Saturday, June 2, 2007

First assignment for the writing workshop

I'll be editing this over time.

My writing history.
I’m old and my history is long. Here goes.

When I was in middle school, I read the novel “Desirée”. It was written in diary form. I started right then and there to keep a journal … mostly for the benefit of the future historians who would be writing about me. (About thirty years later I threw away all of my journals because I didn’t want future historians to know that I was a blithering idiot who obsessed about the same issues over and over and over.)

I learned that my 10th grade English teacher was a sucker for descriptions like the clank of the door of a pot-belly stove or the dripping of a blackberry on the branch. I thought I was manipulating her by writing vivid descriptions. In fact, she was teaching me.

In the eleventh grade I wrote to amuse friends. There were comic books featuring “The Purple Martin” who was unable to punch his way out of a paper bag but was a super hero otherwise. And a parody of Leslie Gore’s song “Downtown” called “Oatmeal” which made no sense but was a hoot to sing.

I was in the twelfth grade when Simon and Garfunkle became big. I wrote poetry and anguished lyrics. During that same year, my Dad was in grad school and from him I learned the trick of writing term papers. Use topic sentences and always include three details for each thought.

During my “hippy” years, I really thought that I would live a wild life like Neal Cassidy and write about it like Jack Kerouac. And then I could make a lot of money and buy land and live out my years on a commune. A few years after I cumulated a collection of wild adventure stories, I was too embarrassed to describe my risky behavior and would rather my children and grandchildren not know how irresponsible I was. Perhaps the adventures were more entertaining in the doing than the telling.

I did continue writing poetry and had a nice little typewritten collection. I was flattered when my husband showed them around college and his English professor read one to a class to analyze. Unfortunately my husband gave my little book to someone and didn’t try to get it back after we divorced. Unlike some poets, I do not have those poems memorized. But like most lost manuscripts, I’m sure it contained my best work.

I have always been a storyteller, and as I get older, I’m aware that I can be almost obnoxious coming up with stories during conversations. My friends are always encouraging me to write. I suspect that they might be suggesting that I stop yakking and go put it in a book.

Years ago, a coworker encouraged me to write pornography. Before I go on, I must describe my friend as the most wholesome and virtuous women I know; as a professional, she has become the director of a major museum. And I must point out that this was when I was younger and more interested in pornographic issues. No I never published the porn, but it was an important experience in my life because it was not writing to specifications, as most of my subsequent writing has been. In this kind of writing I had the transcendent experience of seeing how developing characters would start to write themselves and story details would seem to come up out of thin air.

I went back to college in my late twenties and majored in history. We had to do a lot of writing as history majors, and I’m proud of the papers that I did. I focused on intellectual history, so I was exposed to very good writing in my studies. My teachers had very high standards and I did not earn A’s easily. Or often.

Away from school and apart from teaching, which is my primary vocation, I have actually been paid to write. But it has been creative writing within strict specifications. (37 characters wide, 6th grade reading level, about the moon, containing the words entertain, habitat, Manitoba and ....) A lot of it has been in a lesson plan format. A great many sentences begin with the words “Have the students….” (measure, stir, shake, write....) .

Under a National Science Foundation grant, I have written a series of babysitter guides complete with read-aloud stories for girls to use to teach young children science. Actually the idea is that the babysitter learns more than the sittee as she is teaching. All this hard work is sitting in a file cabinet somewhere in the Smithsonian vaults next to Indiana Jones’s Ark.

Another NSF grant covered the writing of teacher manuals to accompany the Maryland Science Center’s Beyond Numbers math exhibit. I also wrote scripts for demonstrators on the stage and on the museum floor. These were published and distributed during the life the of the exhibit and I was able to save the work on my website. We had at least 26 people proofread the first edition, but after publication, errors jumped off the page at us! There was no money to create second editions, so I’ve been revising my website editions. It makes me feel better.

I also wrote two units for the Baltimore City STARS Science Curriculum. I’m very proud of these, which were written during the MSPAP era when Baltimore’s inner city students probably had their best chance at getting any hands-on science education.

I also wrote a few booklets for Cooperative Extension in connection with a project called Adventure in Science. I wrote a nice summer curriculum on Science Careers, and a booklet for family outings related to science.

Back when I started writing, it was exciting to see anything I had written in print – letters to editor, short memoirs for a local magazine, reports on local folklife skills. Now, thanks to computers, it may be less of a big deal. Even little kids know what a “font” is. But it’s still a thrill to say that I have my name on several commercial publications as an editor for workbooks on MultiLinks, an internationally known math manipulative.

In all of this writing experienced, I must say that the actual writing process has been torture. Sitting down and writing for these projects almost physically hurt. I would be in some sort of “zone” as I worked, and it wasn’t a nice place to be. I even worked in my sleep; sometimes my biggest problems were solved in my sleep. I would tell friends “Remind me of how much I hate this before I take on another project.” But I never turned down a project.

Then I left the formal/informal education world for a few years. My only connection was in substitute teaching and in that, it is possible to be oblivious to what’s going on. But I started volunteer teaching ESL and have been trying to write a seasonal curriculum for volunteers to use and follow in our church building situation. It’s hard to do because technology is going through rapid change in the ESL world. Even though our evening classes won’t have internet access, we can store MP3’s and movies to use with a computer connected to a big screen TV. There is so much to choose from. Teaching ESL has also made me hyper aware of my native English language. Boy is it hard!

Recently another friend offered to coach me in writing, by sending me assignments. His enthusiasm has died down a bit, but I hope to pick up the momentum by participating in this course. I started with the statement “I like the Goth kids” and I’ve become more and more interested in the Middle School experience for students and faculty alike. My job as an office assistant, which I intend to keep for another year, gets me around the building and I see so much! Apart from vice-principals, I don’t know if anyone gets the variety of perspectives that I have.

For my resume and the Beyond Numbers activities, see my website at

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