Monthly Archives: November 2013

Learning the art of story during #AcWriMo

 As part of #AcWriMo I scheduled myself in to attend a writing workshop held at work today with Arnold Zable. If you haven’t read any of his works you might want to check out his website and learn more about him at

 Beginning in academia, he moved into full-time fiction writing and now finds himself back as a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne. He tells us about his early days working with Margaret Mead in America and he rollicks through anecdotes, books, highlighted quotes from articles, all the time drawing us in to the story of him as a writer. With three hours ahead of us and a group of  9 of us, we set out to explore the art of writing with Zable telling us that he faces the same challenges as us, he ‘faces the blank screen or page every day’. He began by asking us about what drew us to the session and when I said that I use narrative in my academic writing, but was also drawn to the session as I like to do creative writing ‘on the side’, he fixed me with a steely gaze and said ‘it should be in the centre’. I was suddenly cast back to watching episodes of The Voice where Seal and fellow coaches argue that if you want to be a singer then there is no alternative, you have no back up plan. I thought again of Pat Goodson’s book where she questions if we describe ourselves as writers or not. Claiming a voice is something that will reoccur as a thought throughout the day.

 Zable begins by talking about the art of storytelling and he reminds us of the quote from Jung ‘We all have a story to tell and the denial of that story leads to despair’. He argues that the heart and soul of storytelling is the art of scene construction, contending that no matter if we write creative fiction, creative non-fiction or academic writing we can apply some of these principles to the construction of our work.  His eyes flicker with intensity as he tells us that storytelling is a sensual art, driven by the imagination and he unpacks the word, focusing on the notion of the image, the building of the sentences through the painting of images with words. He moves on to unpack the word fiction, from the Latin, ficto, meaning to make and to shape. As he says this I wonder why it is that I have not ever thought of the Latin origin of the word before. His passion for story leeches out through every pore, he is at heart a storyteller, peppering his talk about writing with examples from both his and other people’s stories. He reminds us of striking beginnings to stories, picking out Anna Funder’s All that I am as an example “When Hitler came to power, I was in the bath’. He chortles with delight at both the simplicity and genius of that phrasing.

 I’m lost in his soliloquy about writing, soaking in his words and in my brain neurons are zapping and colliding as he speaks. I’m captured by his description of text versus texture, as he talks about the fact that is in writing the specifics that we see the richness of the tale, the specificity of the naming of things makes them live, makes them ‘vibrate’ more. He holds up his writer’s journal, a black journal with red corners, each page written in longhand and illustrates the mix between planning and inspiration. On the left hand side the page is blank, save for a line or two which is planning, on the right hand side is the pure inspiration of writing. In setting out to write a story, he argues that he knows it’s working when the story is leading him, saying ‘All I can do is begin, enter in the journey and in the course of the journey I discover the story’. Every sentence is littered with adjectives, each word is portent with meaning and I am once again reminded about how striking his vocabulary is in evoking images and concepts.

 He prepares us for the first writing exercise by leading us through 4 devices, referring to Tom Wolfe and the new journalism drawing from social realism. The first of these devices is: 1) scene by scene construction; 2) dialogue; 3) point of view; 4) the least understood – the recording of everyday details/ gestures/ styles etc.  Then he sets us our writing task for the day – 20 minutes to create a scene that VIBRATES. As a lead in he regales us with a tale of a year 10 boy who didn’t like writing but liked surfing and the way he encouraged the boy to ‘get inside the wave’. Our mission, should we choose to accept it is to get inside the wave, to have the courage to begin with the narrative.

 The time passes quickly and inky black words sketch across the page. At times, it feels like my hand is moving independently of my brain and as I write a piece that is associated with many emotions, I feel my heart pounding as if I am reliving the moment, transported back I can feel the moment I’m writing about thrumming through my veins. The 20 minutes is up and he looks at as all inviting us to share what we’ve written. Others begin and I sit quietly, my pulse quickening each time his eyes glance my way as he asks for a new volunteer. Soon I read mine. Voice quavering somewhat, I move through the piece I’ve written, feeling stripped back and bare in ways that I haven’t experienced for quite some time. The academic writing process can remove you from some of this immediacy. You write, you refine, you send off. You wait. You get an email with a response, with feedback, with suggestions, with a rejection. The immediacy is lost. Here in this room, with Arnold Zable sitting before me, there is immediate feedback and he begins to unpick and unpack what I’ve written. My breath catches in my throat and I am frozen, waiting for his reading of the work. He asks me to re-read words and expressions, he talks about my shifting of narrative viewpoint and the impact that has on the work. He asks me questions about the characters and I begin to breathe, reassured that he doesn’t think it is a complete disaster. He is both a patient storyteller and a patient teacher, drawing each of us out he encourages us to follow our stories, he mutters words of encouragement, picking out the phrases that are striking, the devices we have incorporated into our work. In this moment, he sweeps us all along with him, and all at once, we all feel like writers.

