What’s The Writing Process?

In class the other day, we read Anne Lamott’s famous and irreverent essay about the “sh*tty” first drafts we all write and her take on the writing process: http://thewritealley.com/2010/06/08/the-writing-process-shtty-first-drafts/

We’ve also discussed how to do Natalie Goldberg style writing practice as part of the writing process. Here’s a blog post that lists and discusses Natalie Goldberg’s “Rules for Writing Practice.”

Here’s more tips on how to get your writing going: http://thewritealley.com/2010/11/02/tuesday-tips-getting-your-writing-going/#more-640

Here’s a few ideas about “writer’s block”: http://thewritealley.com/2010/06/22/tuesday-tips-seth-godin-on-writers-block/#more-262

Happy writing!

Natalie Goldberg’s “Rules for Writing Practice”

Natalie Goldberg, author of several books on writing including Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life, starts every writing class she teaches with “The Rules of Writing Practice” and so do I.

She says that if you want to be a writer, or to improve your writing, or to come to know your own mind,  fill a notebook a month by writing for 20 minutes or longer on specific topics from “I remember” to “I don’t remember” to your grandmother’s kitchen to your favorite teacher to teeth to…you name it.

What follows are Natalie Goldberg’s rules in bold from Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life and with my interpretations:

1. Keep your hand moving. No matter what, don’t stop. Write whatever comes to your mind. Outrace the editor with your writing hand. If you keep your hand moving, the writing will win.

2. Lose Control. Let it rip. Don’t worry that someone will judge you.

3. Be specific. Get in the habit of using nouns, verbs, colors, textures. If you realize you’ve written a sentence that’s full of general vague language, don’t scratch it out but make the next sentence more specific.

4. Don’t think. Stick with your “first thoughts” not your thoughts on thoughts. forget everything else outside of the immediate words you are writing down. Stay with those words, in that moment.

5. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar. That’s right! Who cares? Why does this matter? Keep your hand moving and write clearly enough so you can read it later if you want.

6. You are free to write the worst junk in the world. Yep, you are. So don’t let that fear stop you.

7. Go for the jugular. If something comes up while you’re writing, keep writing about it. Let it out. Hemingway said, “Write hard and clear about what hurts.”

If you write often, about topics of your own choosing as well as those assigned, it’s like a workout.

If you work out regularly, when it’s time to do the heavy lifting, like move a piano or take an essay test, or write something super important, it will be easier because you have developed the muscles.

Natalie Goldberg tells people to write by hand and I encourage you to do so. Do your best to follow the rules of writing practice–and just let the writing flow without judgment. No one should be reading your words to judge you, to say this is good or bad. The writing just is. You are writing it for you, to know your own Wild Mind.

Cultural Artifact Assignment: connects students with their own & other cultural stories

Education is all a matter of building bridges. –Ralph Ellison

Insight, I believe, refers to the depth of understanding that comes by setting experiences, yours and mine, familiar and exotic, new and old, side by side, learning by letting them speak to one another. –Mary Catherine Bateson.

Real education should consist of drawing the goodness and the best out of our own students.  What better books can there be than the book of humanity?  –Cesar Chavez

The more deeply you understand other people, the more you will appreciate them, the more reverent you will feel about them.  To touch the soul of another human being is to walk on holy ground.–Stephen Covey

Two weeks ago, I was asked to take over as a long term sub for an instructor who had a medical emergency. I was able to meet with the instructor, get copies of her syllabus, texts, and scores for the students etc.

It was up to me to figure out how to combine her teaching style with mine in a way that would equal a smooth transition and success for her students.

The first class I taught the students how to do Natalie Goldberg style writing practice and we held a council so I could learn from the students what was working for them and what they needed from the class. I then incorporated what I learned from them into a few changes in the syllabus, specifically in the essay assignments and the deadlines.

Since I don’t know the students at all, they barely know each other, and I think forming a community is of the utmost importance to build the trust required to work together in seminar discussions and on writing projects as well as for other reasons discussed in the link below, our first assignment is the Cultural Artifacts one described here: https://whisperdownthewritealley.wordpress.com/2010/09/23/class-activity-invites-students-to-share-food-stories-about-their-culture/

Usually this assignment does not include a formal essay but again this isn’t a typical class. So I adapted a personal narrative assignment to the task; it’s posted below for those students who need to refer to it or for other faculty who may be curious about it. The students will also be writing an argument that analyzes a text and writing a research paper. Continue reading

How To Be A Better Writer: READ

There are two well-known ways to become a better writer:



There are two well-known ways to be successful in college:

READ from a wide range of challenging books.

