Creative Visual Reference 2.0

Sitting through a workshop this winter, I was amazed that writers struggle to find information important to characters and other visual ideas. A student in the workshop mentioned that they were struggling to see their character specifically. I immediately thought of Robert Olen Butler and his book From Where You Dream. And in his book he mentioned that we shouldn’t be stifled by the things we don’t know – the small intangible things that we can’t name. He suggests using a visual dictionary to help with some of these issues. These reference books help us name things that can help us be specific and clear in the writing. While I have one, I don’t use it all that much. However, I had recently noticed a writer who was using Pinterest for references to her writing. And I was fascinated how this social media tool might reboot the idea that visual references can inspire us and make connections. 

Pinterest is a collection of images and other media organized through headings known as “boards” that help categorize how and why they are relevant to the collector. In terms of a writing tool, we have a wide range of purpose and focus. For example, writers might need to know “Civil War Uniforms” and collect pins to support the look and feel of both sides of the battle. The more specific a writer can be, the better suited they can make their finds on Pinterest. If you need shoreline cottages in Ireland, you can probably create a collection.  But there is more than just collecting things. Pins and boards can become relatable. 

When you see things (from different pins) that begin to relate to one another, you being to make connections. That can bring ideas together. From hairstyles, fabrics, wood joining, to dishes, Pinterest can help. And while we know excessive detail can be grueling, finding the right significant detail can carry a lot of weight in prose. This social media can help. 

If your purpose is to know the names of things, this won’t be a good focus for you. But if you need to build visual relationships, to connect ideas, this might be the right space for you. What may be confusing is creating a visual for something you haven’t actually touched or seen. For example, if you needed to know what an Egyptian bug swatter looked like, you will probably find it. Then you will have a sense of what these things looked like. It may also inspire you to look at why Egyptians had so many bugs around them to begin with. Hence, a new line of inquiry and perhaps focus could enter into your writing (dying of malaria is a significant plot point). 

Social media is typically a writer’s worst distraction, but in this place, we should be considering different application, creations, and, connections to our craft. Sometimes, we find connection in the most unlikely things and places, and with a powerful search engine, this digital tool could change a phrase, a sentence, a page, or a story. It can also change the way we find inspirations and interconnections. 

What this social media platform creates is some foundational visuals that are important for writers, but not realized by the reader. This is a writers tool that is folded into the craft and transmitted through the story and words. You shouldn’t notice specific pins or websites on the page, but the story is more informed, concrete, and subtle because of access to these ideas and visuals. 


Unquestioning Writing – When Good Is Good Enough

by Ron Samul 

As writers, we are constantly thinking about the audience and the impact of our writing. It is a fundamental element of teaching, thinking, and writing. It made me think, when I saw this tweet by Maha Bali, when she mentioned this moment. 


This is a complex idea, and from a writing standpoint, it is also a brave idea. Writers as communicators and creative generators always seem to humble and diminish their craft. In this case, Maha is confident and sees that sometimes – no one comments because of the “powerful”. I really admire the confidence and the realization that sometimes – that the power of writing can overwhelm. Why? 

Social Media 

The concept of finding something meaningful and important on social media is relevant to me. Online courses, MOOCs, connected learning, creative spaces — all interact through social media. For me, learning, thinking, and listening to very smart and creative people comes from my interaction with social media. However, not everyone comes to social media to find that kind of connection. 

Some people are connecting with family and friends, some are just passing by while they watch their favorite TV show, some are broadcasting on Periscope as they walk to work. Why people use social media is tailored to each person. The depth of reading and interaction really comes down to the user. And it isn’t happening in real time, it is happening along a timeline that could be shifting through time zones and cultures. Sometimes, the most important statements or blog posts don’t get the attention I think they deserve, merely because I posted them on a Friday afternoon before a holiday (fail). 


But more importantly, people are looking for an interaction that is quick and reactive on social media. Things that make them stop, think, and experience deeper level thinking, (which relates to selective solitude, pausing, and deep reflection), may not fit into the “Like” or “+1” world of immediate reaction. This has spurred the age of important, meaningful quotes on stunning images. 


In this scan and click age, deep thinking and impactful ideas sometimes need a difference venue. It sometimes needs a blogpost, or some area where things can be expanded and slowly unpacked. And sometimes, the “Like” or the “Share” simply doesn’t relate the importance of meaning at that moment. Sometimes, I see an image or a concept and I want to keep it. I want to hold on to it. But where would I keep it? Social media lets you keep it on social media terms. But when something is meaningful, we want to do more than just throw it on our timeline. Perhaps it is merely my personal need to embody ideas, art, and writing in tangible ways. Social media isn’t going away and perhaps a thirty-year archive of my Facebook posts will allow me to go back and find that poem I recall so sweetly. But I want to make moments my own – outside of the screen. I want to print them out and save them. I want to fold them up and leave them in a book to discover them in a few years. 

