacher were gracious enough to allow me to observe, and it was so much fun, not only because 7th graders are hilarious and weird and awesome, but because Shaz was great and I loved seeing her teach.

Shaz waits for her students to come back from lunch

Shaz waits for her students to come back from lunch

Shaz the teacher!

Shaz the teacher!

And then she was finished with her NIU coursework, was all set for her endorsements and her degree, and the only thing left for her to do was to graduate. To graduate, omg!

She graduated this past Sunday, and she invited me to the ceremony to sit with her family, which was an honor in itself. Her parents, sisters, and brother had gotten to NIU’s convention center as soon as the doors opened to get some good seats, and they were successful: we were front row, only yards away from where Shaz was seated.

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And the ceremony was lovely. NIU’s steel band played “Pomp and Circumstance,” (yes, they have an award-winning steel band and they played all the music and it was surreal because there was a snowstorm outside but tropical music all morning long). The president, during his keynote address, asked the families of the graduates to stand up and be recognized for their support, so the Sheikhalis took a much-deserved bow:

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Oh, just the cutest family ever.

And we watched Shaz walk up to receive her diploma, and we were all smiling so hard our faces almost fell off of our heads.

After the ceremony, we gathered with the other few hundred graduates and their accompanying thousands of family members in the convention center’s lobby to take some photos.

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Shaz, her sisters, and her mother

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Shaz, her sisters, and her cousin

Me and my favorite Shaz!

Me and my favorite Shaz!

All of it made me so happy and proud and bursting with smiles and hugs. Shaz has already gotten a job at a high school in the district where she did her student teaching, and she’ll start next fall. I’m so proud of how hard she’s worked and I’m honored to have been a part of her academic career.

I’m sure Shaz will be a part of my life for many years to come, and I know that although I’ll still have favorite students, I won’t have another one like her. Good luck, Shaz! You’re going to go so far!

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Sabbatical? Sabbati-CAN!

Today is Thursday, August 18, the third Thursday in August. I’m sitting here at my desk at home, feeling strange, because for the past ten third Thursdays in August, I have been at MCC’s Fall Faculty Development Day, which is the first official day of the semester for faculty members. And for six of those ten years, I didn’t just attend the day, but, as the chair of MCC’s Faculty Development Team, I planned the day with my FD teammates.

So, while a couple hundred of my faculty colleagues are sitting in workshops three miles away, why on earth aren’t I there with them? Because this semester, I’m on sabbatical. And I’m so excited about this that I can barely handle it.

Sabbatical

At my college, tenured faculty can apply to take an academic sabbatical after they’ve taught at the college for four years, and I thought that this year was finally my time.

I hadn’t applied before now for a couple of reasons. Because I was chair of faculty development, I always felt like I couldn’t take off for a semester and leave the team in the lurch. Yes, I could have left someone else in charge while I was gone, but I was never super comfortable with that kind of arrangement (I might have a problem with delegation…maybe).

The other reason, though, is the true reason: I’d never before had any idea what I would focus on for a sabbatical. At MCC, sabbatical must be proposed “for graduate study, research, or other professional development activity,” and I just hadn’t yet found a reason for an entire semester’s worth of leave for any of those things. For the past five years, after deciding that I wasn’t yet sold on getting a Ph.D., I’ve been trying to figure out what kind of second master’s degree to pursue. I looked at a lot of programs, some fully online, some face-to-face, some full time, some part time. And after five years of asking questions, doing research, and attending graduate school open houses (yes, I really am a Power), I finally decided to get a Master of Education in Instructional Leadership at University of Illinois Chicago.

Grad School Swag

Grad school swag

After I made my decision, I talked it over with my dean and then set to work on my sabbatical proposal, which was due last Fall, the year before I planned my leave of absence. Clearly, the focus of my sabbatical would be on graduate school classes, but I didn’t want to take more than two in one semester, even while on leave. And while two grad courses will surely be enough to keep me busy, I thought I could squeeze in a bit more to do, so I added some activities and turned in a three-part proposal:

  1. Enroll in MEd at UIC and pursue graduate courses toward that degree;
  2. Work on Creative Writing “2” course proposal; and
  3. Continue to work on my own analytical and creative writing and submit work for publication.

