Gr!t ’R Done!

“The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.”

Confucius, The Analects

Needless to say, I need not even ask what I am about to ask. But I will ask it anyway.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed?

“Who? Me?” I just heard someone ask.

Yes. You. Maybe. But let’s edge our way in to this just a little more before you decide, lest you decide too hastily.

I’m not talking about the way you feel when that last straw is headed right toward you, and you know fully well that it’s the one that will break your proverbial camel’s back.

If that’s the mell of a hess you’re grappling with, I’m really sorry for your streak of bad luck.

The overwhelmed that I have in mind is when you have a mountain smackdab in front of you. It’s ginormous. And you have to move it, and you have no idea how you will ever get it done.

Maybe, in reality, it’s nothing more than a mole hill. But perceptions are perceptions. If that mole hill is a mountain to you, then it is indeed your mountain.

Aren’t we masterful at turning our mole hills into mountains?

I am. You are. We all are.

And, at the same time, let’s acknowledge that all of us face real life mountains, too, that we have to move.

It’s when we’re facing our mountains–the real ones and the mole hills that we have turned into mountains–that we feel overwhelmed. That’s when we sigh or cry or moan or groan because at that moment we just don’t see how we will ever move that mole hill. We just don’t see how we will ever move that mountain. We just don’t see how we will ever get it done.

To feel overwhelmed before the mountains of life–real or overblown–is to be human.

This week, I’m feeling superhuman. Overwhelmed is on my mind a lot: it’s the next to the last week before my summer classes end. Also, overwhelmed is on my students’ minds a lot this week: they have reading assignments and a final discussion board forum this week and a final reflection essay next week.

(A word to educators who would be wise: abandon those ridiculous final exams. Replace them with meaningful final reflection essays. Reach out to me using Contact, and I will share proven strategies that have worked for me during the last four years.)

My apologies for that digressory jab at defunct final exam practices that continue to plague the hallowed ivory halls of learning. I couldn’t help myself.

Where was I?

Oh, yes. My students are feeling overwhelmed by end-of-semester assignments and by final reflection essays.

Guess what?

I am, too. It’s a mountain of work right in front of me, so close that I can smell the virtual submissions, so close that I can hardly breathe. And I have to get it done.

Let me define the preceding “it.” I have to grade all of that student work that’s closing in on me and smothering me, because I have to submit final grades two days after those final reflection essays are submitted. My mountain seems even larger.

Oh. Yes. I understand how it feels to feel overwhelmed.

I know, too, that my students always feel overwhelmed at the beginning of the semester. They have so much to do before the end.

I do, too. I’m their learning coach. I’m their learning cheerleader. I’m there to help them move those mole hills. I’m there to help them move those mountains. I’m there to help them get it done.

I always suggest some strategies that they can use to see themselves through to the successful conclusion that they hope to enjoy and that they can enjoy if they work at it.

Ironically, the strategies are always the same whether it’s the beginning, or, as it is now, the end.

Ironically, the same strategies work for me, at my beginnings and my endings.

Ironically, the strategies will work for you, at your beginnings and your endings.

Following these strategies can help all of us–me, my students, and you–feel less overwhelmed as we tackle our mole hills and our mountains.

A good place to start is by realistically measuring our grit. Please tell me that you know about grit. You do, right? Sometimes I have to explain it to my students, so let me explain it here for everyone’s benefit.

And yes: after the explanation, you will have a quiz! Don’t worry. (1) It’s optional. (2) Anyone who takes the quiz will pass.

Grit has nothing to do with IQ. It has nothing to do with talent. It has nothing to do with luck. It has everything to do with your willingness to roll up your sleeves and do the hard work always required to achieve any goal, usually a long-term goal, but it applies as well to short term goals. Grit is all about perseverance and passion.

I have always known about grit, but Angela Duckworth is the one who turned me on to the power and awesomeness of grit. She has turned lots of folks on to it, too, and when you get turned on to grit, get ready to get it done, whatever you need to get done.

I start my semesters by having my students take Duckworth’s 10-question Grit Quiz. Why don’t you take it, right now? Hot Tip: Be honest. No need to fool yourself! Not now. Not ever.

After my students find out how gritty they are, I invite them to share their grit score with the class if they wish. I am always amazed by the fruitful and honest conversations that follow. I just heard someone whisper, “What’s your grit score?” Thank you, but no need to whisper. I’m proud of it. I scored a 5. Did you hear me? Let me shout it again. I’m a 5. I’m as gritty as they grit. My grit is awesome. When I start it–whatever the “it” is–I’m going to stick with it until I get it done. Count on it.

After our class discussion of grittiness goes wherever it goes–and wherever it goes is always exactly where it ought to go: learning is always spontaneous, and spontaneity is always all right with me–I get my students hooked on Duckworth’s TED Talk: “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” It’s powerful. It’s motivational. It makes you want to get down and get gritty. Go ahead. Watch it. It’s had 26,997,225 views. With any luck, this post might take it up to 27 million views! So come on! Let’s gr!t ‘r done.

As my students and I get deeper and deeper into the semester, I am always mindful that the journey that I am trying to make a fun and fulfilling one for them might start looking more and more like a mountain. Then I love to share with them little proverbs as little reminders that a little strength applied consistently and for a sustained period of time can bring staggering results. Maybe it’s as simple as “The man who would move mountains must begin by carrying away small stones” (Confucius, The Analects). Or maybe “Little Strokes Fell Great Oaks” (Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac).

