I’m now 38 and finally confident enough to admit I’m lost

I turn 38 this week.

And with official entrance into the late-thirties rodeo, I’ve finally gained enough confidence to admit –I’m lost.

A few weeks ago at a party, I fell into a conversation with a young woman who recently graduated from college.  A mutual friend introduce me as a “writer” and informed me that young woman had started a blog.

“A blog. That’s great.What do you write about?”

“Thanks,” she smiled and nodded, “It’s a fitnesss blog. I’m currently training for my third full marathon and I’ve always enjoyed writing. I feel now I have some experience and knowledge to share with the young adult fitness niche.”

“Sounds great.”

“So, what do you write?”

I smiled, “Words.”

Not amused, she pressed, “Seriously, what do you write? What’s your niche?”

Niche is a popular word in the modern writing community.  Niche is your area of specialization–fitness, parenting, politics, education, drunken knittting.

The internet affords anyone the ability to start a blog and write on absolutely any subject. And any modern writing tutorial will explain the importance of having a clearly defined niche–especially in the hyper-competive internet age. 

Write well about a specific subject, write well for a specific audience,and over time you’ll achieve success.

“I write stories. Mostly personal stories, about… well about a lot subjects.”

“How long have you been writing?”

“Everyday for two years. And I’ve published at least one story each week over that time.”

She took a sip of her Pinot Grigio, “Cool. So…what’s your niche?”

I hesitated, did a quick inventory of the everything I’ve written and said, “You know, I don’t know my niche. I guess…I guess, I’m lost.”

Over the past calendar year,  I have explored a variety of subjects. 

Below you will find 13 excerpts from stories I have written over the last year.

Each on a different niche, each furthering my lostness.

On Marriage

In the throes of life, when life is not romantic as hell, the health of a marriage hinges on those little, private moments that you create for one another.

It’s in those moments where you reconnect, rediscover each other all over again.

(From: How to Save a Marriage, published March 2, 2018)

On Love

A chronically sick man (me) whose hands are shaking, whose body aches, whose teetering on the edge of self-destruction is sitting beside his wife in a Las Vegas ballroom. They’re high school sweethearts. They have three children together. But seven months ago things suddenly got harder.

And yet she still takes notes.

As the professor speaks and the damaged brain that holds the screen looms like a thundercloud over the room with her free hand, she reaches across the table to hold his hand, to ease him, to feel his pain.

(From: Taking Notes: A Love Story, Published on February 16, 2018)

September, 2017

On Masculinity

Young men, like the gods we dress ourselves up to be, often believe we are the sole creators of our success and happiness. So we distance ourselves from others.

We forge fantasies.

We mask our unhappiness and insecurity with false bravado and empty dreams. We puff out our chest, turn our hat backwards and pretend we’re in control of our life and that fate is just a motif found in ancient Greek theater.

(From: The Love Story That Almost Never Happened, published on February 23, 2018)

On Courage

“Do you have any advice on how to cross a threshold?”

“Crossing a threshold is often mental. The initial fear of just transitioning from one place to the next often prevents us from progression. But when you find the nerve to finally cross, you realize there was nothing to fear at all. ”

I stood up, shook his hand, said I was looking forward to seeing him in six months. He smiled, spun away, opened the door and disappeared.

I slipped on my coat and strode through the threshold, from the examination room into the hall and back into life.

A life born of thresholds, waiting patiently for us to simply brave up and cross.

(From: How to Cross a Threshold, published on March 16, 2018)

On Writing

Writing is a contradictory experience.

Writing is more about the reader then the writer. Yet the fate of the relationship is solely the writer’s responsibility. The writer has to sacrifice and bleed and refuse compression for the relationship to work.

There were times in 2017 I didn’t bleed for you. Sometimes I winced. I wrote for clicks and likes and shares. I wrote easy. I was a glory whore.

In 2018 I resolve to do a better job writing for myself. I need to write hard. I need to bleed for me. Not for recognition. And not for you.

This is not to shut you out.

I need to be more selfish, more self-examining to engage you on a more honest, more visceral level.

In 2018 I promise to work on me so that we can work on us.

Together I hope we find better ways to appreciate our lives, to tell our stories so when the time is right–we may find our way back to each other.

(From: She Doesn’t Read Your Blog Anymore: The Most Important Lesson I Learned in 2017, published on December 29, 2017)

May, 2017

On Education in America

These are hard moments.