For years I’ve wanted to work on new curriculum to add to MCC’s creative writing offerings. Each time I’ve taught a section of creative writing, I’ve had students ask about a second class. In fact, the creative writing club I advise was born out of my students’ desire to keep working on their writing in a workshop environment. And because I knew that it will be reasonable for me to write a new course proposal this semester in addition to completing my grad work, I put it on my list.

And that third bit I just threw in for fun. Last year I contributed to the feminist film websites Bitch Flicks and Cinefilles, and I want to keep doing that this year (as well as submitting some of my new short fiction to lit magazines). So why not add it on? In fact, I recently started working on a new Bitch Flicks article for their August theme week about sisters. I’m going to write about sisters in horror films, so this is the “research” I get to delve into this week:

Research is hard.

The best research can be done while eating popcorn and sitting on your couch.

While I am so very excited (I AM SO EXCITED!) to be taking this semester to focus on my own professional development, it feels weird (weirdsoweird) that I won’t be teaching until January. Yes, I’ll be in a classroom, and yes, as usual, I stocked up on necessary supplies before this new semester begins:

Notebooks

I couldn’t decide which notebook will be better: the fancy one with a fancy tab and pen holder, or my old stand-by composition book? I have four days to decide. Wish me luck.

Folders

These are my new folders.

One of my two textbooks.

One of my two textbooks.

But there are some big changes, and the one in particular that is both upsetting as well as exhilarating is the fact that I won’t be wearing my First Day of Fall Semester Dress:

First Day Dress

Hello, friend.

I found this dress five years ago at Dovetail in our old West Town neighborhood. This dress —  handmade, cotton — hung on the rack next to another dress — sleeveless, blue, handmade, cotton — and both fit as though they’d been sewn just for me. They’d been brought in together and were clearly home-sewn. I got them both, and since then I’ve worn the red-and-white number every first day of class Fall semester. It’s the perfect First Day dress: light enough for the hot weather, very teacherly, and it covers up all of my upper body tattoos (which I hold back until the second day of class; it’s like a little surprise if students stick around after we’ve gone over the super exciting syllabus).

But I don’t know if I want to wear my First Day Dress to my first class next Tuesday. I mean, obviously I want to wear it, but I feel like I need to make a change in wardrobe for this huge change in my life. Last week I had dinner with a former student who’s now finishing up her bachelor’s degree with a final semester of student teaching (yes, clearly she is my favorite student because she’s going to be an English teacher and wants to eventually get her master’s degree and come teach at MCC). She and I talked about our first day of school outfits, and she recommended that I wear something different than my go-to dress. And I think she’s right. I’ll be in a different role next week than I usually am, and that means a different wardrobe. Thanks, Shaz, for being the best.

So, I still need to figure out what to wear for my first day as a student (OH MY GOD I’M GOING TO BE A STUDENT AGAIN!) and it will likely include a t-shirt and jeans. Because that’s what I wear when I’m not teaching (because that’s really what I love to wear), but that also means that all of my wonderful dresses and skirts will be lonely in my closet all semester. Maybe I’ll take them out when I go to the grocery store.

I made another change to my appearance in preparation for sabbatical: I got a hair-cut. Now, that’s not really any big news, but it’s kind of a drastic hair-cut, so I thought I’d mention it. I’ve had short hair for some time now (the longest it’s been since freshman year of college has been shoulder-length, and that’s never lasted for more than a few months), but this week when I went to visit the Amazing Audrey, she took almost all of it off.

Hair? What hair?

Two separate days, two different t-shirts, both white. When I’m not teaching, I am so boring.

If I were teaching next week, I don’t think I would have gone this short. But there’s something wonderful about knowing that while I’m in class, I won’t have all eyes in the room trained on me; I won’t have to look professional or teacherly; I won’t even have to wear make-up! (j.k. I will totally be wearing make-up since I can’t go out to walk the dog without mascara.) This idea is so liberating that I just needed to liberate almost all of the hairs from my head.

And now, I think I’m ready. My first class is Tuesday at 2 p.m., and I will probably not sleep very much on Monday night. But that sleeplessness will also be an effect of me binging sister-focused horror movies for a week and a half. Whatevs.

Wish me luck — I’ll let you know how it goes!