Then as research papers start to loom on the horizon, I up the ante still more and share with my classes the backstory for Anne Lamott’s classic book on writing and living, Bird by Bird. In the introduction to her book, she tells the story of her brother who had waited until the last minute to write his paper that was due the next day. Interestingly enough, the paper was about birds. Lamott’s father told him to write the paper bird by bird. Looking at the component parts and completing one part of the paper at a time made the whole project seem less intimidating and less overwhelming.

What Lamott and Franklin and Confucius and a gazillion others are offering up as a pearl of wisdom is a lesson in incrementalism: progress comes gradually, in small steps.

It works for my students. It works for me. It will work for you.

As the semester progresses and end-of-semester fatigue raises its nasty and unnerving head, I can see in my students’ faces the reflection of their mountains right in front of them. Then I know that I have to up the ante once again. I play for the class one of my favorite poems by Rita Dove–“Maple Valley Branch Library, 1967. It’s an incredible tribute to learning and to libraries and to librarians and to getting it done. It has an even more special meaning for me because Rita Dove read that poem at the White House on May 11, 2011. Former President Obama–who believes that poetry and the arts matter (and they do)–provides a masterful introduction to the power of poetry, with wry, charming humor as only he can do. Afterwards the poet reads her poem. Both the former president and the former United States Poet Laureate are genuine charmers. I’ll provide the link in just a second. Watch the video, please. (But not until you finish my post, or, if you insist on watching the video before finishing my post, go ahead. Just come back. I’ll be lost without you.) Rita Dove: 2011 White House Poetry Evening — introduction by Barack Obama.

Without exception, my students always love watching this video. Sometimes they even applaud. Sometimes they even applaud without mention of extra credit. The video inspires. It motivates. It makes them know that they can get it done.

Here’s how Dove empowers my students–and all of us– to come to that understanding. The stanzas that follow are directly from her poem. They recount the poet’s journey home, as a 15-year-old, carrying six volumes of knowledge–six books that she selected on her learning journey:

“I carried [the books] home, past five blocks of aluminum siding
and the old garage where, on its boarded-up doors,
someone had scrawled:

“I can eat an elephant
if I take small bites.

“Yes, I said, to no one in particular: That’s
what I’m gonna do!”

Overwhelmed? My students? Me? You? All of us?

Of course, we are. To be overwhelmed is to be human.

Thankfully, we’re not overwhelmed all of the time. But when we are, isn’t it great to know that we have wisdom as our ally–all the way from Confucius to Franklin to Lamott to Dove? Isn’t it great to know that we have wisdom cheering us every step of the way? As we carry away our stones. As we fell our oaks. As we write our birds. As we eat our elephants. As we get it done.

Isn’t it great knowing that a little gr!t will gr!t ‘r done?

It certainly calms me. And just as soon as I finish grading end-of-semester assignments and final reflection essays, I’m going to polish that nugget of truth as I face my next mountain: gardens (right here on my mountain) overtaken by a gazillion weeds, all reaching for the stars.

And guess what else? I will pump myself up just as I try to pump up my students–just as I have tried to pump you up here, so that you can face your own mountains, whatever they might be–and believe you me: I will tackle my mountain, and I will gr!t ‘r done.

Take Four | Living with A Writer: Modern Applications of Ancient Writing Artifacts

We are always yapping about the “Good Old Days” and how we look back and enjoy it, but I tell you there is a lot of hooey to it. There is a whole lot of our past lives that was not so hot.

–Will Rogers (1879-1953; American Vaudeville Performer, Actor, and Social Commentator)

Hey, everyone! Listen up! Make certain that you keep a copy of this post in a safe, virtual folder. Maybe even the Cloud. It is destined for fame. It is destined for greatness. It is destined for glory. It will go down in the annals of history as the most historic and historical blog post ever published.

You will discover why as you continue to read. But let me start with one reason and that one reason alone will earn this post its deserved historical distinction. For the first time in my life, I am at a loss for words. I am. My students would be thrilled beyond thrills because they consider me to be exhaustive and, no doubt, exhausting when I start talking about anything that is near and dear to my heart.

No doubt, you–dear reader–are wondering why on earth I am at a loss for words. Let me explain. My post last week focused exclusively on me: “Take Three | Living with a Writer: Owning Up to My Own Eccentricities.”

One of my eccentricities that I felt comfortable sharing was the fact that I had drafted the general introduction and the introductions to the five sections of my The Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman on yellow legal pads, using #2 pencils without erasers. The really quirky part of that eccentricity was that whenever I made a mistake, I ripped out the page and started over.

One of my faithful followers challenged me to write my next post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, and to share with you what happened as I wrote. Dear reader, you are so undeserving of the suffering that you will surely suffer as you continue to read. But please do continue to read. Remember: no pain, no gain. (Because I love you so much–whoever you are and wherever you are [including you, Mrs. Callabash, wherever you are]–I have timed the read-time for this post. You are now 6 minutes and 36.3 seconds away from full fatigue and brain drain.)