Every time I learn about another school shooting I recoil and shake my head as if to say this is sad. This is so fucking sad.

What happened to the great American school experience that so many of us knew and enjoyed?

The one where you went to school and lived. The one where you pledge allegiance to a flag that you believed would protect you.

With all these dead children in the news, sometimes I feel guilty thinking about my daughter sitting at her desk, alive.

(From:The Great American School Experience: Hide in the Closet, Stay Quiet, and Hope Not To Die, published on March 23, 2018)

Original artwork by Haley Armstrong

On Health

A chronic illness unnerves you.

For years I endured moral freezes. I couldn’t think, decide. I couldn’t, as my old soccer coach would bark, “get my shit together.”

Like a high stakes game of hide-and-go-seek, success in life is often predicated on our curiosity, our desire to seek until we find what we are looking for.

But what happens when you’re sick and short on energy? What happens  after years of blood tests, biopsies, scans and observations experts still shrug and admit they don’t know?

What happens when you simply can’t find what you’re looking for?

(From: Accepting Uncertainty: The Most Important Question a Chronic Illness Patient Can Ask, Published on January 12, 2018)

On Work

Work is a tricky thing.

Immersing yourself in work for only a paycheck is a soul-sucking existence. Working for personal fulfillment is righteous but doesn’t pay the electric bill.

Maybe, if we look hard enough, we find work that fills a previous void.

(From: Let’s Take A Look At My 11th Grade Report Card, published on October 13, 2017)

On Change

Intuition does not get easier with age.

Self-reliance comes with a real cost.

And a fear of judgement lingers long after high school.

I can only hope that you find the courage to trust yourself, to take the risk to be heard.

You’re impressionable–miles away from figuring out who you are and yet you’re about to change in immense and unknown ways.

Change for yourself and what you believe is right for you.

Trust your change.

(From: Trust Your Change: A Commencement Address, published on June 22, 2017) 

June, 2017

On Being 19

When you’re 19, life gets complicated.

Choices become harder, they have more gravity and greater consequence. Time is suddenly finite. Reality is tangible. You realize you need to do something with your life. And as sad as it is, you realize your on the verge of comprising your dreams to appease the status quo.

(From: A Moment With Tom Petty, published on October 5, 2017)

On Redefining Yourself

Redefining yourself is not easy. It’s scary.

You’re not a kid but you fear judgement and criticism the way you did in high school. And sometimes redefining yourself becomes dangerous work. Drugs, alcohol and other destructive habits become your new definitions.

But I’ve learned that if you redefine yourself positively and purposefully you can tap new potentials.

When you write your new definitions you find new ways to in be strong and empowered and your life is suddenly swirling with exciting possibilities. You discover new energies. New angles. You begin to realize your potential.

(From: The Scary Work of Redefining Yourself, published November 3, 2017)

On Fatherhood

It’s become clear, fatherhood is not about meddling or interjecting or inflicting my will on you or filling your head with fiction.

In fact, fatherhood really isn’t about the father at all. It has and always will be about the livelihood of the child.

In 9 years you’ll be 18 and things will have undoubtedly change.

You’ll be driving yourself. You’ll be standing at the cusp of adulthood and may not need me the way you do now.  But despite my dwindling demand, my job description remains.

You need the dad who drove you and your mother home from the hospital 9 years ago. A dad to remain vigilance and focus.

You’ve entrusted me to listen, eliminate distractions, anticipate danger, embrace the incredible and enjoy the ride.

And my girl, I don’t want to let you down.

(From Defining Fatherhood: A Letter to My Daughter on Her 9th Birthday, published on April 14, 2017)

April, 2017

On Happiness

Happiness and gratitude are a package deal.

You can’t be happy and ungrateful at the same time. Show gratitude and you’ll find happiness.

Chase (my 7 year old son )and Deb (my friend with ALS) confirmed what I already knew, what most of us know — that relationships are the fruits of happiness. A 7 year old boy, a dying woman cemented such truth — we are fragile and finite but in relationships we find strength, we experience forever.

Why is such simplicity so hard to understand? Why do we foolishly think that one more material possession will sprout the happiness we so desperately desire?

And so if growing up is a just matter of perspective, it’s curious to think that we’ll spend so much pain, energy and money trying to realize what we knew all along.