WRITE about what you read.

The more you read, the better a writer you will become. As you are exposed to language and ways to use it, you can incorporate these tools into your own bag of tricks as a student and as a writer.

To this end, I am adding more reading to the English 2 class I adopted two weeks ago.

Students will be able to choose from the following books to form a “Book Club” to discuss the texts and in writing groups for the subsequent analysis and argument assignment.

The first five books on the list are by local authors–

How To Be Chicana Role Model by Michele Serros
growing up in Oxnard; in several local libraries

Sespe Wild by Brad Monsma
natural and human history of the Sespe area behind Fillmore, Santa Paula and Ojai; also in local libraries

Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard
business and life philosophy by the Patagonia founder
easy to find at Patagonia’s  headquarters on Santa Clara and Olive; local libraries

Middle of the Night Poems From Daughter to Mother :: Mother to Son by Gwendolyn Alley
narrative poems tracing the journey from daughter to mother from the perspective of 3:15am August nights; you can buy this from me, online (print or e edition from publisher en theos press),
at Bank of Books, Bart’s, Best of VC Marketplace in Santa Paula

Like a Splinter In Your Mind by Matt Lawrence
the philosophy behind the Matrix movies; available on library reserve at VC

The final two book selections are from non-local authors. The first is the one being read as part of a “One Book One Campus” initiative:

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
Widely available including in the VC bookstore

while the second is:

Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg

Students will be able to choose which book they want to read as long as there are three people in the class who will read it with them and be in their book club.

While you will be able to find these books online, I encourage you to support local bookstores like Bart’s in Ojai, VC Marketplace, Patagonia and especially

Bank of Books

Open until 7:00 pm
Mon – Thu: 10:00 am 7:00 pm
Fri – Sat: 10:00 am 8:00 pm
Sun: 10:00 am 5:00 pm

Info for Alley’s English 2 Midterm Fall 2011

The midterm exam for my English 2 students at Ventura College will have one essay question and several short answer questions which you will respond to in a blue book (available at the book store for under 50c; if you can find a “green” book, one using all recycled content, that’s even better! Photo of student with Blue Book from this site http://progymnasmata.posterous.com/the-blue-book-a-debate-innovation

Possible short answer questions might include a description of the writing process, a definition of what a thesis is and why an academic paper needs one, strategies you can use as a writer to convey your argument, and what reading you’ve done so far this semester has interested you the most (you’ll need the author and the title of the text!)

For the essay, you will choose ONE prompt from two, and write a 1 ½ page or 350-450 word TYPED essay in response to Mark Bittman’s article “Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?” You must quote at least TWICE from Bittman’s article and use proper format for in-text citations.

To prepare for the an in class writing exam, I strongly recommend you study the essay and do the following:

–write a paragraph summary of the article that includes the main points
–write a paragraph analysis of the article that focuses on the author’s argument
–write a paragraph response with your opinion about the article
–look up and learn vocabulary words you don’t know
–find a few quotes from the article that support your ideas

You might even pose a question or two to yourself and do a 10 minute writing practice on that topic and see how it goes. (Save your writing practice for credit and your notes for extra credit in your portfolio.)

This is a great strategy to use to prepare for any test, especially one that will require you to write an essay! Studying or reading material won’t help you remember it as well as writing about it will.

If you are not a very good typist, now’s the time to find an online tutorial!

Your final essay which should include

  • o an introduction containing a clear thesis
  • o at least ONE body paragraph (ideally, three)
  • o at least TWO quotations from the reading, cited correctly
  • o specific examples and support for your thesis in your body paragraph(s)
  • o a conclusion
  • o evidence of revisions and proofreading to clarify points and fix errors (this means after you write it and print it, you should look over it and make corrections in pencil)
  • o title

How can you earn an A? Learn how you will be evaluated here.

Good luck preparing for the test! It’s scheduled for next Weds. Oct 26 and Thurs. Oct 27 in the lab in Pod J.

In Class Exams: What Makes an “A” Essay?

It’s that time of the year again–midterms!

So what are your teachers really looking for when it comes to what you put on the page during that timed in class essay writing exam?

The following holistic grading criteria or rubric is full of reminders about “what teachers are really looking for,” especially in a community college setting, and particularly for students in a fundamentals of English (pre-transfer level) class.

And yes, my students, if you are wondering, this is what I am looking for too in your midterm and final in class essays and it offers great guidelines for regular papers as well!

Good luck on your tests!

