Writing is hard. Writing well is harder. If you need good writing, I can create it from scratch or fix what you already have. I can also teach people (but not dogs or other animals) how to write well. I’ve done that for a living for a while, and love seeing writers improve their communication skills..
During the Time of Covid-19, we’re all relying even more on “remote” kinds of communication. If you’re a business owner needing advertising or marketing material, or a politician trying to draft speeches or campaign literature, or simply someone who needs help finding the right words, I’m good at it. If you just wrote a novel but need a copy editor or proofreader, I’m your guy.
If you’re a parent who’s trying to home school but frustrated with teaching English or language arts to your kids, let me take that off your plate. I can evaluate the lessons and material from your home schooling network and either advise you or directly tutor your kids. I know the standards intimately and can often improve on student growth in relation to standards.
A deepening paradox. Writing is everywhere, but reading happens less each day. We can’t get away from the written word, but we don’t read. Google “decline in reading” and you’ll get 286 million results. The first result is the chilling study Reading At Risk, published by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2004, which documented a steep decline in the preceding two decades of adults who read literature. A decade earlier, Kelly Gallagher — the hardest working man in high school English teaching — published Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading And What You Can Do About It. Instagram, the nail in the literacy coffin, was created in 2010.
I learned to read by willing comprehension of the hieroglyphics on cereal boxes. “Cheerios” meant the joy I ate from out of the bright yellow cuboid. I still love eating cereal. The pleasure of being each day began with that ritual, and that first recognition of a connection between a symbol and an experience filled with good meaning shaped my life in ways I like most. It made me a willing victim of the written word.
When I began my stint as a high school English teacher, my main goal was somehow to share with my students what reading gave me. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, especially since I realized I had no idea what I was getting myself into — starting this job at age 50 — but I thought I could figure it out. The primary challenge was to divine how to transmit a fascination with writing. My first lesson involved me piling books and magazines on the round table in my terrifying classroom. Several books of poems by my father and other people I knew, short stories and novels by writers I’d had dinner and played basketball with, things I’d published in magazines, and my honking fat Ph.D. dissertation. Each artifact told as big a story as I wanted, and it was personal, first-hand. Show-and-tell. How could I lose?
They weren’t impressed. I have ideas why, but ultimately it doesn’t matter because I kept trying. And I kept failing. Few of my students would admit to being readers, and even fewer could write a sentence, even after six years with me. Those who did fess up to reading for fun were the rare ones who articulated complex ideas in ways that seemed intentional and graceful. They signed up for creative writing, and we got somewhere.
The rest, well, they can’t write very well. But they don’t need to. Right? If they could, I wouldn’t consider myself such a failure.
There are a million reasons we’re in this situation. Actually, it’s probably more like 286 million. Sadly, I don’t see things improving in terms of reading and writing as the pair of essential educational practices instilled in every generation of public school children up until, well, about my late-Boomer demographic. I was very fortunate to get hooked up with the Boise State Writing Project after my first year teaching high school, which validated my desire to teach kids to love reading and become solid writers. I knew these two things were connected, but having a group of smart teachers and professors work together on ways of making these connections powerful for “reluctant learners” meant enough to motor me through my repeated failures.
Then came Covid. I always think of Ovid’s Metamorphoses when I see the written name of the virus, not because I’ve read it and love it but because I haven’t and want to mainly because I know Shakespeare, who makes me weak in the joints, considered it one of his main influences. It sits there, waiting for me. I know it’s there. There’s that. But with Covid came more time and space to read, and I wanted to go back to some things I’d read when I was younger and knew I hadn’t gotten from them nearly what they offered. Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Virgil’s The Aeneid… They’re all waiting.
I picked James Joyce’s Ulysses off of the shelf. I’d “read” it when I was 18. I hadn’t understood it, but enough of it had stayed with me for 40 years that it felt like going home a little bit. “Love loves to love love.” After a few pages, I realized I needed to re-“read” Homer’s The Odyssey before relaunching the Joyce book. As I’d felt in 7th or 8th grade,Homer just didn’t do it for me, but at least I’d made the effort and touched the skeleton for Ulysses.
I often told students, “If you want to write better, read. Read a lot.” In eight years, I had precisely one very good writer. She’d read constantly from the time she was tiny. There’s no way to write well if you don’t read. It really is that simple. Writing is hard, and very unnatural because you have to force order on the chaos of thought. Joyce gets a lot of (earned) credit for “revolutionizing” fiction with his “stream-of-consciousness” narrative passages in Ulysses, but really all he was doing (I say “all” as if it is easy; it’s obviously not) was transcribing what he imagined his characters were imagining in real time. We don’t think in sentences and paragraphs, and his innovation was to try to show that natural flow of ideas. But we try to teach kids to write in these unnatural ways. Maybe that’s the problem right there. I’m sure lots of people have thought of this. I wish I had much earlier; I’d have been a better writing teacher. Still, sentences and paragraphs are writing’s currency. Nobody who knows anything thinks otherwise. So read if you want to write better: the more good sentences and paragraphs your brain digests the more those structures stick and make themselves available for you to imitate and riff on.
More than structural help, though, I think reading helps us with the texture of our writing, with vocabulary and diction, which make up syntax. We’re blessed with a complicated prefrontal cortex that allows us to sense and transmit shades of meaning. Those shades and variations and subtleties and nuances are rooted in vocabulary. But “vocabulary” is deceptive: words have denotative meanings (their dictionary definitions) but also an infinite number of context-specific meanings (connotative). Still, the starting place is the word.