It was a commendable challenge, so much so that I really should quote it verbatim, and I would, but I can’t. I am lying in bed writing my post on a legal pad, using a #2 pencil, as challenged–I am such a sucker for challenges–so I don’t want to lose my grain of thought by switching over to my Smartphone to look at last week’s post so that I can quote the comment in its entirety the way that it deserves to be quoted.

Therefore, starting with the next paragraph I will use placeholders for anything that I would normally have the good sense to look up instanter on my Smartphone. I will use this placeholder convention throughout this post. My very first one follows.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Insert faithful reader quote from last week. I believe the reader signed herself “J.”

I responded to “J’s” challenge by asking whether yellow legal pads were even manufactured these days. I noted that if they had fallen out of usage, not to worry: I had seen such writing artifacts at the Smithsonian Institution and, perhaps, I could arrange for a Docupost: Modern Applications of Ancient Writing Artifacts.

My reply to “J.” was far more brilliant than it appears here, but, again, I can’t easily switch over to my Smartphone.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Insert my dazzling reply to “J.” Make sure to capture the correct title of the Docupost that I plan to propose to the Smithsonian Institution.

Not long after “J’s” comment, another faithful follower–“soyfig”–informed me that she had some yellow legal pads and #2 pencils that I could have.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: insert “soyfig’s” actual comment, especially since, as I recall, she used some figurative language.

I responded, of course. I respond to everything, seen and unseen, heard and unheard. But, sadly, I do not remember my exact reply, but I am sure that it was a beauty.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Insert my beauty-of-a-reply to “soyfig” who writes so figuratively.

Obviously, I accepted the challenge because, as I noted earlier, here I am writing about what it’s like writing a blog post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, while lying in bed.

I should be euphoric, I suppose, because I am certain–and history will confirm my certainty–that what I am developing right here and right now is a new Creative Nonfiction genre. To mirror its counterpart in the world of fiction, I hereby announce–with all the power and authority that is not vested in me–that this new genre will be dubbed Creative MetaNonfiction.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Check the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to see whether the word and the genre exist already. If not, notify the editors immediately. “by gorry by jingo by gee by gosh by gum,” fame awaits.

I believe that I have said so already, but I will say so again: writing my post on this yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, is not making me euphoric. I can’t speak for you, but I can speak for me. My bed is a place of immense pleasure. Trust me. This is not pleasurable. I’ve got a stupid yellow legal pad–six times larger than my Smartphone–propped up on my knobby knees and the stupid pencil does not have the same quality graphite that I recall. Yes: I still recall the quality–or lack thereof–of everything going all the way back to the cold and snowy day of my November birth. If that be true–and it is–then fast forward with me and you will know that I speak the truth when I say that recalling something from the 1970s is a piece of graphite for me.

Morever, lean in and listen carefully: the damned yellow legal pad is not backlighted. Why am I whispering? For one good reason. I’m whispering because I don’t want anyone to steal my idea! If an ancient writing artifact like a yellow legal pad is going to continue to plague us, at the very least it should be backlighted so that it will not plague us in the dark.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Check the dictionary. Backlighted? Backlit?

I just heard someone ask, “Why does it matter if your yellow legal pad is not backlighted?” [See above Placeholder.]

Well, that’s a splendid question. it matters a lot. It’s starting to get dark outside. My overhead light makes a glare on the yellow legal pad, so I can’t use it. My nightstand lamp is not bright enough, so I can’t use it either. I must be blunt. I can no longer see what I am writing. And, like my pencil, let me be blunt again. If I can’t see what I’m writing, how do I look into the heart of what I’m thinking?

Thank you very much for your suggestion. I expected it. But, as much as I appreciate it–and I do–I will not run out tomorrow to buy a lamp to attach to my headboard. Simply explained: I won’t be needing it. I will never write another blog post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, while lying in bed at night. Never. Never. Never.

However, I will figure out a way to finish this post since I accepted the challenge, sucker that I am.

Already I can think of three possible solutions.

Solution 1. Fill a Mason jar with fireflies. They might illuminate my yellow legal pad sufficiently.

Solution 2. Jerry-rig a flashlight to the headboard of my bed, with the light beaming down on the yellow legal pad propped up against my knobby knees.

Solution 3. Go to bed at 6pm so that I can work on my post for several hours before it gets too dark for me to see.

“Too dark for me to see” reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s first-person account of death, “I Heard a Fly Buzz.” The poem ends, I believe, with: “And then I could not see to see.”

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Find the Dickinson poem and make sure that my quote above is accurate.

I am back to report that my tentative solutions–even though brilliant–were abysmal failures. That’s too kind. They were duds.

Firefly Solution. It was fairly easy to catch a jar full: they are everywhere in my yard. And, oh, my! Such a golden glow as they put out. For a while my bedroom looked almost like a nightclub dance floor with strobe lights. But it didn’t last long. The glow became dimmer and dimmer and dimmer. And, even more quickly, I grew a guilty feeling for having captured all those helpless little fireflies and for having put them to work against their will Contra Naturam. I set them free. Shine bright. Shine far.

Jerry-rigged Flashlight Solution. I thought for sure that this solution would work. However, I couldn’t figure out a way to mount the flashlight to my headboard, especially at the required angle. I considered duct tape which seems to work for everything, but when I recalled what I had paid for my Henkel Harris bed, I froze with tape and flashlight in mid-air. It took me hours to free myself.