Because real, lasting happiness requires you to do uncomfortable things. Let go. Give up. Be honest. Move on. Admit flaws. Admit mistakes. Accept judgment.

(From: What My 7 Year Old Son and A Friend With A Terminal Illness Said About Happiness, published on December 8, 2017)

October, 2017

~~~

“It was nice meeting you,” the young woman smiled, moved to the bar, poured another Pinot Grigio and struck up a conversation with a young woman holding a plate of pita chips.

I don’t have a niche.

I’m not a blogger. I’m not concerned with SEO or affiliate links or popular trends. I’m not here to tell you about 5 easy ways to find romance or 3 foods you must eat before lunch or how to survive a nuclear apocalypse.

And I’m not a fiction writer either. I do not have the patience and imagination to create new worlds for invented characters to get drunk in, have sex in, slay dragons, rob banks, bypass time, build robots, dismantle bombs, dismantle children, befriend tigers and on one fateful afternoon, get shot and tumble into lifelessly into a swimming pool.

I’m 38 now– eight years too old to lie to myself.

I’m lost. I don’t have a niche.

All I have are my experiences, my voice, my conviction to write as truthfully as I can and a growing desire to be found.

Be well,

Jay

Nobody Cares and Other Truths I Learned During My Two Years of Writing

This week marks two years of showing up, sitting down and writing–everyday.

Some days I pumped out thousands of words. On others, I farted a few foul sentences and went about my day.

But such is the writing life.

When I first committed to writing, I held a secret position that green writers often hold– I wanted everyone to care about my writing as much as I did.

Whether it’s writing a book or losing 20 pounds we want people to acknowledge our efforts with a smile, a hug and the coveted big blue Facebook thumb.

When I launched my website I wanted people to stop what they were doing and care. I wanted people to read and be inspired. I wanted invitations to  guest speak at conferences and wanted strangers to approach me with a nervous smile, offer a compliment and ask for a picture.

Vanity? Absolutely.

But the novice is almost always too vain for their own good.

The novice falls in love with their own fiction. A love affair that, if it doesn’t end in divorce, will certainly pin them to a barstool or a therapist’s couch or sometimes both for quite a while.

Here’s What I’ve Learned

I’ve learned writers are architects.

We want people to slow down, take pictures, tell their friends and admire what we’ve built, brick by brick, word by word.

We want recognition for our ability to craft stories and mortar ideas that stretch into the sky and, if the timing is right, throw some cool shade across the world.

I’ve learned that every subject has already been written about by writers much more talented than myself.

I’ve learned that the novice would rather dream than work. The novice wants achieve maximum results for minimum effort.

Original artwork by Haley Armstrong

There are three phases of the writer: novice, intermediate and professional.

I’m not a professional. Stephen King and Annie Lamont are professionals. They can offer insight on how to gain access to the heavily guarded compound where the professionals work.

However, I’ve graduated from novice to intermediate. My finely matted diploma marred with failures, doubt, fear and marginal successes proves I’m now qualified to reflect on my education.

If you’re thinking of pursuing a writer’s life or striding into the gym later today,  here’s the hard truth– nobody cares.

This is not to demean or passively-aggressively guilt you into caring.

The novice writer thinks everybody cares. The intermediate writer writes as if nobody cares.

The novice writes for attention. The intermediate writes for herself.

The novice writer writes when she’s inspired. The intermediate writes until she’s inspired.

Though she does appreciate them, the intermediate doesn’t write for blue thumbs. She likes praise but knows how dangerous it is to weave definitions from the threads of praise.

The intermediate enjoys the strain of the workout. A gym rat. A library mouse.

The intermediate pumps out 3,000 crappy words just to find 500 good words.

The intermediate is busy learning about truth and doesn’t realize that by learning her own truths she’s helping others discover their own.

The intermediate knows that even though writing is a vanity project– meaningful, enduring writing is always about the reader and always laced humility, sincerity and vulnerability.

She knows that other writers are scratching out posts, articles and books faster than she can and she doesn’t care. When she was a novice she stewed with jealousy. She’s now genuinely happy for other people’s accomplishments, but remains focused on her own goals.

And the intermediate knows there are miles of untraveled truths that need visiting before she can even pull into the parking lot where the professionals work.

This post marks two years of writing everyday and publishing a piece at least once a week.

Tonight, I’ll celebrate with a cold beer and some Charles Dickens. And then, when the 14.9 ounces of self-adoration ends, I will quietly return to my computer write again–as if nobody cares.