Reading grows vocabulary, unless you’re lazy and just skip over words you don’t know. Even then, you can still — if you’re not too lazy — use context clues to infer what an unrecognized word means. But then it’s still a guess, which gets messier if you’re reading fiction or poetry because of the capital metaphor holds in those genres. So this puts reading back in a bad place for a lot of folks: it’s work because you’re gonna have to use a dictionary if you don’t want someone (you!) to call you lazy.
“DBL”: I used this acronym in my classes to urge students to do the hard work of reading and thinking and writing. Don’t be lazy. It’s worth it.
I’ll end with what made me appreciate my own resistance to laziness, a paragraph (most of it) from Ulysses that has to do with water. Who doesn’t like water? Even if you hate it or are afraid of it you have to love it. But even if you admit loving it, as I do, chances are you don’t know all the words in this paragraph relating to it. The context for this passage is simply what the book’s hero (Leopold Bloom) admires about water as he’s putting the kettle on the stove to make hot chocolate. He’s a good human but not someone intellectually out of reach, and these words are the invisible narrator’s and not necessarily ones Bloom knows, but it doesn’t really matter. What does matter, I think, and why I love not just this passage but most of this book, is that it shows us what our brains and hearts are capable of with a little effort and desire: appreciating beauty and gaining knowledge and experience that form the cycle (similar to the cycle of water) of being. That’s really what it comes down to. And if we pay attention, and want to write better, these kinds of things can help. A lot.
My “curriculum vitae,” the academic world’s Latin term for “resume,” is — as is everyone’s — a work in progress. I like the Latin phrase, first, because it’s not the homograph that “resume” is, but more because it literally reflects the work-in-progress aspect of one’s life: “Course of one’s life” suggests that only when finished (at death) does the course cease. Anyway, click the thumbnail below to see the most recent snapshot of my location along that course.
I’ve published numerous creative non-fiction pieces over the last 30 years, including two books with my students. I’ve taught creative writing in high school for the past 8 years, focusing on fiction, poetry, as well as creative non-fiction, including memoir. As a college student I wrote feature articles regularly for the Daily Californian, UC Berkeley’s award-winning student newspaper, and have taught journalism units in my English classes. Below is a list of a few of my publications.
As the VP of Sales & Marketing for eight years in a small aviation company, I created all of the business’s business documentation, from press releases to advertising copy to highly technical equipment operation manuals to online and print catalog descriptions of complex aviation equipment, and more. If it needed to be in written form, I produced it. I had no experience in business before this opportunity, and the research and writing skills I developed from high school through earning a doctorate enabled me to use those skills to grow this company from a small mom-and-pop to an international market leader.
For the past 35 years I’ve written lots of other business-related documentation, including op-eds and letters to the editor, public relations articles, grant applications, annual reports, white papers, and non-profit organization newsletters.
All of this writing experience has helped me in each successive project. For example, most recently I’ve been a teacher (from 2012 to 2020); anyone who knows much about education knows that teachers don’t make a ton of money and never have enough funding for all of the projects they want to bring to the classroom. Thus, grants. I wrote applications for grants to improve technology not only for my own classroom but the for entire school, as well as for specific projects with specific classes of students. These grants totaled thousands of dollars, from organizations such as the Idaho Humanities Council, Idaho Power, Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission, Northwest Professional Educators, and the Upper Country Educational Foundation. Apparently, I’m good at writing grant applications.
Click on the thumbnails below to see some of this material.
This sample of my academic writing was published in the journal American Music. It’s a modified version of a chapter from my doctoral dissertation, and is the result of a thorough peer-review editing process.
If you’re not familiar with this process, it’s pretty cool, and usually results in a vastly improved piece of work that gets published. Peer-reviewed journal publications are the gold standard in scholarly writing. The process goes like this:
The author or authors submit a piece to a specific journal or journals (in my case here, the journal’s editor knew of my work and asked me to submit a specific chapter of my dissertation).
The journal’s editor replies (sometimes it takes months to get a response), indicating whether the journal wants the piece, or not.
If they want it, they ask the author to list several experts in their field who might be good reviewers of the work (for this publication, I supplied the journal with five scholars in my field whose work I admired).
After several months, I received a reply from the editor with extensive comments from three anonymous reviewers, and I was instructed to edit my work based on their suggestions and criticisms. The time-frame for revision varies by publication, but in my case they asked me to respond with a revised essay within two weeks. I was also asked to provide the journal editor with a summary of my revisions, and any issues with specific comments from the anonymous reviewers.
After working hard on the revisions, I submitted the essay and summary letter to the editor. A couple of weeks later, after he and his editorial board reviewed my revised essay, they informed me they would publish it as is. Sometimes an author is asked to submit to a second round of comments/revisions, or the journal could decide to reject the work.
Once the “final” piece is typeset and ready to publish, some journals will provide the author a proof for a quick copy review to make sure that nothing obvious was missed. In my case, I caught a few typos and noted them.
About 9-12 months after initially submitting my work, I received a few copies of the published journal in the mail. The rigorous, lengthy process produced a piece of work that involved lots of minds and a few hearts and which was much, much better than the original. You can view/download the entire essay at the link below.
I’ve meant to do this for a long time. I love to write. I feel more normal with ideas that come through text than I do with using my mouth to make sounds we call words and sentences. I know that might not be most people’s experience with writing. But I also know that writing, despite some individuals’ and groups’ and organizations’ and corporations’ feelings about it, is still essential in our world today (despite what Instagram and Twitter might have to say about it).
With Covid-19 seemingly permanently altering our lives, I’m at home more than ever, trying — like most people — to stay safe. I miss helping people, whether it’s my students, colleagues, friends, or family. One thing I’ve always felt confident about is the communication process. That’s not to say I don’t experience my share of miscommunication (just ask my wife!). But writing and editing and teaching/tutoring have become as much a part of my identity as anything. Let me help you, and maybe you can help me.
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton