Notes From the Wasteland No. 40 ‘Here Are Four Things I Do When I’m Teaching Online’

  1. Super-size My Enthusiasm

I have a busy day today. I have lots of teaching to do, all of it online. I reckon that for every one minute of online teaching I have to do I need about five minutes more enthusiasm and this is some calculation, not quite dog years but maybe Zoom minutes. I have to do this otherwise the experience for everyone who enters your classroom is such a bad one and with things being the way they are at the moment, bad online experiences amplify themselves so loudly that they cast a sonic shadow over everything else. There is just no need for anyone to experience this type of class because these type of classes are wholly avoidable.

2. Transform the Ordinary

That’s not to say that my classes are always interesting; I could never make a claim of that magnitude. Some of my classes, most of my classes, are just ordinary at the level of insight and discovery – a suggestion, here, a thought there, a reason for further thinking outlined, somehow – but ordinary can be transformed if we take the time to make the context of the ordinary more compelling. Take the time to make the ordinary more compelling by caring how you describe it. How you let other people experience the ordinary.

3. Care. Really Care. No, Really.

No matter what we do in life we really need to care about it, otherwise what we do in life doesn’t really seem to matter. Now take this concept and expand it to the point where caring takes on a new meaning, becomes something like super-caring, and then apply it to the people you are online with. This is the only duty we have to those we meet in virtual classrooms – we simply have to care so much that our caring becomes something that matters to those we are online with.

4. Don’t Waste People’s Time

I am continually hearing horror stories of people, I can’t call them academics because clearly that’s something they’re not interested in, who fill the entire time they are online with a class by showing them films. Films. And if the class is only fifty minutes, say, then that’s how long they show the film for. And then because most films are more than fifty minutes long, they show the rest of the film in the next class. In this way, all they need to do is to get people to log on and then press Play. One story I heard, the film in question was over three hours long and so, without so much of a blink of the eye, let alone a nod to the poor people in the class, the film began at the beginning and spooled out over three online sessions.

What. A. Complete. Waste.

Of. Someone. Else’s. Time.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 39 ‘How Many Words Have You Written Today?’

I’ve written twenty four words today. Twenty four. 24. They’re fine words and I will probably keep them but twenty four words isn’t much. At least, it doesn’t feel like much. The most words I have ever written for a single project was ninety-six thousand words. Ninety-six thousand. 96,000. That was for my doctoral dissertation. While I was working on that project I set myself a goal of writing two hundred words a day. This was a modest target and one that really helped me manage to complete the dissertation. Some days I wrote far more than two hundred words, far far more. Other days I wrote less than two hundred words but having a modest daily target allowed me to develop some kind of resilience when it came to writing. I needed this because the whole experience was so challenging that without some form of safety rail I would have crashed over the edge.

There were days when I wished I had never started, when everything around me was falling apart and all I had was these words. It was hard but the daily challenge at least gave me a way to think about something else, even if only for a little while. And so over time the small totals became bigger totals and then one day there was no need for any more of those particular words, I had written enough of them. And that was a strange feeling, very strange. For a while I missed the project hanging over my head like a malignant planet, I was used to always seeing it on my horizon but finally it disappeared from view.

Why am I telling you all this?

I suppose I learned many things through the whole doctoral process and there are many key words that I might reduce the whole process down to – resilience, determination, versatility, etc – but I think, ultimately, the key thing I learned from the whole thing is simply that writing twenty four words is actually pretty good going and if I wait patiently and stay kind to myself there might be some more words to follow.

I’ll let you all know when they arrive.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 38 ‘What Do You Do When the Deadline is Looming?’

There is a deadline looming. It is the only thing you can see ahead of you. The deadline has been there for a while but like all of us you chose to let it loom for a while. But the deadline has crept closer and closer and now is almost upon you. It. Is. Soon. But you don’t feel like writing.

What do you do?

When this happens, I write. Something. Anything. Sometimes not even the thing itself but something else, something small, something quick, something that I have not been thinking about, worrying about. This calms me. It helps me focus. It reminds me that I can do things.

I can find words.

I do find words.

I will find words.

It also helps me be kinder to myself. If my words here are flowing then, I think, my words there will flow too. And so by doing this I guess I write around the problem and by doing so swing back around to the project and its deadline. This works for me. It has to work for me because I still have that deadline looming ahead of me and though writing something else might seem a bit like avoidance I do actually find it galvanises my efforts and lets me complete the task at hand.