Student Writing 

Being a writing teacher is a complex beast. Following syllabus standards, rubrics, college standards, your own vision, and the student’s vision – we create a position where we are looking for the right answer to the assignment. Writing is subjective and I am looking at process, not the right order of words in a sentence. I am looking at critical thinking, how you cite sources, how you can create a document that convinces me. There is some excellent writing that comes by in terms of student writing, but I find that those elements are the product of good thinking, critical research, and planning. It comes from students who engage the learning process. And sometimes, compared to the whole class or the entire writing section, you have to acknowledge excellence as it comes to you. And sometimes, after two or three rewrites and a clear process of thinking and learning – there comes a moment when you don’t need it better. They have learned – they have more than met your requirements, and they deserve to stand in that moment and feel the significance of their work. 

Creative Writing 

Creative acts are a different beast. When you apply rubrics and grading schemes to a poem or a short story, it gets awkward and complex. The “powerful” concept that Maha tweets about can be emotional, formative, and change the way we see the world. That is what art does. And sometimes, from a creative writing mentor point-of-view, you have to judge something that isn’t vetted through a rubric or a course guide. It comes from emotion, it comes from form and content magically aligning to make a moment (perhaps in time if read or spoken) that matches our time and space with the ideas of someone else. 

I always question my role in interfering with the creative process. It isn’t my story to tell, it is my job to make the writer think about making the story better. That is complex. And my suggestions are never – “throw this out and start over,” because I would be devastated if someone told me that. But this “powerful” part of writing and speaking is fascinating to me. And there has to be a moment when we realize that expression and time meet you when you need it. There are so many poems, books, and important things written all the time. When I need them (personally), they will be there. I don’t always see them now because I am looking at different things that I need now. We are all on different paths and moving in different ways. We find those moments that are “powerful” because we are looking. We need to stop counting “likes” and stats, and imagine that if one person moved forward because of the power of our words, it is always… always worth it. 


I don’t think I am done defining Maha’s “powerful” because I think there is a lot to the creative elements here. There is an important conversation here in defining the “powerful” in our writing, in our expression, and in our ideas. We need to value them – make an earnest and important effort to value those words and ideas that can change lives. It may not make you famous or popular, but it is a rich and deeply thoughtful life, one without regrets. 


by Ron Samul — want to know more about me… go here. 


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On Mentoring / Only Connect…

This week, I’ve been thinking about the role of the mentor. I understand my official role as a mentor. But I feel like it has taken me some time to develop what I can do for students who connect. I am not the line editor, although I can pick out places where I think the writing needs work. I am the mentor who connects. Perhaps it is partly from the obsession I have with E. M. Forster’s epigraph at the beginning of Howard’s End that says simple “Only connect….” and he adds three pesky ellipses that just don’t connect. Ugh! That idea is like a hand grenade in my brain. It is such a simple puzzle: elegant, beautiful, and sad. This relates to my mentoring philosophy. I want to find ways to enhance the likelihood of the writer writing. That is my job. 

I don’t want to judge a student’s creative move – I want to prove its worth. I don’t want to change the book, I want to strengthen the reason for writing it. It is in this realm that I’ve done the most prolific searching about the worth of writing, thinking, and creating. I’ve pushed myself to say something relevant and important about writing that I would never have considered without the help of the student’s work, ideas, and connections to the world. And the result is when the ideas flow back with the same intensity. 

Every student that I’ve worked with on writing, thinking, and creating has been a direct and formidable challenge to everything I know about writing and thinking. For that, I am grateful to who I’ve become as a mentor and teacher. But more importantly, I am amazed at how important it has been to value a good mentor as a student and turn that value system into something sustainable as a teacher. Being a mentor isn’t about control – it isn’t about the words on the page – it is about listening, trusting, and waiting. 