Be well,

Jay

PS–Thank you to everyone who has made the journey with me over the years. Thank you to anyone who has shared my work, offered a line of support or gifted me a big blue Facebook thumb. Thank you for welcoming my writing into your life.

“She doesn’t read your blog anymore.”: The Most Important Lesson I Learned in 2017

I can live for two months on a good compliment.— MARK TWAIN

When I was a kid my mom would hang my school art projects on the refrigerator door.

She would tussle my hair, look down lovingly at me and tell me how great my art was. How it brightened up the kitchen. How I was such a creative boy, destined for creative fame.

In fact, 32 years ago, mom had a picture I drew in kindergarten glazed onto a plate. To this day, she still eats off the plate.

Thanks to Ikea, my wife and I continue the parental tradition of displaying and praising our children’s school projects. We have a decorative steel-wire clothes lines near our kitchen table where we show off all the finger paintings and paper-mache’ Christmas trees.

Praise and affection should not be reserved for children. Adults need praise and affection too. They are fundamental human needs. They strengthen our self-esteem, they help to refine our self-worth.

The best-selling book The Carrot Principle examines a 10 year study revealing how boss-to-employee acknowledgement and praise were the two most important and persuasive factors regarding employee retention, production and satisfaction.

Good parents acknowledge and praise their children.

Good bosses acknowledge and praise their employees.

But what happens when someone acknowledges and praises the work of a hopeful writer?

Last year a colleague told me that her aunt was a big fan of my blog.

How her aunt looks forward to a new post every Friday. How my writing makes her laugh and cry and think better about her life.

I was flattered. Honored. Proud.

Someone, not my mom, was a fan of my work.

I was building an audience. Creating a buzz. My writing was going places. Like Mark Twain, I floated on that compliment for months.

A few weeks ago the same colleague told me that her aunt doesn’t read my blog anymore.

“What do you mean she doesn’t read my blog any more?”

“I mean, she doesn’t read your blog anymore.”

I smiled. Laughed it off. Said, “oh well” and went about my day.

But I was bruised. A once avid reader decided that my words were not a valuable use of her time.

I spent the following days in a bad place.

I was edgy. I didn’t want to read, write or teach. The kids were bringing home drawings of snowmen and gingerbread men they made in school and I didn’t care.

My work felt cheap. As if instead of hanging my work on the refrigerator, mom balled it up and threw it in the trash and told me to give up.

I felt sorry for myself, which is the dangerous first stroke in the messy art of self-sabotage.

I know my colleague’s aunt was not the first reader to stop reading but it was the first one I heard about which made it feel real.

I sulked and did the immature thing of equating one person to everyone.

Why am I sacrificing so much time writing things nobody was reading?

I thought about canceling the upcoming Write-a-thon. An event which I’m unapologetically proud of.

I doubted my abilities as a writer.

Why should anyone listen to me? What qualified me to offer my voice and writing knowledge?

I guess, in a weird way, I began feel like a real writer — questioning the value and necessity of my work.

Days later a different colleague gave me a Christmas card.

They told me how much they enjoyed reading my writing. How my words were making an impact on people.

Later that day I confirmed a date for the Write-a-thon (January 19, 2018!) and even later, I went home and began writing this post.

As 2017 unfurled, I had some nice successes. Received some nice recognition.

But it was in the cold, final week of 2017 that I began to understand the polarizing power acknowledgement and praise.

I learned that if I’m creating work just to hang it on the refrigerator I’m not a real artist. I’m just another glory whore in a world filled with glory whores.

I’m glad my colleague’s aunt isn’t reading my work anymore. Her dumping me was one of the best things to happen to me this year.

Writing is a contradictory experience.

Writing is more about the reader then the writer. Yet the fate of the relationship is solely the writer’s responsibility. The writer has to sacrifice and bleed and refuse compression for the relationship to work.

There were times in 2017 I didn’t bleed for you. Sometimes I winced. I wrote for clicks and likes and shares. I wrote easy. I was a glory whore.

In 2018 I resolve to do a better job writing for myself. I need to write hard. I need to bleed for me. Not for recognition. And not for you.

This is not to shut you out.

I need to be more selfish, more self-examining to engage you on a more honest, more visceral level.

In 2018 I promise to work on me so that we can work on us.

Together I hope we find better ways to appreciate our lives, to tell our stories so when the time is right–we may find our way back to each other.