An “A” paper will:
* respond completely and directly to the assignment
* include a clear thesis to which body paragraphs are clearly connected
* be well organized (intro, unified body paragraphs, conclusions)
* contain clear sentences with some varied syntax
* very few mechanical error which do not overly detract from essay

A “B” paper will:
* respond to the assignment
* have a thesis to which body paragraphs connect
* be organized
* contain clear sentences
* some mechanical errors that do not distract from content

A “C” paper will:
* generally respond to the assignment
* have a thesis somewhere to which body paragraphs may relate or digress
* be mostly organized, possibly short intro, short or missing conclusion
* examples and details may be poorly developed and executed
* sentences may be clear but overly simple or awkwardly constructed
* mechanical errors may slightly distract from meaning

A “D” paper will:
* miss or misinterpret part of the assignment
* have a weak thesis and mostly unrelated body paragraphs
* use few details and examples
* mechanical errors obscure meaning

An “F” paper will:
* not respond to the assignment
* have no thesis
* no detectable organization
* be undeveloped
* contain numerous and random errors which make the essay unreadable

Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?

Is Junk Food Really Cheaper? from–

New York Times

The Sunday Review


Published: September 24, 2011

THE “fact” that junk food is cheaper than real food has become a reflexive part of how we explain why so many Americans are overweight, particularly those with lower incomes. I frequently read confident statements like, “when a bag of chips is cheaper than a head of broccoli …” or “it’s more affordable to feed a family of four at McDonald’s than to cook a healthy meal for them at home.”

This is just plain wrong. In fact it isn’t cheaper to eat highly processed food: a typical order for a family of four — for example, two Big Macs, a cheeseburger, six chicken McNuggets, two medium and two small fries, and two medium and two small sodas — costs, at the McDonald’s a hundred steps from where I write, about $28. (Judicious ordering of “Happy Meals” can reduce that to about $23 — and you get a few apple slices in addition to the fries!)

In general, despite extensive government subsidies, hyperprocessed food remains more expensive than food cooked at home. You can serve a roasted chicken with vegetables along with a simple salad and milk for about $14, and feed four or even six people. If that’s too much money, substitute a meal of rice and canned beans with bacon, green peppers and onions; it’s easily enough for four people and costs about $9. (Omitting the bacon, using dried beans, which are also lower in sodium, or substituting carrots for the peppers reduces the price further, of course.)

Another argument runs that junk food is cheaper when measured by the calorie, and that this makes fast food essential for the poor because they need cheap calories. But given that half of the people in this country (and a higher percentage of poor people) consume too many calories rather than too few, measuring food’s value by the calorie makes as much sense as measuring a drink’s value by its alcohol content. (Why not drink 95 percent neutral grain spirit, the cheapest way to get drunk?)

Besides, that argument, even if we all needed to gain weight, is not always true. A meal of real food cooked at home can easily contain more calories, most of them of the “healthy” variety. (Olive oil accounts for many of the calories in the roast chicken meal, for example.)In comparing prices of real food and junk food, I used supermarket ingredients, not the pricier organic or local food that many people would consider ideal. But food choices are not black and white; the alternative to fast food is not necessarily organic food, any more than the alternative to soda is Bordeaux.

The alternative to soda is water, and the alternative to junk food is not grass-fed beef and greens from a trendy farmers’ market, but anything other than junk food: rice, grains, pasta, beans, fresh vegetables, canned vegetables, frozen vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, bread, peanut butter, a thousand other things cooked at home — in almost every case a far superior alternative.

“Anything that you do that’s not fast food is terrific; cooking once a week is far better than not cooking at all,” says Marion Nestle, professor of food studies at New York University and author of “What to Eat.”

“It’s the same argument as exercise: more is better than less and some is a lot better than none.”

THE fact is that most people can afford real food. Even the nearly 50 million Americans who are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) receive about $5 per person per day, which is far from ideal but enough to survive. So we have to assume that money alone doesn’t guide decisions about what to eat.

There are, of course, the so-called food deserts, places where it’s hard to find food: the Department of Agriculture says that more than two million Americans in low-income rural areas live 10 miles or more from a supermarket, and more than five million households without access to cars live more than a half mile from a supermarket.

Still, 93 percent of those with limited access to supermarkets do have access to vehicles, though it takes them 20 more minutes to travel to the store than the national average. And after a long day of work at one or even two jobs, 20 extra minutes — plus cooking time — must seem like an eternity.

Taking the long route to putting food on the table may not be easy, but for almost all Americans it remains a choice, and if you can drive to McDonald’s you can drive to Safeway. It’s cooking that’s the real challenge. (The real challenge is not “I’m too busy to cook.” In 2010 the average American, regardless of weekly earnings, watched no less than an hour and a half of television per day. The time is there.)