In May, when I went through the Rhizo15 MOOC and challenged my own teaching style, I gave some students a chance to find their own paths, their own challenges, and their own results. That is when I saw something I had been waiting for as a teacher for a long time – inspiration. Students went out to the world and took on roles bigger than their experience. They saw themselves as model students who were sent out to work in meaningful and thoughtful directions. And they were given a trust that was tacit between instructor and student. This forging of teaching relationship based on letting go, empowering students, and seeing immediate results gave me new hope for the way I see the world of teaching. I did it again this semester – and empowered the students. And they also impressed me. Not only did they show me how to be independent and expansive in their learning, they also attended every class (which they weren’t required to do) and participated in the classroom environment. Amazing. Give the students more freedom and they over perform. But is that freedom? Or did I merely acknowledge their potential and they stepped into that potential?

I’ve made an analogy in class to content and form as coffee and a cup. The coffee is the content of the paper, but the form and function is contained in the cup that holds the coffee. In terms of a metaphor, it has come in handy in sharing the idea of whether I cam discussing form or content when they are co-mingling in the rhetoric of writing. Yet, when it comes to mentoring and giving students freedom, I can make the same type of metaphorical statement. If we can value the work the student does as the coffee, what I think is more important is what that cup looks like. That is where I can see skills worth having – discipline, motivation, tenacity, perseverance, grit, and all those qualities that change a person through hard work. How you will make it through this project, this paper, this novel —  is the coffee. How you will change over the course of doing it – that is all cup. And it is the thing that I want to change. I don’t want to change the creative choices that student makes. That comes with practice, instinct, and writing style. But I can push a student to think deeply, and not settle. I don’t want to change the creativity, but the way they think about it. 

Sometimes, I think Forster posed the epigraph “Only connect….” as an ironic statement of the modern age. And I use to revel in that sense of tragic loss and disconnection. But sometimes, I wonder if he left the phrase unfinished because we never complete the act of constantly connecting. There is always more work to do. There is always more to discuss. No one enters into art because they aren’t thinking and processing the complexities of the world. And so, it would be ridiculous that mentors and teachers would recycle their pat advice from one student to another, without seeking out deep and meaningful connections to that of the student’s art. Giving meaningful and connective vision to a writer (seasoned or student) is some of the most important work. It might be the first time they have spoken to their art with such depth and focus. It might be the conversation they’ve been waiting for their entire life. 

I was sent an email this semester from one of the students that worked on an independent project for me in the spring. She moved to a bigger university, finding her path in a different realm. She asked me to read over her essays on the ambition of woman in the community based on interviews she did with them. The project was still moving forward, even when courses and life changed, it was still happening. “Only connect….” didn’t have to mean ironic wordplay, but a continued sense of perpetual motion – always connecting – one idea, one student, one vision at a time; never stopping. As a teaching philosophy – that is all I can be as a mentor and a writer. Simply complex. 


#Rhizo15

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been connecting and interacting with Rhizo15 created by Dave Cormier and an ever expanding group of thinkers, educators, and creative people. The idea behind the collaborative connective course is to discuss the topic proposed every week. How and what that conversation looks like is something that is defined by the people involved.

On Dave Cormier’s blog, he explains that “Rhizomatic learning is a way of thinking about learning based on ideas described by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in a thousand plateaus. A rhizome, sometimes called a creeping rootstalk, is a stem of a plant that sends out shoots as it spreads. It is an image used by D&G to describe the way that ideas are multiple, interconnected and self-replicating. A rhizome has no beginning or end… like the learning process.”

During this course, there have been some fascinating conversations, connections, and interdisciplinary ideas that have really changed the way I look at learning. Two projects that inspired me to action was the idea of subjective learning. I took two students in my writing course who were doing really well. I asked them to take the last two weeks of the course and explore and create a subjective learning experience. I wanted them to advance some idea or work they started in the course and bring it back to me. I wanted them to have the freedom to explore, work, and change their vision of learning and hard work. The results of that experience are coming in a blog post that will end up HERE. The other creative idea was to write a story about a student that is involved in a rhizome course. It is a strange story about a girl who begins a class that never starts and ends up realizing that she isn’t the student, but the teacher, the student, and the curriculum. Check it out in its rough draft form here.

The most impressive and exciting part of this experience was the complete and utter uncertainty I felt entering this very open and creative group. It wasn’t that I was fearful, I simply didn’t understand how it worked. I didn’t understand how to get in, how to participate, and how to give people feedback. It seems that social media (Facebook and Twitter) were the nexus, and people established blogs to expand their ideas and post different kinds of media (photos, video, articles, and even radio). There is so many good reasons to jump into the world of unconventional learning. It is in this type of experimental thinking and change that we can develop some of our most significant and unseen drivers to push our learning, thinking, and connections to one another. Check out my blog and read some of my thoughts on this world of unlearning and subjective ideas in and out of the classroom.