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ICYMI: Writer’s Block is a Jerk

I knew I could rely on Anne to write a guest post for this year’s writing group, since she did such a great post last summer, “Journaling Past Writer’s Block,” and since, because I used to be her teacher, I feel like I can still give her assignments. (FYI, Anne: when you are an old, old lady, I will probably call you up and tell you to write an essay about something, and I’ll make you remove all of the adjectives and I’ll make you write it in the present tense [and because I am much older than you I will probably be calling you from beyond the grave, so just be prepared for that, to get a phone call from a ghost].)

Here I am, giving Anne an assignment, and there she is, laughing at me.

There I am, giving Anne an assignment, and there she is, laughing at me.

Anne has been having a hard time writing these past couple of weeks, in part because of her hectic schedule, and in part because of some disgusting writer’s block. So she figured that this would be a perfect topic to write about here, and a nice companion piece to her previous guest post.

This is a guest post from Anne Donald, a member of this summer’s Online Writing Group:

I’m currently in my senior (and a half) status at Columbia College Chicago, majoring in writing. I plan to finish and graduate with a BA at the end of the Fall 2017 semester.

This year has been a challenge for me, and, of course, for my writing. One thing that has helped my writing is when I write about current topics. Also reading has helped break my writer’s block. But I will say the one thing that helped most of all was when I took the course Fiction Writers and Censorship. It’s taught me about many types of censorship and has given me a new view on my writing and my life in general. Without this class I would have continued to self-censor.

The class also helped my writing because it has forced me to create more dynamic characters. For example, I tend to look at both sides of an argument and come to an informed conclusion; and now I can take that characteristic of mine and bring it to my characters. Finally I will say that another tactic, besides reading, is that I have been starting to write more politically. I have never done that before aside from middle school and high school assignments. But it brings a very freeing sense to see my normally outspoken, saucy nature on the page. It’s like a pressure release and a brain dump. Also it gives me alternative ways to develop my characters by using the fiction to bring these issues to light.

 

These are all great ideas for us to keep in mind if we hit a wall, and perfect to consider when thinking of what I was going on about Charles Bukowski earlier this week. And remember: even if you’re not writing something good, you’re writing. Eventually you’ll get past the layers of gobbledygook and into something good, something useful for your project.

(also, everyone: Anne really is saucy. she’s not exaggerating.)

Write on, everyone!

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Journaling Past Writer’s Block

Group member Anne, a former student of mine, is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree at Columbia College Chicago. I worked with her on an Undergraduate Research Scholar Program project about the popularity and tropes of genre fiction, and I even invited her into my class to give a mini-workshop on her findings (I do not invite just anyone to take over my class; in fact, it’s only happened twice in nine years).

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Anne talks genre fiction mash-ups to my creative writing students

Anne is a great writer and talented young woman. Here, she talks about tapping into her own emotions to serve her writing process. Enjoy Anne’s post!

This is a guest post from Anne Donald, a member of this summer’s Online Writing Group:

Writing has saved me hours of emotional turmoil, because for me that is a huge emotional release. It’s where nothing matters beyond the story I need to tell. When I’m feeling extreme emotions lately I’ve been reaching out to my manuscripts and journal. These raw emotions are the driving force behind my writing. I’m creating my own world, a world where the feeling of writer’s block is drowned out by the message I want to send. When I started at the fiction writing program at Columbia, I found myself in a massive writer’s block; but then when I would scroll through the Internet and came upon posts that evoked extreme emotions from me, I would turn to Microsoft Word or my journal and just write.

The students get to work with Anne's writing exerise

The students get to work with Anne’s writing exercise

Using my emotions and experiences, I am able to get in the zone until the story I need to tell is completed. Another thing that helps me is posing questions to myself, asking myself the what would I do if I were in that situation type of questions. Usually I have a long list of questions I ask myself. Sometimes I even write a letter to my characters. And when I feel passionate about that or am able to completely get into my character’s mind, the writer’s block is cleared up.

I am an avid lover of history, so for me looking up historical facts, reading history textbooks or historical fiction, and finding things no one has written about fuel me and induce me into writing a story that I feel needs to be told or there is a message that I need the world to hear. Lately I have been branching outside historical fiction and dipping my toe in the waters of other genres and I have found that my emotions and experiences allow me to let the story tell me what it wants, no matter the genre.