Going to Bed at 6pm Solution. Forget it for one reason only. I have worked long and hard to earn the reputation that I now proudly hold as a wild, night-owl party animal. My friends and my colleagues have grown so proud of me as I have, over time, extended my bedtime from 8:00pm to 8:30pm to 9:00pm. And I have now, after years of practice, mastered the 10:00pm hour. When a party’s going down, I want to be found, and I certainly won’t be found if I am in bed at 6pm.

But I have come up with another solution that had not occurred to me initially. I will take the first hour of my morning routine to write my blog post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil.

Well, I tried it. Let me just say that this is not what anyone might hooey it up to be. Now I am wishing that I had challenged my two faithful followers to this challenge. Thankfully–and luckily for them–I am not that cruel. Absit iniuria.

They wouldn’t like all these disruptions either. Up until now, I have made perfectly good and methodical use of a sensible and calming way of writing my post in bed on my Smartphone. Even though I have willingly taken on a momentary stay against my ever-so sane method, I will remind myself–in mantra manner–that I am blazing new trails into Creative MetaNonfiction. History and literature demand that I continue. History and literature demand that I see this stupid stint through to a stupendous end.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Look up Creative MetaNonfiction to see whether such a genre exists. Oh, no. I remember that I have placed this placeholder in the post already, but since I cannot erase or scratch through, I will build upon the redundancy and puff it up as best I can. Have I actually stumbled upon–simply by stupidly accepting a challenge–a new genre? Oh, joy! Maybe I will enjoy a footnote in the annals of something–anything, please–after all.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Revisit Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper.” As I recall, the unnamed narrator who goes insane–always be suspicious of unnamed narrators–may have written HER journal on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil. Well, I am fairly certain that she did not, but look it up anyway. Adding that twist to the original story would be masterful for an updated version. The narrator escaped from the yellow wallpaper. But I wonder: would she be able to escape from her yellow legal pad as masterfully as I am about to do, soon and very soon. You’re welcome.

What’s ironic about all of this is that when I accepted this challenge, I did so fully expecting fun, even if nothing more than hearing my pencil graphite its way across the page.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Can graphite be used as a verb? Well. Duh. I just used it as a verb in the preceding paragraph. Therefore, it can be. Therefore, I really do not need to follow through with this placeholder. I will keep it anyway in the interest of not ripping out this yellow page which is otherwise perfect.

But verbs notwithstanding, my pencil is not making those nostalgic sounds that I had longed for, not even when I bend my ear way down close and personal to the page. Instead, it glides along like a waxy crayon. And, in fact, my box of pencils is labeled, on one side of the box, Crayon. Oh, dear. I forgot. Crayon means pencil in some language. An esteemed English professor–a colleague–took great joy in beaming that to me when I showed the box to her. Well, never mind.

I do mind, however, that the only yellow pads that I could find anywhere were 8 1/2 by 11 inches, even though they were marked Legal Pad. Well, excuse me. If it’s not 8 1/2 x 14 inches, it’s not legal, and shorties like the ones that I ended up with ought to be illegal.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: (1) What companies still manufacture these so-called legal pads? (2) Do they come in true legal size? (3) Is it true, as I seem to recall, that courts no longer allow 8 1/2 x 14-inch legal pads because they do not fit readily into filing cabinets–not even virtual ones?

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Do a comparable search into #2 pencils. Focus especially on what kind of graphite manufacturers are using for these crayons–I mean pencils–these days.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: I need a pull quote for this post. What’s the one about a sucker is born every minute? How perfect would that be!

Okay. I need to wrap this post up–Maybe in a yellow graphite bow?–but before I do, I simply must achieve a sense of order with this post–the very first example ever of Creative MetaNonfiction. The annals of history await my final word. I do, too.

I know exactly what I will do. I’ll number the pages that I have written on this yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil. And while I’m doing that, I’ll write AMDG just to the right of each page number, just as a Jesuit lawyer friend of mine did on all his labor relations notes, always written on a genuine yellow legal pad, using a genuine #2 graphite pencil.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Look up AMDG to see what that acronym means. Marty had a perverse sense of humor, but, surely, he would not have penciled anything obscene or scandalous, especially since he knew that I would see what he was writing because I almost always leaned over him at the bar. But be sure to look it up anyway before publishing this post.

Wow! I have written 11 pages already about nothing more than what it’s like to write my post on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, while lying in bed. Maybe this Creative MetaNonfiction thingy is not as bad as I have graphited it up to be. Well, if I can type it up, I can certainly graphite it up. But lo and behold! Here I’ve gone and coined still another word: graphited. Who knows? Maybe a Creative MetaNonfiction Novel looms in your future.

I suppose the only thing that might have been more fun than numbering the pages would have been ripping each one out and then taping them all together. I seem to recall a writer who typed one of his books on a continuous roll of paper, created by carefully taping each page together. This would have been, of course, back in the good old, hooey typewriter days.

Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: Try to find out the writer who did this. I think that it was Jack Kerouac. I am certain. Yes. I recall it as vividly as if I had helped him! (Oh, how I wish.) He sellotaped enough pages to create a 120-foot roll when he wrote his On the Road. Check just to make sure. I would never dare publish anything without verifying all the facts before I spew forth. And also look up hooey. It looks like phooey to me.

