Imagine a Bookstore Where Books Had No Titles

I never begin a blog post without first giving it a title, but I usually change it before I click the “Publish” button. When I was in school, I’d normally use an obscenity as a placeholder on essays until I could come up with something better. It’s amazing that I never once forgot to change the title.

I never begin a blog post without first giving it a title, even if that title only serves as a temporary place holder. I usually change it before I click the “Publish” button.

When I was in school, I’d normally use an obscenity as a placeholder on essays and term papers until I could come up with something better, usually right before I printed it. It’s amazing that I never once forgot to change the title, and didn’t hand in a paper called “Fuckity Fuck”.

A title is a necessary component of any piece of writing, as necessary as a name for a human being. What you are named informs you, and your personality informs your name. What would you be without your name? Even if your parents hadn’t given you a name, you would earn one eventually. People would have to address you somehow.

Similarly, a title informs a piece of writing, and a piece of writing informs its title. If you were in a bookstore where none of the books had titles, you would have to find some way to distinguish among them.

You may not realize how much you rely on titles. Even if you don’t necessarily know what a title means, you know that it makes the beginning of any piece of writing – beginnings aren’t always easy to recognize on their own. Have you ever lost a paperclip that was holding together a stack of photocopied pages? At least the title will help you find the beginning easily. Titles are a formality, and they create an expectation for the reader.

Sometimes, a title can say more about a piece of writing than the actual piece does. Especially in a poem, the title might actually tell the whole story.

For example, in “Wants”, a two-page story by Grace Paley, the narrator runs into her ex-husband at the library, when she’s returning books that are many years overdue. The narrator and her husband have an awkward conversation during which they decide that the reason their marriage fell apart is because they wanted different things. The reader must think about which wants are worthy – did they want different things? Were their wants trivial? Did the narrator want for nothing? The simple title – a word that can be used as either a noun or a verb – really says it all.

Many beginning writers struggle with titles. So, how do you get used to writing titles? Ask yourself: What is the most profound or the strongest image in the story? Is the narrator preoccupied by something? Does the setting play an important role? What do you want the reader to notice the most? Name those things.

Pretend you are in a dark library with your story or poem. You are afraid. You are trying to call out to it.

“Story,” you say. “Poem,” you say.

But, because you are in a library, surrounded by books, you need to be more specific. What would you call it so that it recognizes you?

(Photo by malias)

Academic Karma Kicking Me in the Ass

I finally realize why my professors always encouraged class participation and why it was always such a large component of our final grades. When students don’t participate, especially in a discussion-based class, the learning suffers. I try really hard to engage my students, but I can’t force them to be interested.

I finally realize why my professors always encouraged class participation and why it was always such a large component of our final grades.

When students don’t participate, especially in a discussion-based class, the learning environment suffers. I try really hard to engage my students, but I can’t force them to be interested in anything I’m teaching.

Today, in my class of 25, the same five people were participating. I was grateful for their input, but I wanted to hear what the other students had to say. No matter how many different questions I asked or how many different ways I tried to approach the text, no one seemed to want to contribute to the discussion.

I said, “I realize that you have other classes and that reading can be overwhelming, but please come to class prepared to share at least one thing. Otherwise, don’t bother coming to class.”

I tried so hard to keep a straight face, to hide the fact that I felt bad saying it. The truth is, when my students don’t participate at all, I really want to ask them to leave the room. Coming to class and not participating isn’t going to benefit them in any way – I don’t give quizzes, and they don’t have to write academic papers. They don’t even have to take notes!

They are simply required to think and share.

And then I thought about how, when I was in school, I didn’t always participate in all my classes. I was excited to contribute in my creative writing classes, mostly because I love the subject and always wanted to share, but I rarely spoke up in my history and philosophy classes, which were required by my school’s core curriculum.

To be honest, I was even lost in some of my grad school classes, like Readings in Renaissance Literature and Textual Theory. I rarely participated and was mystified by my classmates, who always seemed to have insightful things to say.

I know what it’s like to desperately hope that the teacher doesn’t call on you. It’s uncomfortable and painful, especially in a longer class.

How could I be so hard on my students when I wasn’t always the most diligent student? Am I being a hypocrite? Should I expect more from students who have signed up for an elective course? Should I ignore the lack of interest and pay attention to the students who do care? Academic karma, if there is such a thing, is biting me in the ass.