Be well,

Jay

The Pilgramage (or why I really went to Atlantic City last week)

“Everything dies, baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies some day comes back.
Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City.”

Bruce Springsteen, Atlantic City

Last Friday I made the 60 mile pilgrimage from Philadelphia to the Atlantic City, New Jersey to present my writing workshop “Learn to Write like No One is Reading” at New Jersey Educators Convention.

The workshop, a culmination of strategies and experiences I’ve accumulated over the last 15 years of teaching, explores how teachers can use storytelling as an instructional practice to deepen student learning while helping students further embrace the writing process.

The workshop was well received by the audience. They actively participate, smiled, laughed at my jokes and from what I could tell, left with at least one new strategy to use in their classrooms.

For the last few months I’ve been making presentations at various professional learning seminars. And I’ve come to really enjoy talking literacy and helping educators facilitate classrooms that promote writing and storytelling so to inspire their students to become better writers.

But if I’m being purely honest — the real reason I went to Atlantic City last week to present a writing workshop was a purely selfish one.

The Real Reason

In September of 2013 an MRI revealed that I had suffered significant brain damage.

However there was no clear catalyst — a car crash or a fall — to warrant such loss of brain matter so quickly.

In October of 2013, after the Director of Neurology at Jefferson University Hospital examined my MRI he acknowledged majority of my cerebellum had died, suggested I start testing for every known debilitating and fatal disease and then asked if I had long-term disability insurance.

“No.”

“I can’t predict what will happen to your brain,” he paused and looked over at the MRI still displayed on his computer screen, “but if you can somehow acquire long-term disability insurance I think you should.”

The Silver Lining

During its annual Convention, the New Jersey Educators Association has a no-physical-required, no-questions-asked open enrollment period for its long term disability insurance.

The only caveat was you have to enroll in person at the Convention in Atlantic City.

So in November of 2013, as mom drove the 60 some miles to Atlantic City, we outlined my plan —  enroll in long-term disability insurance and brave on long enough for the paper work to process so that when I when inevitability lose the ability to speak or see or lose muscle function and can no longer work, my family would’t be so financially burdened.

When mom dropped me off outside the Convention Center, I told her to circle around the block because I wasn’t going to be long. I guess because when your life is undergoing a massive reconstruction sometimes you have no choice but to work as fast as you can.

I mazed through the Convention floor until I found the Prudential Insurance booth where I asked a few questions, looked at a few charts, enrolled in the long-term disability program, hustled back the way I came, walked out of the Convention Center, into the cold November sunlight and waited for mom to pick me up and take me home.

The purpose of a pilgrimage is about setting aside a long period of time in which the only focus is to be the matters of the soul. Many believe a pilgrimage is about going away but it isn’t; it is about coming home. Those who choose to go on pilgrimage have already ventured away from themselves; and now set out in a longing to journey back to who they are.” 

L.M. Browning, Seasons of Contemplation: A Book of Midnight Meditations

Last Friday I selfishly trekked 60 miles from the Philadelphia suburbans to the Atlantic City Convention Center.

In a way, I found something redemptive in those hard-earned miles. And though skirting pot holes and grinding through traffic can not repair the damage in my brain, it did remind me that somehow I’m still very much alive and that I still have a story to tell.

Be well,

Jay

The Scary Work of Redefining Yourself

It was this week, last year that I published The Day I Learned I Could No Longer Jump ( or learning to fly). It was one of the greatest leaps I ever took.

Here’s why.

Any writer who tells you they’re not worried about how their work will be perceived is lying.

Look dear reader, I want you to like my work. Scratch that — I want you to love my work.

I want you to read each post twice and share it three times.

I want you to think about me as you’re buttering your morning bagel or waiting for the elevator doors to open.

I want to make you laugh and cry. Give you chills and rock your soul and make you turn over the wonder and magic and mystery of your own life.

But in order to accomplish those Herculean things I need to be honest, authentic and share my story. I need to tell you things I’ve yet to tell my wife. That’s our agreement. And that’s why, sometimes, writing is incredibly hard.