Admittedly, this is a risky thing to do and will likely end in missing a deadline sometimes, like it has done before. It certainly isn’t surefire and, as such, is not something I would necessarily recommend to other people. However, it does work for me most of the time and that’s about as much as I manage when it comes to the process; there is just so much about all this that can’t be regimented or forced – the best that I can do is manage some parts of the process.

What about you?

Notes From the Wasteland No. 36 ‘What Does It Feel Like When You Write?’

I get a rush when I write. When I’m right in the zone and words are flowing and staying connected and forming pathways for my ideas to develop and grow. When it feels like this I realise that the simple of act of putting letters next to each other, one at a time, making words and paragraphs, filling pages, telling stories and, hopefully, sometimes, reaching other people, realising that words are also bridges that connect disparate people across scattered times and spaces and places, is what I only want to do. That’s when I get a rush.

Do you feel like this sometimes?

I don’t get a rush when I write. When I’m not in the zone and my words are not flowing and they don’t stay connected and refuse to form pathways for my ideas to prevent them from developing and growing. And when it feels like this I still realise that the simple of act of putting letters next to each other, one at a time, making words and paragraphs, filling pages, telling stories and, hopefully, sometimes, reaching other people, realising that words are also bridges that connect disparate people across scattered times and spaces and places, is what I only want to do. Always.

Do you feel like this sometimes?

Notes From the Wasteland No. 35 ‘Do You Remember Learning to Drive?’

I think I type too fast. In fact, I know I type too fast. Way too fast. So fast that without fail almost every sentence I type I end up typing twice, once riddled full of errors and then once having corrected all the errors.

Does this happen to you?

I’m sure it does and when it does, do you find it irritating? I know I do. I find it incredibly irritating. I find it breaks my flow and makes me stutter and pause and that’s because every time I see a red line I have to attend to it, I can’t just leave and go back. I wish I could, that would be far simpler but I can’t, and because I can’t, it feels like I’m doubling my effort for half as much.

Do you feel this way too?

Should I have more control of my digits? Should I type slower? The answer to both questions is always of course I should have more control and of course I should type slower but if I do then would I lose out on some kind of spontaneity? Does slower and more controlled mean that my writing would suffer? As I sit and type this I have to say that I don’t have an answer. Maybe I don’t need an answer? Perhaps what I’m doing is actually writing and editing at the same time?

Is this even a thing?

If it is then I may have stumbled upon some kind of cosmic truth, like rolling back a stone and finding something valuable and lost to the world, something important, rare, even. But that’s not likely and in all honesty what I think is much more probable is that I have simply spent so much time typing that I am now over-sensitive to the whole process, acutely aware of every single, solitary tap of the keyboard. Its all a bit like driving a car. When I was learning to drive I was conscious of every single action and movement and decision I made as I was driving. That’s fine, that how you learn, by being hyper-aware, and, of course, once I passed my test this pattern continued for a while longer. I was careful, cautious and considered – the way all drivers should be. Over time, however, I noticed that I wasn’t remembering so much of the journey. I would get in the car, start it up, head off and arrive at my destination; the thinking-everything-through part of driving faded somewhat as I became more experienced and driving became more automatic.

Did this happen to you too?

Perhaps, then, with all hype aside, my returning to focussing on every single aspect of the writing process, and despite the grumblings above, is a good thing? Why would I say that? Perhaps it means that I am learning to write, again, differently, more effectively? Or, perhaps even more simply, I am still learning to write – I just had forgotten that simple fact.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 34 ‘What Does your Handwriting Look Like?’

I type all day. Every day. Each and every day. Pressing the keys and forming the words, misforming them sometimes, getting them wrong; typos, misplacings, putting my F before my O instead of the other way round. I guess I end up deleting more words, and parts of words, than I actually keep. I just can’t seem to type a sentence without it containing an error. Perhaps my fingers and thumbs have got bigger over time as keyboards have got smaller? But given all of this, and the frustration that it seems to cause, I never ever write anything out in longhand.

Longhand?

The word sounds so old-fashioned to me. The thing I spent years at school learning how to perfect, little knowing that all that hard work would be to defeated, not by aching hands, or leaky fountain pens, or blunt pencils, thin paper, or any of those other reasons why longhand doesn’t always work. But simply because I type all day. Every day.