The core problem is that cooking is defined as work, and fast food is both a pleasure and a crutch. “People really are stressed out with all that they have to do, and they don’t want to cook,” says Julie Guthman, associate professor of community studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of the forthcoming “Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice and the Limits of Capitalism.” “Their reaction is, ‘Let me enjoy what I want to eat, and stop telling me what to do.’ And it’s one of the few things that less well-off people have: they don’t have to cook.”

It’s not just about choice, however, and rational arguments go only so far, because money and access and time and skill are not the only considerations. The ubiquity, convenience and habit-forming appeal of hyperprocessed foods have largely drowned out the alternatives: there are five fast-food restaurants for every supermarket in the United States; in recent decades the adjusted for inflation price of fresh produce has increased by 40 percent while the price of soda and processed food has decreased by as much as 30 percent; and nearly inconceivable resources go into encouraging consumption in restaurants: fast-food companies spent $4.2 billion on marketing in 2009.

Furthermore, the engineering behind hyperprocessed food makes it virtually addictive. A 2009 study by the Scripps Research Institute indicates that overconsumption of fast food “triggers addiction-like neuroaddictive responses” in the brain, making it harder to trigger the release of dopamine. In other words the more fast food we eat, the more we need to give us pleasure; thus the report suggests that the same mechanisms underlie drug addiction and obesity.

This addiction to processed food is the result of decades of vision and hard work by the industry. For 50 years, says David A. Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and author of “The End of Overeating,” companies strove to create food that was “energy-dense, highly stimulating, and went down easy. They put it on every street corner and made it mobile, and they made it socially acceptable to eat anytime and anyplace. They created a food carnival, and that’s where we live. And if you’re used to self-stimulation every 15 minutes, well, you can’t run into the kitchen to satisfy that urge.”

Real cultural changes are needed to turn this around. Somehow, no-nonsense cooking and eating — roasting a chicken, making a grilled cheese sandwich, scrambling an egg, tossing a salad — must become popular again, and valued not just by hipsters in Brooklyn or locavores in Berkeley. The smart campaign is not to get McDonald’s to serve better food but to get people to see cooking as a joy rather than a burden, or at least as part of a normal life.

As with any addictive behavior, this one is most easily countered by educating children about the better way. Children, after all, are born without bad habits. And yet it’s adults who must begin to tear down the food carnival.

The question is how? Efforts are everywhere. The People’s Grocery in Oakland secures affordable groceries for low-income people. Zoning laws in Los Angeles restrict the number of fast-food restaurants in high-obesity neighborhoods. There’s the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a successful Pennsylvania program to build fresh food outlets in underserved areas, now being expanded nationally. FoodCorps and Cooking Matters teach young people how to farm and cook.
As Malik Yakini, executive director of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, says, “We’ve seen minor successes, but the food movement is still at the infant stage, and we need a massive social shift to convince people to consider healthier options.”

HOW do you change a culture? The answers, not surprisingly, are complex. “Once I look at what I’m eating,” says Dr. Kessler, “and realize it’s not food, and I ask ‘what am I doing here?’ that’s the start. It’s not about whether I think it’s good for me, it’s about changing how I feel. And we change how people feel by changing the environment.”

Obviously, in an atmosphere where any regulation is immediately labeled “nanny statism,” changing “the environment” is difficult. But we’ve done this before, with tobacco. The 1998 tobacco settlement limited cigarette marketing and forced manufacturers to finance anti-smoking campaigns — a negotiated change that led to an environmental one that in turn led to a cultural one, after which kids said to their parents, “I wish you didn’t smoke.” Smoking had to be converted from a cool habit into one practiced by pariahs.

A similar victory in the food world is symbolized by the stories parents tell me of their kids booing as they drive by McDonald’s.

To make changes like this more widespread we need action both cultural and political. The cultural lies in celebrating real food; raising our children in homes that don’t program them for fast-produced, eaten-on-the-run, high-calorie, low-nutrition junk; giving them the gift of appreciating the pleasures of nourishing one another and enjoying that nourishment together.

Political action would mean agitating to limit the marketing of junk; forcing its makers to pay the true costs of production; recognizing that advertising for fast food is not the exercise of free speech but behavior manipulation of addictive substances; and making certain that real food is affordable and available to everyone. The political challenge is the more difficult one, but it cannot be ignored.

What’s easier is to cook at every opportunity, to demonstrate to family and neighbors that the real way is the better way. And even the more fun way: kind of like a carnival.