In the quiet hours of life, I often think about my twelve weeks at the St. Lawrence Rehabilitation Center. About the new truths I learned. About how I learned I could no longer jump. About how quickly years of the personal definitions of me being a man strong and athletic crumbled to the cold linoleum floor on a gray December afternoon when an unassuming physical therapist asked me to jump.

What I tried to capture in The Day I Learned I Could No Longer Jump was the raw embarrassment and shame and sadness I felt in those rehab sessions.

What I didn’t tell you in that story was how scared I was.

The fall and winter of 2013 was the most terrifying stretch in my life. It wasn’t the thought of dying, which did hang heavy in those days, it was a fear of redefining myself. My brain was damaged and the doctors didn’t know why. But the scariest part was digesting the news that parts of me could only now be found in photo albums and in flickering reels of memory.

Take your parents or grandparents. Great people I’m sure. But they’re set in their ways. They detest change. They’ve got their favorite chair, their eternal pair of slippers. They’ve been buying the same toothpaste for 30 years. They’re comfortable. They resist to change. And it drives you crazy but they’re too advanced to redefine themselves. So you smile and accept it.

I knew that my season of physical rehabilitation was crucial. I knew I had to let go of who I was — an athlete, coach and begin the painful and confusing task of redefining myself as a writer — before it was too late.

Redefining yourself is not easy. It’s scary. You’re not a kid but you fear judgement and criticism the way you did in high school. And sometimes redefining yourself becomes dangerous work. Drugs, alcohol and other destructive habits become your new definitions.

But I’ve learned that if you redefine yourself positively and purposefully you can tap new potentials.

When you write your new definitions you find new ways to in be strong and empowered and your life is suddenly swirling with exciting possibilities. You discover new energies. New angles. You begin to realize your potential.

Aside from William Faulker, any writer will claim that editing while writing is a literary sin. You write and write and write then edit. They are separate adventures. But this is life. You can’t write, enjoy a cup of coffee, take a breath then edit your past. We must write and edit at the same time. You must redefine yourself as you go. And it’s unnatural. It’s hard. It’s really fucking hard.

But dear reader, it might just be the most important thing you ever do.

Be well,

Jay

The Day I Learned I Could No Longer Jump ( or learning to fly)

Six months after being diagnosed with cerebellar degeneration, six months after a neurologist examined an MRI of my brain, leveled his eyes, cleared his throat and said to me, “you should be dead or in a hospital bed” I’m staring at my physical therapist, Denise, and she’s daring me to jump...

 

A Moment with Tom Petty

When Tom Petty died I was suddenly 19 again, wearing headphones and slumped in the backseat of a rented minivan.

Dad is driving, Mom is riding shotgun and my two younger brothers are tucked in the middle bench watching Home Alone on a TV/VCR combo dad had strapped to a milk crate to entertain the kids on our first family road trip — a traverse through New York state and into Canada.

To pass the time, I brought a pen and notebook, a discman and a binder with stuffed CDs.

 I’ve forgotten large chucks of my teen years but I remember, with absolute clarity, the songs that soundtracked the most confusing, polarizing, contradictory, painful and fun years of my life.

On that trip, I listened the contemplative “Time to Move on”, the third track on Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” album over and over and over again, convinced it was written for me.

“It’s time to move on, time to get going
What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing”

I remember, as the New York tree line flicked by, writing out scenes for what I thought was going to my first novel. A fictional yarn about a rich 19 year old kid who declined a scholarship to Princeton so he could make a year long transcontinental hike from New Jersey to California. Of course, his hard-boiled father disapproved and his mother was too busy stroking the pool boy to care. It was a massive idea. Too massive for me then. Maybe too massive for me now.

When you’re 19, life gets complicated.

Choices become harder, they have more gravity and greater consequence. Time is suddenly finite. Reality is tangible. You realize you need to do something with your life. And as sad as it is, you realize your on the verge of comprising your dreams to appease the status quo.

At the end of my freshman year of college, I was 19 and had a growing awareness of how hard it was going to be to become a writer. It was a life of discipline and sacrifice and deep examination only to be rewarded with self-doubt and rejection.

When it was convenient, like in the back of a minivan in upstate New York, I would scratch down stories but I wasn’t committed. I grew frustrated by the amount of work being a writer took and I remember being 19 and concluding that writing was a cute dream, but ultimately a dream for other people to entertain.

“Broken skyline, which way to love land?
