My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Mailbox: Grab Bag

Have your students ever found this blog? What's a good starting goal for writing? How soon do we have to give you a question to get it answered by that Friday?  

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. And don't worry if they're totally hard to set with a given theme.]    

Tina asks:

Have your students ever found your blog? Is it a problem? I am a teacher who writes erotica, and I absolutely can't imagine not using a pen name.

My reply:

I think most teachers who maintain any kind of online presence without a pseudonym sort of dread the day their students think to Google them. A couple of my ESL students have found me, and we talk about the blog a little. I think one guy mistook "having a blog" for "being famous" because he really got weird after his roommate saw his syllabus and told him I was online. (Like, he stopped looking me in the eye and started stammering when I asked him questions. I was glad the semester ended before he started calling me "My liege.") However, I teach at the level that my writing would not be easy for them to parse, so it's more like "hey I saw your blog!" and less like "where the f-ing hell do you get off teaching us about commas you insolent hypocritical hack!"

I'm not that worried about the college students. They are capable of knowing that their instructors can compartmentalize their lives, and I'm pretty sure if one of them called up and told my boss I had written the phrase "anal schism loving fucknozzle" on my personal blog on my personal time in my personal space, the response would most likely be, "Yeah, we like to hire them when they're still edgy," and then a lot of laughter.

I do worry about the summer school kids. Upper middle class parents are no fucking joke about their helicoptering, and the idea that I am perfectly capable of writing R rated things in one place and being PG somewhere else doesn't even occur to them. As far as they're concerned, I'm in my classroom teaching all their kids the exact pronunciation of "cuntbagle." ("No it's not BAG-el. It's a long A dipthong, you little punks.  Let's try again...") I know there's going to be a phone call eventually. I don't know if THAT boss will go to the plate for me. They pretty much expect teachers to live at school and have no persona other than the one they teach with--because obviously no teacher ever said "fuck" one evening and then was still a good teacher the next day. I certainly don't know any teachers who would ever get wasted on Everclear, have five mind-numbing hours of group sex, and then still be a good elementary school teacher the next day.


I guess that will be an interesting day. Hopefully if I do get fired, by the time it happens, I'll be making enough money here to be able to flip a table and say "You can't fire me, you sanctimonious A-holes! I quit!" Then, I will walk off with both middle fingers raised high. I'm a writer who teaches, not a teacher who writes!


See the whole comic here.
The Oatmeal.
Then I will go home and fill a tumbler glass with whisky or some other thing I never drink, drink it, immediately pour another, drink that, and spend the night bawling my eyes out. I will do this not because I need the income, but because I'm one of those fucking pathetic teachers who actually loves my kids--even the little burgeoning reprobates--and who wants them to succeed so bad that it kind of hurts my chest to think about. And I know it's summer school, and I know I'm teaching them "study skills" and I know I am a glorified babysitter, but....still....

Not that I've thought about this or anything.

Lou asks:

I'm trying out HabitRPG as a way to incentivize better personal care and growth, as well as better managing my ADHD. And since following WAW it's been drilled into my tiny little brain that I should write every day I was wondering if you have any advice on a good starting goal for a daily writing practice. Word count? Time at the keyboard? Pages?

My reply:

"Incentivizing better personal care and growth?" I'm almost certain that was the employee/employer internal mission statement of someplace I worked once.

Eh, maybe not.

I'm going to answer this question twice. Once for if you're really just getting started with writing and once if you're a bit of an old hand at it. If you're new to the whole writing/disciplined writing thing or you only seem to be able to write when you're right up against a deadline, I would highly recommend you give Dorothea Brande's "morning writing" a whirl. If you do that and the "floating half hour" you will probably find your words a lot easier. That is a timed exercise, but it involves writing on anything basically as fast as you can and then "stretching" that capacity. Uber helpful for me in basically never having writer's block.

If you feel like you've got that shit down and you're ready to move from the writing version of killing kobolds who are worried about you stealing their fucking candles in the starting zone to the Dead Mines where VanCleef needs beheading in the worst way, then my advice changes a little.

A.D.D./A.D.H.D. is kind of a game changer to a writer, but instead of being a game changer like the difference between men's and women's tennis, it's more like the difference between Reversi and Calvinball.

(For those of you without ADD/ADHD, bring three lemurs, four ferrets, and a raptor of some kind to your next writing session. Also coat your entire body with a thin layer of spreadable cheese. Put Nyan cat auto loop on a window in the background while you work...really loud. Now you have an idea.) 

The worst part of ADD/ADHD is that it's kind of like saying you have "a cold." It doesn't really cover how bad or what symptoms. (I mean do you have a sniffle and a sore throat or are you in bed because sneezing and coughing every five seconds has started to actually hurt your joints?) ADD/ADHD is the same way; we all have different expressions and intensity. Uberdude will walk out of the room when you're in the middle of a sentence and forget what he was supposed to do because he got distracted by a computer--not a computer game, just an actual computer. I am easily distracted by social media and chew my own shirt. (Man, I almost forgot the R there--what a strange time I would have had explaining that one to my mom.)

