Monday, April 26, 2010

Happy Birthday To Me!

April may be the cruelest month, but I don't care.  I'm too busy celebrating the last year of my thirties, my son's third, my daughter's fifth, and yes, a Blogiversary and our April's birthday, too. 

Have you noticed that "Happy Birthday" is rarely (if ever) sung on TV?  As Mary Ann pointed out, there's that pesky matter of royalties, and apparently this song commands exorbitant ones.  Next time you watch a soap opera (if you dare), note the quick cutaway to commercial when the cake is wheeled out or the opportune ringing of a phone or sudden heart attack that befalls the birthday girl.  It's not about the drama, I'm sorry to say.  It's about the stupid song.  Just as often, it's about the Midol product placement or the actor who can't remember his lines or the set that has enough room for only two people when you need to throw a wedding! 

Most of my paid writing work has been writing for hire.  Writing for hire can be an awful lot of fun.  But apart from the challenges that are readily imagined (what if I hate the material?), there are also those devil-in-the-details moments I never considered.  When I was writing Nancy Drew, I had to be cognizant at all times of the rules of Nancyland (no guns or drugs despite the raging crime epidemic in River Heights).  There was a preordained number of chapters and pages, as well.  An hour-long daytime program is only 39 minutes minus the commercials.  Writing to a set structure (see the five-paragraph essay) makes life a lot easier in many ways.  In other ways, it is horribly constraining. 

My English Composition students write five essays per semester, and often they have trouble getting excited about the material, to put it mildly.  This is writing-for-hire in its barest form, after all -- pass the class, and you get to graduate and, one hopes, find the job of your dreams.  Fail to get the job done, and well... take English 101 again. 

For my students, God is in the details.  Once they can recount an experience vividly, without resorting to cliches and empty expressions, they have connected with the material in a way that makes the writing fun (and the reading, too).  And if they have done it once, they can do it again.  So even if their writing is full of run-ons and agreement errors and I despair of having taught them anything, I have.  I think. I hope!


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Writing Workout

My students had a highly disrupted semester this spring (I use the term figuratively) thanks to copious snow, which is paralyzing to Marylanders in the baffling way that rain is to southern Californians.

I usually do this exercise earlier in the semester, but it's waited until the last day (today!) because we've been too busy cramming exercises in grammar and MLA formatting.

Our text has a whole chapter devoted to the Process Analysis essay.  This format provides a wonderful exercise for students who will be moving on to technical writing classes or to any type of business career.  It is also a great exercise in developing clarity on the sentence level and accurate detail globally.

I like to divide students into two groups for variety's sake.  Those in one group write instructions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich; the other group describes how to tie one's shoes.  Once the essays are completed, ask for a volunteer demonstrator and have him/her act out the steps indicated in a sample essay.  What we discover is that it's hard to spread peanut butter without first removing the lid from the jar.  I don't think I've ever had a student wind up with properly tied shoes at the end of the exercise.  (No wonder my daughter is still in Velcro, as apparently I can't explain it clearly, myself.) 

The other great part about the exercise is that students have to decide where to begin and where to end.  It's a story in microcosm.  And at the end, you have an edible sandwich -- food being a great motivator, even at 8:30 a.m. and even when you use green pepper jelly, I've discovered.

Bon appetit!


Irene Latham said...

Fun exercise and HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!

Carmela Martino said...

Yes, happy birthday, Jeanne Marie. April is indeed a busy month for you! And thanks for sharing this Writing Workout.

Unknown said...

I wrote an entire Christmas Song so I could use lyrics in Near Edgware - I have high hopes it will make it to number... with the books ;)

Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford said...

Thanks for the birthday wishes! It was a good day.

Irene, I can't wait to read your interview. And Elaine, I am beyond impressed. Poetry is daunting; songwriting is impossible!

Julie Musil said...

Happy birthdays and great poems!

April Halprin Wayland said...

Happy Birthday, JM! And remember: it's not Birth's Birth MONTH...that means you have a whole 30 days from today to soak up the love!