As for any rhythm that I might be achieving while writing on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil, forget it. Forget. It. Trust me. This post is not riding along on its own melting like a piece of ice on a hot stove. Frost itself wouldn’t work. And Frost himself wouldn’t be able to make it work either. I am so focused on paper and pencil that any semblance of thought has wisely flown far, far away to someone sensible enough to write a blog post sensibly on a Smartphone.

Worse, perhaps, I feel as if I am straddling an immeasurable and unfathomable chasm between the 1970s (when I enjoyed writing on a yellow legal pad, using a #2 pencil) and day before yesterday (when I lost my sanity and sold my writerly soul to the Devil by selling myself on the idea of accepting this challenge). To be certain, the image of such a straddler is an intriguing one. Conjure it up if you can. I double dare you. You will see for yourself. But let me assure you, post haste, that my legs–metaphorical or otherwise–are not nearly long enough to bridge such a chasm, and even if they were, I would not stand for it. I would object vehemently for all the world to hear, as, hopefully, all the world is hearing now.

Hear me and hear me well. What I am about to say is quotable, so go ahead and quote me: Phooey to all this hooey.

I object to it so much that I will end it all right now, in one final declaration!

This is a nonsensical challenge up with which I will not put.

FINAL Placeholder for When I Return to My Sanity and My Smartphone: As I recall, Winston Churchill came up with the above quip as an objection to an editor who wouldn’t allow sentences to end with prepositions. Churchill’s retort memorialized the folly of editors who foolishly adhere to grammatical rules rather than to common sense and to the sense of sound. Try to find the specifics. Was it in a memorandum? I’m sure that it was, perhaps in 1941?

Halleluiah! I have freed myself at last from this yellow legal pad and from #2 pencils. I have returned to my sanity. (Wisely, however, I will not change one thing–not one hooey-phooey word–that I have written so honestly and so painfully as I soared my way to and through the heights of this challenge. “The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.” (No. I will not put a placeholder for that Shakespearean quote. You may kindly–if you please and if you need–google it yourself to obtain the specifics: play, act, and line.) And, thankfully, I have just returned to my Smartphone where I have just had joy beyond measure restored to every fiber–and even every fibre–of my being by doing nothing more than tap touching this post through to completion–one character at a time, using just one finger. Is that inefficient or what?

But the greatest joy ever is the knowledge that I have just written–and you have just read–the first example ever of Creative MetaNonfiction. May it not last forever in the annals of history and literature. May I be spared such notoriety. May I be remembered in far better ways. But, hey. What the heck. If you insist, I accept: better to be remembered for something, I suppose, than for nothing. Either way, it’s all hooey to me.

Take Three | Living with a Writer: Owning Up to My Own Eccentricities

“A civilized society is one which tolerates eccentricity to the point of doubtful sanity.” 

–Robert Frost (1874-1963)

You may take great pleasure in knowing that this may be my shortest blog post ever. The operative word here is may. I won’t know how short this post will be until I reach the end. That, I suppose, is my first writerly eccentricity. My writing–very much like Robert Frost’s–rides along on its own melting, like a piece of ice on a hot stove. It goes where it wants to go, and it moves where it wants to move.

But I suspect this post may be my shortest because I will be sharing my eccentricities. Goodness, no. Not those. How on earth did you know about those, anyway? They’re far too personal to share with the world at large. Besides, a post focusing on them would take years and years to share. Not really. But, on the other hand, maybe.

But since I have slid off course already, let me go ahead and share one–just one–of my personal eccentricities before attempting to get back into the flow of writing about my writing eccentricities.

Here it is. I have a tremendous fascination with numbers. Doesn’t that strike you as odd, especially since I am an English professor? It does me. Maybe it will strike you as less odd when I tell you that my fascination is limited to certain types of numbers. Like palindromes. You know. The ones that read the same, forward and backward. 11, 22, 101, 111, 666, 999. I don’t have anything against palindromes, mind you, especially if I only see one every now and then as I go about my day. But some days it seems they won’t go away, especially when they take up residence in my digital clocks and glare at me. 1:11. 3:13. 3:33. 7:07. (Thankfully, they never take up residence in my Grandfather Clock. Palindromes are as much visual as they are numerical.)

What’s even more fascinating are mirror hours. 10:10. 11:11. 12:12. You see them, right? Well, if you don’t, from this point forward, you will. And when you do, you will sit up and take notice, just as I do.

Depending on the combinations and the frequencies, I tend to believe–as many people do–that palindromic numbers and mirror hours signal the presence of messenger angels. I do my best to be attentive to their messages, too, especially if I see the same number repeatedly in the course of a day. A few days ago, for example, I couldn’t escape 555. It was everywhere. I even saw it on my Fitbit. After doing a timed, 6-minute morning meditation, my Fitbit showed that the session fell 5 seconds short, coming in at 5:55 minutes. But I didn’t mind. 555 is an intriguing Angel number heralding adventure, change, liberation, and intensity. Bring it all on. I’m revved. I’m ready.

But this is neither the time nor the place for me to discuss my personal eccentricities. I would be lying if I told you that I don’t have any more, just as you would be lying if you told me that you weren’t dying to know what they are. Forget it. I’m not telling. (Well, maybe a double Martini–extra dry, up, with a twist of lemon–could encourage me to tell a thing or three. Maybe.)