So my best advice on that front is not to try to find the "One True Way."™ You can't because there isn't one.  Try instead to find "The way that truly works for me...right now." Also, be kind to yourself, especially at first. Writing is very much a long-term effort. You are working the ball down the field. Don't worry if you fuck up a day or have some low output weeks. If you establish the habit, you'll have good overall results. Kind of like you don't need to worry about all your teeth exploding at once if you passed out in a spiced rum and coke stupor one time last week and forgot to brush your teeth the one time.

Actually that turns out to be a pretty good metaphor for anyone approaching such goals. Any advice I give you that isn't tailor made to fit Lou is going to be wrong. So here are the guidelines for helping you set the Loufriendliest goals possible:

1- Pick the goal that you know will be most helpful to you–which might mean the most painful. If you can sit and stare at your screen for two hours just imagining cheerleader threesomes and not writing a damned word, it won't help you to set time goals. If you can fire off a thousand words of absolute shit in a half an hour so that you can get back to the Keeping Up With the Kardashians marathon, it won't help you to set word count goals. If you know having a page goal just means the sudden introduction of lots of dialogue from the emo teen who loves one-word answers, then you need to smile weakly at page goals, but tell them that you'd rather be "just friends."

Stephen King does pages. JK Rowling does hours. Jack London did word counts. Some writers slam drafts. Some edit as they go. There's no right answer. This is kind of like going to the gym. The debate between when to lift and when to do cardio and how much to do is really not as important as the fact that you keep showing up and getting shit done--unless you bring a bag of Fritos and sit and watch TV, you will see results.

Work in bursts? Set time.  Slow and steady? Word count. Love seeing "Pages DONE"? Pages. Try different goals and see what works. Pretty soon, you'll find that the goals are mostly window dressing to the habit itself.

2- Start small. Start very small. Smaller than you think you should. One half hour/one page/300 words. Start so small you almost feel insulted by the goal. Think sneeringly that you could do it in your sleep. Still, resist the urge to go higher because you "way too uber for this preschool crap!" You know how many people end the first day of NaNoWriMo by saying "Pfffft, this is a cake walk." About four times more than ever actually finish. (ZING!) That's because easy for one day isn't easy for a month. When you feel like you have the habit established, then you can fiddle with the knobs.

3- Be ready to mix it up. Life is change. You aren't the same person you were yesterday, and the same writing regimen won't work for you for all of time any more than it will work for all the different people. Sometimes you just have to be ready to say "this shit's jacked, yo." Move the goal posts. Get some fresh air.

Every once in a while I notice I am having a lot of trouble with writing 1article + 2 pages (my current daily goal). That's when I start doing my writing in 8 hour blocks. I sit down for eight fucking hours no matter how much I write or don't. It's frustrating. I hate it. And usually within two or three days, my brain realizes that it's not going anywhere so it might as well do some work. When the time thing stops working and I'm just staring off into space or refreshing Facebook for the entire eight hours, I shift to a word count goal. I don't get to leave until I've done 1500 words--whether that takes two hours or twelve. When the quality of my words degenerates because I'm trying to finish up, I switch back to articles+pages.

Mark asks: 

What time would we have to get a question to you in order to have it answered on "The Mailbox" on Fridays.

My answer: 

By no later than Tuesday, three weeks earlier. NARF!

Okay, real answer: if you send me a REALLY good question (and I mean really, really fucking good!) early in the week, I might move things around to answer it that Friday, but you would have to get it in by Monday or Tuesday by the latest. Any later than that and I'm already starting to do some of the initial writing on the Friday post. [ETA: Mailbox posts are currently written at all kinds of times because my life is chaos but will likely eventually settle on a different day of the week than reflected in this post.]

Right now I have too many questions to get to them all. I've had to pick the ones I'm going to answer and (unfortunately) just give a few people a personal answer and not post them on the blog. I've got questions here I answered years ago but people don't know that, one about what country I think has the best Thai hookers (which a moment's thought will reveal as literally the stupidest question OF ALL TIME), and one asking me to keep a food journal and post it. I used to have to run around and beg people for questions, but these days I'm putting a lot of them straight into the round file.

I tuck some of the questions away for later when I know they're going to fit with one of my themed Mailbox posts like grammar questions (which for some fucking ridiculous reason, people keep sending me) or process questions. In fact, there's another round of outrageously inappropriate non-writing questions coming soon

Though technically I am always on the lookout for really good questions--the kind that would make really entertaining Mailboxes--in order for your question not to just be answered in the order it showed up, it would have to be better than sex. If I don't read your question and immediately show it my "Oh face," I'll probably just put it in the queue. In fact, what you really want to go for is me saying: "I bet reading that question would be even better if I tied it up and took an hour to read it."

                      "Chick from logistics" is a euphemism for "really good question" in blogging circles.


  1. Love this round of questions both as a former teacher who literally had nightmares about teaching summer school and for the great advice about goals. Your Godzilla picture was without credit, so I thought I'd post the link to the original comic. If you're not reading The Oatmeal you're missing out. If you are reading The Oatmeal, you're probably missing out since you could waste a lot of time on that website. http://theoatmeal.com/comics/running5

    1. Oh thank you! For some reason I was looking through Hyperbole and a Half and getting totally frustrated that I couldn't find the image. I should just get Tineye on this computer.