If I can’t really think of anything to write, I purposely turn to things that I know will evoke an extreme emotional reaction from me; then my mind clears from its writer’s block and I’m able to tell what I need to tell. Also, I love reading and asking questions about the novels. I’m excited because lately I have been branching into unknown territory for me, where I put my characters in situations I wouldn’t normally find myself in. That goes back to the what would I/my characters do in certain situations that are new to me/them? I find my writing process easier when I am doing something that I enjoy as well, but more often than not this distracts me and I need to feel that raw emotion put to paper to clear up any remaining traces of that pesky writer’s block.

Anne’s method of getting into her characters’ heads and using her own emotions and hypothetical responses to situations is a great way to write believable actions and reactions. What else do you do to realize your characters?

Getting Rid of Writer’s Block

This is a guest post from Matthew Wasik, a member of this summer’s Online Writing Group:

Is writer’s block getting you down? Tired of staring at the screen, hoping Gunshija, Goddess of writers, will send you divine inspiration? Well, look no further! I, Matthew Wasik, am going to enlighten you on how I smash through writer’s block like the Hulk smashes through walls!

THE STEPS:

1:   Obtain the following items: a matchbox, the biggest bottle of gin you can find, and a picture of renowned pop star Taylor Swift. Set them on the table and croon softly to them.

2:   Light a match, stare at it until it burns down, and consider all the terrible choices you’ve made in life. Rinse and repeat until the matchbox is empty. Eat the empty matchbox.

3:   Smash the photograph while screaming “WHY DID YOU BETRAY ME, TAYLOR!? WHY?! I THOUGHT YOU WERE MY SOUL MATE!!!”

4:   Ignore the fact that you’ve never met Taylor Swift.

5:   Chug the bottle of gin.

6:   Curl into a ball and cry for several hours.

The tools you need to banish writer's block

The tools you need to banish writer’s block

Congratulations! You are now ready to write an award winning novel or build a robot! The world is your gin-soaked oyster! Go forth and CREATE!!!

…In all seriousness, my way of breaking through writer’s block is, oddly enough, to slide around it. If I get stuck on one project, I’ll switch to another one. Then I’ll return to the original project once my brain is reset. I don’t know if this would work for you, since I have a strange brain-mind, but feel free to try it!

 

Thanks for the tips, Matthew! Your brain-mind is amazing. (check out more from Matthew on his blog) Readers, now that you have some great writer’s block-busters, get writing!

Writer’s Block: It’s a Good Thing

I had a crummy day yesterday. I don’t know quite what it was about the day, just a regular Tuesday, but it seemed to be going around. The colleagues I have joint office hours with in the morning also complained of feeling that it was a crummy day; the meeting I went to in the afternoon felt sucked of energy (and my own 2 minute report wasn’t any kind of stand-out, so I know that I, too, was responsible). Even Trevor, when he got home from work, told me that his day–independent of my own–was crummy in its own right.

But I have this magic thing that makes any crummy Tuesday better than it was, and I forgot about it until 3:59 p.m., at which time I walked into the student club I advise, and everything about the crummy day was put on hold.

Writer’s Block is the creative writing club on campus, and it was started in 2009 by some of my creative writing students who’d bonded so much over our class that they wanted to keep it going. They asked me to advise, and the next year I brought on my friend and colleague, Lisa, as co-advisor. The students have come in and out as they’ve matriculated in and through the school; sometimes they take just a semester, sometimes years, as is often the case at a two-year college. But regardless of who’s sitting in our meeting room on any given Tuesday afternoon, they always seem to make me feel better about the crumminess.

Writer's Block, MCC FA2014

The gang, circa November 2014

Yesterday they cheered me up with a love haiku; a poem featuring a potato (a running theme in the club [don’t ask me why; I don’t really know]); a short story about a mystical Druid army; a short story that read like the toddler of Vonnegut and D. Foster Wallace; discussions about speculative fiction, “magi-tech,” and why both Blade Runner and Phillip K. Dick’s inspirational novel (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) are fantastic; and, the cherry on top, a half-dozen young writers who are just plain fucking cool.

Pardon my language. I feel strongly about them.

So next Tuesday, I will remember that at 3:59 p.m., no matter what, I’m about to feel a whole lot better.

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