Let’s see. Let me do my best to slip-and-slide my way back a little closer to the melting ice cube of my original intent: my eccentricities as a writer. It occurs to me that this might be the perfect place to thank one of my faithful followers who, after reading my “Living with a Writer,” commented: “You are a published author that continues to educate and amuse us on a weekly basis. I’m sure we would all love to know what your quirks and eccentricities are when it comes to writing?”

I hope that you love what you have read so far so much that you will continue reading to the end as I continue to put into full public view my writerly quirks.

My second eccentricity as a writer bears close kinship to the first. Unlike Edgar Allan Poe who needed to know the last line of what he was writing before he put his pen to page, I need to know the first line of what I’m writing before I touch the first letter on my smartphone. (Yes. I write my blog posts on my smart phone. See my “Spaces and Habits of Famous–and Not-so-Famous–Writers.”) Once I get that first line, the rest melts along all on its own.

My third eccentricity as a writer relates to the first two. With the first line that I write, I like to get a rhythm going, usually a slow and easy one. It’s the sort of rhythm that gospel singer Rev. F. C. Barnes gets going in his “He Was There Just in Time to Rescue Me.” He opens his rendition by saying, “You know. This song is kinda like me: slow. But ya’ll don’t mind, do you?” Then he continues by working the title line and one or two other lines, over and over and over again, for a soothingly rhythmic song stretching out for 8:18 minutes. It’s much the same thing that the Barrett Sisters do in their “Jesus Loves Me” as they milk the rhythm and richness of just three words for a commanding 5:15 minutes. It’s the same thing that Lucille Clifton does in her “won’t you celebrate with me” as she rocks us in a world that has tried to kill her every day but has failed. Those rhythms–and other similar ones–bounce around and around and around in my head and sometimes carry more meaning than the actual words that I spit out. Frost would call it the sound of sense. In my own writing, I am never quite sure what the rhythm is or whether I am achieving it. Often it is more felt than seen, but it pulls my thoughts forward and piles them, like little pillows one atop another, and I like to think that it has the soft sound of sense.

My next eccentricity as a writer–my fourth–is one that I outgrew a long time ago, but it has such quirky quirks that I will memorialize it here for the record.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s when I was working on my The Infant Sphinx: Collected Letters of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, I drafted the general introduction and the introductions to each of the five sections in longhand.

But wait. It gets better.

I wrote them on a note pad. Not just any note pad. It had to be a yellow, legal notepad.

And it gets even better, if such be possible. I had to write using #2, yellow pencils. No erasers. Read on. Discover why.

If I made a mistake on a page, I could not erase. I could not scratch through and move on. I was compelled to rip out the blemished page and start over on a brand-new page, proving my mastery of ideas if not my mastery of time well spent.

I continued that approach to writing for a long, long time.

When PCs came along, however, I shifted with great joy because I discovered that I didn’t need to throw any of my drafts away. I could keep them all, simply by giving each a unique revision number. Keeping all of my drafts, I suppose, is my fifth eccentricity as a writer. I enjoy going back to see how an essay changed over time, from start to finish. More often than not, I will revise anything that I write a dozen or more times. (Let me add here that I love–absolutely love–preparing my posts in WordPress. It automatically tracks and keeps all the changes that I make for each and every post. Right now, for this post, WordPress has captured 22 revisions. I work hard for the money. Thank you very much.)

At this point, I have a huge decision to make. It involves an eccentricity that is personal, but it will have an impact on the writerly eccentricities that I do or do not share with you from this point forward. It, too, has to do with numbers. I do things in odd numbers only. For example, when I’m gardening, plants get planted as single plants or in groupings of 3, 5, 7, 9 and so on. I just don’t do even numbers. Right now, then, I have two choices, and choices are always good. I can stop my post here with five writing eccentricities. Or I can give you a sixth one and then be forced to end with a seventh.

Well, bless you, for shouting out that you want more. I am glad to continue, especially since 7 is one of my favorite numbers. Think about it for a minute. 7 Days. 7 Seas. 7 Brides. 7 Sisters. 7 Dwarfs. 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. And 7 Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Without further rhythmic delay, let’s start exploring my sixth eccentricity.

Those who know me, know that I do not like being told what to do (well, that’s generally true) especially when it comes to writing (and that’s always true). But I love telling others what to do, especially when it comes to writing. Here’s the backstory. It all started on a wordy, wordy day when I was a sophomore in high school. My teacher Anna Mae Collins would march into our classroom, always wearing prim and proper dresses that generally looked like a nurse’s uniform regardless of the color or the fabric. But that didn’t matter. Mrs. Collins loved the parts of speech and sentence diagramming, and since I loved both as well, I loved her all the more. For a typical writing assignment–given usually on a Friday–she would provide the topic and the word length for the essay. She had lots of topics–so many that I don’t remember any. But I remember that she loved essays that were 1,200 words long. More, she loved giving us a structural formula that we had to follow. Here’s how it might go. 9 paragraphs. 10 compound sentences. 6 compound-complex sentences. 4 complex sentences. 1 interrogative sentence. 1 exclamatory sentence. And 1 imperative sentence. We had to underline each of those various types of sentences and identify them in the margin.