 Others read their work, and at times, I’m fiercely jealous, wishing I could have used that turn of phrase, or noticed that piece of detail. I think I rush to conclusions, not building the tension, not reveling in the specifics enough and I wonder if my academic writing suffers from the same shortcomings. I leave the workshop, my head spinning with ideas, plotting ways I can take today’s learning and build it into my work, about the ways I can capture the truth of the stories I tell in my research. I am reminded of the need to work at the craft of writing, Zable’s notebooks, bound collections of works about writing, his knowledge of other writers and their style all reinforce the work of good writers, the dedication and the focus. Here in #AcWriMo, I’m seeing the benefits of this message, of the setting aside to practice my craft and to continue the work of being a writer.


Successes and failures on the AcWriMo road.

As I sit down to write this I feel like I’m writing a survival journal for a zombie apocalypse. Day 5 and I’m feeling good. I’ve had 2 good days and 2 what I consider bad days. I’m getting there though.

Apocalypses aside, I found day 3 and 4 of AcWriMo a challenge, chewed up in a fog of marking and then of working with teachers in a school on professional learning for a whole day, by the time I slumped home on the couch, I could barely remember my own name let alone what I might write about. I needed a better strategy that was going to let me prioritise some writing as Tuesday dawned bright, sunny and tempting me on the calendar was ‘the race that stops the nation’ (the Melbourne Cup for those of you overseas). I’d denied offers to go to Melbourne Cup parties so that I could get some work done and yet by mid-morning, I’d been for a run, been to Pilates and walked around the lake with a friend. Clearly the body stuff was taken care of – now for the writing stuff.

Jumping on to Twitter, I saw I’d just missed the start of virtual Shut Up and Write Tuesday ( The brainchild of Siobhan O’Dwyer, virtual shut up and write provides the opportunity for those who can’t get to one in person to participate by doing 2 25-minute pomodoros and tweeting about what they accomplish.  Reading about it, I decided that this was exactly what I needed to get my writing groove going again and rather than wait another week, I decide to do a solo virtual stint.

So better late than never, I jumped onto Twitter to announce that I was going to shut up and write. 25 minutes later and 595 words were taking shape on a book chapter I’m working on. A quick break to tweet about my progress and to check I hadn’t missed the horse race of the year and then it was back to work for another 25 minutes. At the end of my second stint I had 480 words and what I hope will be a pretty nifty metaphor that I can build on. A final tweet about my progress and I’d completed 1000 words and was up to the conclusion of the chapter. I’m sure I’ll find lots of gaps in the redrafting process and maybe I’ll realize that my metaphor is either a) clunky or b) overworked, but without shut up and write I might have just skipped today and slobbed in front of the couch watching horses gallop around a track while women prance in stupid shoes trackside with overgrown objects on their heads.

If you’ve never made it to a face-to-face shut up and write, then a virtual one could be just what you need. Check it out and add it to your list of things to experiment with in AcWriMo!

AcWriMo is underway!

Friday saw the beginning of AcWriMo and my plans for devoting some time to writing, thinking about writing and talking about writing. By 3.30 pm on Friday when I was still to have lunch and hadn’t even had a chance to sit down at my computer, I was beginning to wonder if the first day of AcWriMo was going to be a write off. The day had started with a presentation to my colleagues in our EdForum about the work I’ve been doing this year, I’d used the title ‘Who I am today is not who I was yesterday: Journeys in the third space of teacher education’ and I had a nifty slide from Alice in Wonderland to illustrate that sometimes it was like falling down a rabbit hole. I was chuffed by the lovely feedback from my colleagues and their interest in the work that I’ve been undertaking, so even though I hadn’t managed to sit down and write by Friday afternoon, I’d spent the morning exchanging lots of interesting ideas and concepts were swirling around in my brain.

One of my other stops on Friday was to meet with one of my Masters students  – a teacher working full-time in a local secondary school and completing her studies part-time. We met at the school and worked on her ethics application – she’s reached a point where she is excited and keen to get underway and into generating some data – it’s great to be part of this journey of hers. This got me thinking about Pat Thomson’s recent series of blog posts on the nature of supervision – you can read the latest one on supervision and the ethic of care
‘One day I must get around to writing some of my thoughts about this supervising bizzo down’, I thought to myself as I left the school, stomach rumbling, and headed back to the car.