Which way to something better?
Which way to forgiveness?
Which way do I go?”

At 19 you’re wedged between the adulthood and childhood. You’re letting go of romantic ideas of adulthood and submitting to reality —  the one with time clocks and car insurance and parties that end at 9 pm. At 19, I didn’t want that adult life. And, in a way, I still don’t want.

“It’s time to move on, time to get going
What lies ahead, I have no way of knowing
But under my feet, baby, grass is growing
It’s time to move on, it’s time to get going”

When Tom Petty died, like when all great musicians die, the alchemy of music twists time and somehow the past becomes present.

And suddenly you’re 19 again, slumped in the backseat of a minivan, rolling through the mountains of New York. You’ve got your headphones on and a scruffy guitarist from Gainesville, Florida is singing out your secrets. There’s a fear swirling in your chest. A fear that will settle, take its shoes off and rest heavy in your chest for years to come.

Because you’re afraid to move on.

You’re afraid to get going.

Be well,

Jay

This One Simple Tool Will Make You a More Effective Writing Teacher

Teenagers are notorious for their lack of attention and internal busyness– especially in a classroom. They live in a chronic state of unawareness and have a cantankerous yearning to be somewhere else.

“I want to go to sleep.”

“I want to go home.”

“I’m starving, when’s lunch?”

And in these modern times of computers and smartphones, the teenage attention span is quite slim (and seems to be getting slimmer by the day).

As writing teachers, this wandering teenage mind is one of the greatest challenges we face.

So how do we tame the teenage monkey mind? How do we get a classroom of unfocused students focused and prepared to write?

The answer, is a surprisingly simple one. (And yet took me many painful years to figure it out.)

A timer.

In recent years, a timer as become my most important and effective teaching tool to tame the wild teenage mind.

 

The use of a timer in the classroom creates three things…

  1. focus
  2. urgency
  3. a goal

Experience has shown me that students actually enjoy the demands of the timer. It teaches them that in brief, focused bursts they can overcome procrastination and actually accomplish things.

Lesson Plan

Let’s say you want to have your students write a narrative piece on failure.

Here’s a simple 3 step, 240 second process you can implement to get students started, focused and excited to write…

Step 1 (180 seconds)

  1. Have students write the heading “Times I failed today…” on a blank page.
  2. Set a timer for 30 seconds.
  3. Beneath the heading, tell the students that when the timer begins, to scratch down all of today’s failures (these can be internal and external). Tell them they’re not writing sentences. Just a word or phrase (Alarm clock) that indicates a failure. I call this word or phrase a “working title”.
  4. Ready, Set…Go!

Prior to and during Step 1 it’s vital to stress that students are not to worry about spelling or grammar. This worry will only slow them down and restrict the process. Encourage students write messy. Tell them that this activity is not for a grade and that their list only has to make sense to them.

I would then repeat Step 1 two more times, each with a new heading, “Times I failed this week…”, then “Times I failed this year… “. I would also expand the time– 60 seconds for the former, 90 seconds for the latter.

Step 2 (30 seconds)

Have students evaluate all three lists. Have them mark three moments of failure that they still think about. That if they had the power, would turn back time and do over. 30 seconds. Go!

Step 3 (30 seconds)

Finally, evaluate the marked three failures. Which one still keeps you up at night? Which one has changed you the most? Mark that one. 30 seconds. Go!

This one failure will be the focus for the narrative writing assignment on failure.

Collectively, the three steps are 240 seconds of focused brainstorming that, when completed provide each student with a powerful, personal moment that harbors all the intimate ingredients needed for a good writing piece.

Furthermore, after just 240 seconds, the page should be littered with ideas. For students, this littering is rewarding. Students can be messy, not be judged (which is a natural confidence booster) and in a brief time realize that they’re lives are worthy of writing about.

Note: As the classroom teacher, you’re the expert on your students. You’re encouraged to modify this strategy to meet the age and level of your students.

Takeaways

  • A timer is essential for a writing classroom since it helps create focus, urgency and a goal.
  • Brainstorming should be structured.
  • Eliminates the “I have nothing to write about” problem.
  • Students can accomplish much more in quick focused bursts, then a long meandering brainstorming session.
  • Students enjoy a focused brainstorm activity.
  • This activity allows students to fill the page with meaningful experiences that can serve as great writing subjects.
  • This “messy” activity provides apprehensive writers with confidence.

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