We would work our proverbial little butts off all weekend. Well, that’s rather presumptuous of me, isn’t it? Let me revise that claim. I would work my proverbial little butt off all weekend. Ms. Collins would march into class on Monday. I’d be sitting right up front, all smiles because I had met all of her requirements, each and every one of them. I was pumped with pride. She would clomp up and down the aisles, collecting our essays one by one, sizing them up as she clomped.

With measured tread, she would advance to the front. “Class, I am fully confident that your essays are excellent. But you can make them better. Take them home tonight and cut out all the huff and puff and fluff. Watch out for those nasty prepositional phrases. Adjectives will work just as well. You must keep the content of your original essay. However, your revised essay can only be 700 words long. Exactly 700 words. Also, you must use the same formula that I gave you on Friday: 9 paragraphs. 10 compound sentences. 6 compound-complex sentences. 4 complex sentences. 1 interrogative sentence. 1 exclamatory sentence. And 1 imperative sentence.”

Folks. Folks. Folks. We’re talking the Dark Ages of the 1960s. We had to handwrite those essays on lined paper. We had to count the words, word by word. And here we were having to go home and do it all over again. The moans and groans were loud enough to be heard in the principal’s office which is precisely where Mrs. Collins would have marched us if we had challenged her assignment. The more often she gave us assignments like that, the more often I fell in love with Anna Mae because through her I fell in love with the power of revision, especially the powerful revision that takes place when writers have to follow precise guidelines, including word counts.

My sixth eccentricity as a writer, then, is my belief that less can be more. (I believe that everywhere, of course, except in my blog posts. For those, I fantasize that I am being paid by the word. For those, I fantasize that I have 1.41 million followers.)

It will come as no surprise, then, when I tell you that one of my favorite writing assignments for my students–in College Composition and in Creative Writing–is to have them write an essay that is exactly 500 words, excluding the title. Not 499. Not 501. Exactly 500. (Oh, my! I just had a wonderful idea. I can combine this quirk with my numbers quirk and change the length to exactly 555 words. It’s a done deal. Please do not tell prospective students who might have signed up for my classes this fall.)

Further, it will come as no surprise when I tell you that students never change. Mine moan and groan as much as my classmates did in 1963. Unlike them, however, my students come to class with their 500-word essays and thank me profusely. They truly do.

I’m not sure what just happened, but my sixth writerly eccentricity was remarkably longer than any of the previous ones.

I promise. My seventh will be shorter. Hopefully.

Anna Mae Collins was not my only English teacher who insisted on eliminating huff and puff and fluff through tight and rigorous revision.

In college, my freshman English professor Barbara Smith required us to analyze everything that we wrote using the Gunning Fog Index. It was developed by publisher Robert Gunning who theorized that people could not read because newspapers and periodicals encouraged writing that was far too complex. I was fascinated by the Fog Index and discovered readily that my 25-word sentences did nothing but hide the soul and spirit of my message. It was then that I started using smaller words and shorter sentences. 

The Fog Index is still used, but today our computers can measure the fog level for us automatically. MS Word calls it Readability Statistics. Those metrics provide a word count, a Readability Score, a Grade Level, and more.

Here’s my seventh and final eccentricity as a writer: I run Readability Statistics on everything that I write. What’s that? You want proof? Sure. Here are the stats for this post: Readability Score: 76.4%. (The higher the percentage, the easier the read.) Grade Level: 6.1. (The lower the grade level, the easier the read.) I’m pleased with those stats. Maybe I’m slightly puffed. Maybe I’m slightly full of it. But I simply must tell you that former Presidents Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln’s best prose have comparable Readability Statistics. I cannot think of better company.

Clearly, this post did not end up as one of my shortest. It may end up as one of my longest.

What can I say? Blame it on the ice. Blame it on the hot stove. Blame it on Robert Frost. Better still: thank my faithful reader who asked me to write about my writerly quirks and eccentricities.

Take Two |  Living with a Writer: More Frostian Moments

“All thought is a feat of association; having what’s in front of you bring up something in your mind that you almost didn’t know you knew.”

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Lots–and I mean lots–can be said about last week’s post “Living with a Writer.” I’m not talking about the number of views. The post enjoyed the usual readership. (I will note, however, that it had more readers than usual from foreign countries, including Bosnia & Herzegovina as well as Ecuador.) I’m not talking about Likes, although I was pleased that it had a few more Likes than usual. (It might interest you to know that “Fit as A Fiddle: The Inefficient Way” has the distinction of being my most Liked post of all.)

What’s really important about last week’s post relates to the mileage that I’ll be getting–this week and continuing for several weeks beyond–from reader feedback! I am listening. I hear you. I thank you. And trust me: I’m going to run with the ideas that you tossed my way. I always do.

Some feedback came as emails; other feedback came as comments published to the post.

Here’s my plan. This week I will focus exclusively on readers’ emails, since my responses to them are rather straightforward. I will reserve responses to last week’s comments until next week’s post. Actually, the comments are so rich that I might even get still another week’s post from their richness. Everything is copy. (See my “Directions to the Magical World of Ideas.”)

In one email, a faithful reader wanted to know what Lesley Francis–granddaughter of Robert and Elinor Frost–wrote in the copy of her The Frost Family’s Adventure in Poetry: Sheer Morning Gladness at the Brim that she gave me on April 9, 2002, when I introduced her as part of a Distinguished Lecture Series co-sponsored by Shenandoah University and Lord Fairfax Community College.