(Photo by sidewalk flying)

Breaking up Isn’t that Hard to Do

Writing a block of text is easy, and I can understand why a beginning writer might feel inclined to do so when he/she is composing a rough draft. One sentence follows the next. But even after they had a chance to type and revise a free-writing exercise, a lot of my students and colleagues just don’t include paragraph breaks.

Writing a block of text is easy, and I can understand why a beginning writer might feel inclined to do so when he/she is free-writing or composing a rough draft. One sentence follows the next.

But even after they had a chance to type, revise, and polish a free-writing exercise, a lot of my students and colleagues just don’t include paragraph breaks. I’m not angry; I’m just surprised.

I mean, would you want to read 500 words all rammed together? Probably not.

If nothing else, paragraphs break up a text so that they eye can follow it easily. Especially now, in our digital age, text needs to be easy to read, or no one is going to read it. If you want someone to read your writing, paragraphs are basically essential.

For me, paragraph breaks are also organic. After all, we don’t speak in chunks of language. We usually pause, look out into space to collect our thoughts, gesture with our hands, and let other people speak. No one ever spews out a chunk of language. If they do, I want to meet them. Or avoid them.

In school, when we were first learning how to write essays, we were taught the five-sentence paragraph. The first sentence is supposed to be your “topic sentence”. Three sentences follow the topic sentence with examples. And the final sentence states a conclusion.

Think of your favorite book. Could you imagine if every paragraph in that book was written this way, with five-sentence paragraphs? But your favorite book has paragraph breaks, right? Could you imagine it without paragraphs?

So, without any rules, how do you know when to create a new paragraph? Read your writing out loud to yourself, and pay attention to the places you feel inclined to pause. Those are probably the places where your thoughts need to catch up with your tongue, or where you would pause if you were actually telling the story to a friend.

If you don’t want to read your text out loud, dialogue is a fairly obvious cue to make a new paragraph. Pay attention to transition words like “however”, “also”, and “furthermore”. Also, make a new paragraph when you start a new idea, move to a different location, share a new example, or introduce a person. Do you have any tricks for deciding where to insert paragraph breaks?

Hell, even haphazard paragraphs are better than no paragraphs at all.

(Photo by CarbonNYC)

On Forgetting Yourself, for Charm’s Sake

Though it’s often portrayed negatively, charm doesn’t have to be a method of manipulating or deceiving people. I believe that charm can be completely genuine, a tool used for good. I want to be charming to make other people feel comfortable and to shine as my best self. So, how does one forget oneself in order to be more charming?

In his short story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes: “The more parts of yourself you can afford to forget the more charm you have.”

I think of this quote often. Though it’s often portrayed negatively, charm doesn’t have to be a method of manipulating or deceiving people (think Mad Men). I believe that charm can be completely genuine, a tool used for good. I want to be charming to make other people feel comfortable and to shine as my best self.

So, how does one forget oneself in order to be more charming, per Mr. Fitzgerald’s advice? Children provide the best model. They are rarely self-conscious because they aren’t socially aware enough to be embarrassed. Embarrassment is the enemy of charm. Children are only embarrassed when they realize that other people are embarrassed for them.

This video, which I love, is a great example of kids being charming. They don’t care if their hair is uncombed or their clothes don’t match; good looks can certainly help someone be charming, but they’re not at all necessary.

I was thinking about the Fitzgerald quote and the kids before teaching my first class ever on Thursday afternoon. I went to Rutgers hours before my first class, hoping that I could mentally prepare myself for the new experience. I sat at my desk in an office that I share with another teacher. And I kept telling myself that I would have to forget myself from 2:50 to 4:10 and then again from 4:30 to 5:50.

That probably sounds weird, right? How can a person who is supposed to lead an hour-and-20-minute class forget themselves? You have to forget yourself, otherwise everyone will know that you’re trying too hard.

Since I’m no longer a naturally-charming six-year-old, I just have to come to every situation prepared. To be charming as an adult, you must be ready for anything. Arrive with a plan so that everything you can possibly control is under control. You don’t want to have to worry about whether or not something will go wrong.

I walked into the classroom. I knew that I was going to start with introductions, move to a reading, lead a discussion, do an in-class writing exercise, then explain the homework. I even made a bulleted list of my plan, just in case my mind happened to go blank. The only thing I had to insert was my personality. I could forget everything else.