It was after 5pm before I managed to even think about sitting down to write and by then my Twitter feed was full of people sharing what they’d achieved that day – I was jealous and keen to make sure that I hit my target of at least 30 mins writing each day. I dragged myself and my laptop onto the couch (not sure if this is considered an appropriate workspace) and began working on a column I needed to finish for a professional journal. An hour passed, the column was finally finished and I had managed to hit a goal on day one of AcWriMo. I tweeted my self-satisfaction and closed my laptop down for the day. Surely it would be easier to find the time to write on day two?

Day two dawned bright and sneezy. The pollen count generator on the internet said today was a bad day but that only confirmed what my body had told me when I awoke at 5.30 am sneezing and itchy. Still a 5.30 start on a Saturday proved to be a boon for AcWriMo. Cup of tea in hand, I was up and and working on the supporting documentation for an application due in on Wednesday – maybe not strictly part of my AcWriMo goals but a very necessary piece of writing that needed to be accomplished. 2 hours later and I’d constructed 2000 words that hopefully will convince the panel to let us on board a new project. By this time the sun was shining and the motorbike was calling and I swore I’d get up at 5.30 am every day to write. Let’s see how long that plan lasts 😛

The time for writing is upon us!

This is the post from over on from earlier this week where I declared my goals for AcWriMo.

So Academic Writing Month is almost due to kick off, which means it’s time to share my plans and what I hope to achieve throughout the month of November. I’ve done a bit of thinking about what I will publicly declare my goals to be, and involved in that thinking has been a consideration of what is overly optimistic and what is a realistic and achievable goal. I don’t want to have a sense of impending doom before I even commence!

So here goes- this is my grand plan for the month of November:

1) Finish a book chapter on methodology (that has a deadline looming!)

2) Finish a half-written journal article (one of those ones that’s been hanging around for a while now)

3) Work on the revisions to a co-authored paper (note I’m not saying finish as I think that might be a bit optimistic!)

4) Participate in a writing workshop

5) Finish the column for a professional journal that is due at the start of November.

My plan to finish these is to try and devote at least 30 minutes each day to some writing – rather than thinking I need a clear block of time to get these things done (the art of procrastination works well by saying ‘Oh I don’t have a good couple of hours to devote to this, why start now?’),  I’m going to set an achievable goal of 30 minutes a day. I think this will mean I need to do some better monitoring of where I get up to and where I’m heading next with each piece though.

I started to get really good at that after I worked with some of Pat Goodson’s writing suggestions and had a nifty Excel spreadsheet set up where I was tracking how much I was writing each day, what I was up to and where I was going next. I have a bit of an aversion to spreadsheets and I was surprised how much this actually helped me and kept me focused. Somewhere along the track I stopped doing this and my excel spreadsheet lies abandoned, it could be time to resurrect it I think.

Seeing as I’m heading along to the Arnold Zable workshop in a week or so, I figure I can confidently tick the writing workshop off and I’m hoping that participating in that helps me keep on track with Academic Writing Month as well.

So that’s me  -somewhat modest goals, but ones to help me clear a pesky backlog of writing that got pushed aside in the final rush of teaching for this semester. What about you?

What will you be writing this month? I’d love to hear your plans!

Academic Writing Month starts in November!

This is a post from a couple of weeks back – I had this grand plan of having a separate blog for AcWriMo – but in reality, it has just become another thing to manage – so I’m putting all my posts for AcWriMo on here!

What is AcWriMo?

AcWriMo is held during November to encourage academics to set goals for themselves and their writing. Academics across the globe sign on to the challenge and set a goal they would like to accomplish during the month of November. The goal can be as big or small as you like. Some people set goals to ‘finish 2 journal articles that have been in draft form’, others set goals to ‘write at least 300 words each day’. It’s a choose your own adventure where you can decide the level of challenge you want to set yourself!

Charlotte Frost (from PhD2Published blog) came up with these guidelines (and you can read them if you check out her blog).

Decide on a goal – word, time, etc

Declare your goal publicly – online here in the comments would be great!

Draft a strategy – and you may want to share that here too

Discuss your challenges, progress, success – you can do that here too in the comments

Share the results at the end of the month – what did you achieve!

Why do it?

Academics who have participated in AcWriMo describe the benefits as giving you a specific focus for your writing, and the fact that you can  begin to develop a community of writers sharing their experiences, challenges, and successes over a one month period. While some people are critical of this challenge, thinking it may place more pressure on academics, others think it enables us to focus on the process of writing (check out the thesis whisperer post below).  People share what they are doing through blogs, Twitter (using #AcWriMo) and through the AcWriMo google doc where people sign up. You can check out some links and more information about it here

What will you be writing?

So I invite you to take on the challenge and participate in Academic Writing Month with me. I’m going to come up with a plan and some goals and post them back on here and I hope you’ll share yours too 🙂