I was thrilled to get that email query because I had wanted to include the inscription in my initial post. Unfortunately, I could not because the book was in my office at the college, and, as you know, I work on these posts at night on my smartphone while lying in bed. If you don’t know that, you might want to read my “Spaces and Habits of Famous (and Not-So-Famous) Writers”.

Since last week’s post, though, I went to the college, I pulled the volume from my shelf, and I nostalgically read the inscription:

“For / Brent Kendrick, who / has let Frost lead him /  ‘knowing how way leads on to / way.’ With best wishes from the author and granddaughter / Lesley Lee Francis / 4/9/02 / Lord Fairfax CC”.

The quote within her inscription, of course, is from the third stanza of what, without doubt, is one of Frost’s most popular poems, “The Road Not Taken”:

“And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black. / Oh, I kept the first for another day! / Yet knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back.”

The same faithful reader wanted to know whether I had mentioned any specific Frost poems when I introduced his granddaughter. Splendid question. Indeed, I did. Throughout the afternoon on the day of Dr. Francis’ lecture–“Education by Poetry”–showers passed intermittently through our area, and I had been reciting in my mind a Frost poem that appeared in his book of poetry, A Boy’s Will. I recall wishing that the rain were a little heavier, that the winds were a little more fierce, and that the time of year were not quite so much into spring—perhaps a patch of snow here and there–so that the realities of the day would match more closely those of the poem that I had been reciting. Even though the poetic conditions and the natural conditions that day didn’t enjoy a one-to-one correlation, I included Frost’s “To the Thawing Wind” as part of my introduction. The poem welcomes spring rains, the return of birds and flowers, as well as flowing streams. But equally important is the desire for spring to  “Burst into my narrow stall; / Swing the picture on the wall; Run the rattling pages o’er; Scatter poems on the floor; Turn the poet out of door.” Quoting the poem seemed perfect for the season and the occasion.

Another reader wanted to know some instances when something happened that made me think of a Robert Frost quote.

Actually, it happened most recently just a few minutes ago while I was writing. When I wrote “I nostalgically read the inscription,” I thought immediately of how Frost likened poetry to homesickness and love sickness:

“Poetry begins with a lump in your throat; a homesickness or a love sickness. It is a reaching out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words” (Frost to Louis Untermeyer, 1916).

Here’s another instance. A few nights ago, when I had my nightly phone chat with my sister Audrey, she mentioned that she was rather taken aback when she went to swat a fly, and it seemed to pause and look at her. As she shared her experience with me, I was reminded of Frost’s “A Considerable Speck.” In the poem, the speaker encounters a speck on his manuscript page–still wet with ink. Just as he was about to “stop it with a period of ink,” he has a profound realization: “Plainly with an intelligence I dealt. / It seemed too tiny to have room for feet, / Yet must have had a set of them complete / To express how much it didn’t want to die. […] I have a mind myself and recognize / Mind when I meet with it in any guise. / No one can know how glad I am to find / On any sheet the least display of mind.”

And for one final example. Just this past Sunday, as I worshipped outdoors while weedwhacking along my mountain road to pretty it up for July 4th, I happened upon a small clump of storybook sweet peas with tenacious tendrils and a subtle, alluring fragrance. I had not planted it. How it had gotten there was a mystery to me. But it was so exquisite all alone–showcased midst briar and bramble and honeysuckle–that I spared it. I had not the heart to level it to the ground from which it sprang. I mowed around it, fully confident that it would bring joy to at least one passerby, perhaps more. And, if none, the seeing and the sparing had brought hefty morning notes of joy to me, equal to cathedral tunes.

As soon as the sweet pea stole my fancy–as soon as I saved it–my mind fragranced off to Frost’s “A Tuft of Flowers.” In the poem, the worker who has come to turn the grass after it has been mown, looks and listens unsuccessfully for the one who had done the mowing: “But he had gone his way, the grass all mown, / And I must be, as he had been,—alone, /  ‘As all must be,’ I said within my heart, / ‘Whether they work together or apart.’” At that moment, a butterfly drew attention to a tall tuft of flowers beside a brook: “The mower in the dew had loved them thus, / By leaving them to flourish, not for us, / Nor yet to draw one thought of ours to him. / But from sheer morning gladness at the brim.” As the poem continues, the speaker comes to the belief that he has stumbled upon a message from the dawn: “And dreaming, as it were, held brotherly speech / With one whose thought I had not hoped to reach. / ‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart, / ‘Whether they work together or apart.’”

Frostian moments such as these may be small. They may be fleeting. They may be seemingly insignificant. But one thing is for certain. They stand as extraordinary reminders of why literature matters: it has the magical power to transport us from our ordinary worlds to unforeseen spiritual realms.

Happy July 4th!

As we celebrate our Nation’s independence, I pause simply to reflect and to share with you a classic American poem that you no doubt know but may have forgotten.

(I will publish my regular weekly post tomorrow!)

Concord Hymn


Ralph Waldo Emerson


at the


of the

Battle Monument

July 4, 1837

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,

   Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,

Here once the embattled farmers stood

   And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;

   Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;

And Time the ruined bridge has swept

   Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,

   We set today a votive stone;

That memory may their deed redeem,

   When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare

   To die, and leave their children free,

Bid Time and Nature gently spare

   The shaft we raise to them and thee.