Cards and Letters.

I do like to write birthday cards by hand but my handwriting is so big that by the time I’ve written a couple of sentences there is no room left inside the card. I used to write letters to people, people I loved, people I thought enjoyed receiving these letters. People who did enjoy receiving these letters. But I don’t any more. I just don’t. Perhaps I should again? Perhaps I will again?

I’d love to see the mess of my handwriting as it flows carelessly across a page. Being left-handed, I have always tended to smudge as I write, my hand following my words like a fleshy blotter, smudging and smearing, blurring the ink as I try hard to find the words to say as I want to say them because longhand is also a spontaneous thrill as you hope that the words you want to write look like the words they are meant to be so that whoever receives your letter can actually read what you’ve written.

I miss the feel of that particular thrill.

What does your handwriting look like?

Notes From the Wasteland No. 31 ‘Can You Imagine Not Writing?’

One day you decide to stop writing. That’s it, you say. I won’t write another word ever again. Not a single word. I’m just going to find something else to do, anything other than write. I refuse to put the letters together one after the other any longer. I just won’t. I’ve got plenty of other things to do, you say. Plenty. I won’t have to worry, you say. There will be lots of other things I can put my mind to.

I never liked writing anyway, you say. It is just too hard to find something to say every day. I can’t stand staring at the blank screen, with the cursor blinking as it dares me to write something. I can’t stand the pressure I put on myself; to have ideas and develop them, connect thoughts and let them lead somewhere. I hate this process, you say. It makes me feel small and weak and helpless. It makes me wonder why I bother because even if I manage to string enough words together to make a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a chapter or, even, here’s hoping, a novel, who will read it anyway?

And maybe that’s the point of all of this, the tick that makes the clock what it really is? Maybe the hate at the heart and, yes, it can be described that way, sometimes, always, not too often, never, maybe the hate at the heart of this conundrum is that we can’t always see why we do something, in this case, write, because we can’t always see who will read our writing. And this is a real reason for many people to stop, or, at least, question why they are writing in the first place.

So, the question isn’t really about what it would be like to not write ever again, because, for me, that would be impossible and absurd. Perhaps the issue here really is about whether or not we understand that by writing we are committing ourselves to a process which may be little more than any other form of regular exercise, like running, say, or cycling. Of course, writing may also be a process which is not like running, say, or cycling, but the fact of the matter is that when we run, or cycle, we do it for ourselves, unless we are amazingly lucky enough to be a professional runner or cyclist. And so for running, cycling, we can substitute writing for ourselves as a legitimate reason for writing in the first place.

Can’t we?

Notes From the Wasteland No. 29 ‘Does Anybody Really Like Editing?’

What does editing mean to you? Is it pleasure or pain? Does the thought of going back over what you’ve written fill you with dread? Do you resent the effort required to reread and rewrite? Does your heart sink at the thought of having to go back through the words you wrote yesterday, last week, last month, three years ago, or even just ten minutes before?

Does anybody really like editing?

There are schools of thought that say we should just go with the first things we write, leaving our words gasping on the page like newly-landed fish. The idea being that we live with the spontaneous, the fresh, the newly-caught. But my words are fragile and not yet fully formed; they buckle and break sometimes, not firm enough yet to solidify into suitable sentences and I know that if left them to their own devices they would just wither, perishing like forced fruit in the frost.

I don’t subscribe to this approach. I have spent too long planting my words, hoping that that the shoots of my ideas will take hold in the soil of the page and develop at a healthy rate. This is always my hope. The reality is often different but like plants of any kind it is necessary to trim and prune and shape and guide long before there is even a hint of flowers. In any case, I love to edit. I adore the process, the pausing and pondering, the planning, the deletion and correction. I’ll say it again.

I love to edit.

To me there is just something wonderful about the opportunity to spend more time with my words, they are mine, after all. I found them and thought of them. I placed them on the page, one after the other. I gave them a home when perhaps no one else would want them. They are mine, after all, in all their ugly splendour, however happy or sad or right or wrong or even if they are not actually going somewhere, anywhere. Whatever the case, these words are mine and they deserve my utmost care and attention. This is true whether they are the final words of a novel or the first words of a post. My words are just that, and like anything else I hold dear, I couldn’t have it any other way, I will lavish my time and attention on them. All of my time and attention, even if that means I put these words away and come back to them another time. They know I will. I always do.

Always.