Education: Signal vs Noise

The 21st century has a whale of a lot of noise in it. The kids have coined a phrase to help us sift through all of it: signal vs. noise. Signal matters. Noise doesn’t. But a lot of what we do in education masquerades as signal, when all it is is noise.

First, we use “seat time” to signal to kids that education is important. That’s why the 180-day school year requirement, among other things. There is no strong correlation between seat time and test scores, but that doesn’t matter. It’s a signal that we care about education. Kids, however, pick that up as a signal that ADULTS care about education, but since adults (kids believe) are mostly morons, and often punitive and dangerously unstable morons, that’s not a positive message. In other words, this one is noise.

Second, we use pieces of paper to signal competence. Starting with the high school diploma, and moving onward from there, we signal to each other that graduating students are worthy of employment (and that they are valuable in other ways, as human beings). The high school diploma does not correlate with success at university. University education does not correlate with job security, and its correlation with income is tautological (employers believe a degree means something, so by definition a degree DOES mean something, so this reinforces the idea that a degree means something). The signal is being sent, and received, yet the results do not support the contention of the signal. Again, mostly noise.

Third, we use per-pupil expenditures to signal caring about kids. There is no rational human being that will contend that Utah parents care 55% as much about their kids as Virginia parents do (having lived for over 20 years in each state, I’d argue the reverse quite vociferously), but the Virginia per-pupil is $11,700, and the Utah per-pupil is $6500. It’s a signal. The signal is entirely white noise–again, there is no correlation between money spent per pupil and test scores, let alone long-term success.

But as a teacher myself, I think it’s exceptionally difficult to measure success in education. I’m not at all sure what the term even means. Test scores? Okay, but do test scores correlate to “life success”? No. They do not. Top SAT scorers are every bit as likely to be unemployed, bankrupt, divorced, and jailed, as other people. So I can teach to the test–indeed, I am all but threatened into doing so–but does that do my students a disservice? I believe it does.

I don’t signal to my students that I care about them, I actually care about them. As a result, many of them do very well on the traditional measures of academic success. But because my school is a magnet for refugees from mainline public schools, I also have a huge number of kids that will never perform well on such measures. Still, I believe they are learning and I believe they’re learning because of what and how we teach them.

I see no good way to measure that. I see even less how I could prove it to an administrator. And I suppose it is therefore possible that I am completely bamboozled, and that none of this learning is, in fact, happening. But if it isn’t, I guarantee you it wouldn’t happen anywhere else any better. In fact, I think that may be true anyway–kids learn what they learn.

Finding the appropriate fit for a kid, where he will learn the most, is not going to reduce down to 50 pages of core standards, or some kind of bar graph. It’s as individual as the kid is. But we signal, because 1) that lets people keep their jobs and 2) because we genuinely don’t know what else to do. We’re spending–literally–nearly a trillion dollars on education annually in the US, the vast majority of it public money. We have to have SOME way of being accountable for all that.

Which is why, in my opinion, government as an education monopoly is a bad idea. Government is a chainsaw, a huge, powerful tool that can take out a tree–or your leg–in a minute or less. But you don’t want to use it to remove a blood clot. Most education is logging, pure and simple. Carpet-bomb the basics. A good number of kids, though, aren’t going to do well with that, on both sides of the spectrum.

Exceptional kids can and should have access to exceptional opportunity (NOTE: this does not mean “rich kids”), and kids that won’t do well in the assembly-line education system need a way to get out and get what they need elsewhere. We currently make that quite hard, in most places, and I think our education system would benefit from making it easier. I also think we could get the same or very similar results with half the expenditures we now have, as they do in many charter schools and virtually all parochial schools (Utah private schools are, for many reasons, bad examples).

Technology won’t fix it, or even make a significant dent in the problem. A computer in every class is no solution (again, no correlation between technology and learning, at least not in schools). The problems are systemic. The system was designed to provide workers for defined problem sets–things you can learn to do from a checklist–and we still need a fair number of those workers, though fewer and fewer of them.

The 21st century, by contrast, will need ill-defined-problem solvers, people who can recognize problems that do not yet exist, or that exist but are intractable, i.e. eliminating malaria. Our education system does not provide much hope that those thinkers will come about. I think they will, but mostly from the segment of the population that has opted out of school.

And you know, maybe it wouldn’t matter, or matter very much. Maybe kids are going to learn what they’re going to learn, and it’s irrelevant what we teach them. I think that’s possible, and exceptionally hard to prove. Our society is, at any rate, built on the idea that we’re going to pen kids up for hours a day so their parents don’t have to worry about them, so this isn’t changing.

Still. I was in a meeting this weekend, and the facilitator asked how often we were holding meetings in our local units. The acceptable answers were anywhere from “once a month” to “once a week”. We all fell into the acceptable bracket. “But,” the leader said, “the key here is not frequency, but effectiveness. If your meetings are ineffective, and you’re meeting once a week, you should probably drop to once a month.” Until we have some solid evidence that spending $700 billion on education every year produces results we couldn’t get by spending half that, I wonder if we shouldn’t spend half of it.

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Endings and Beginnings

Yesterday while channel-surfing during halftime of a particularly boring bowl game (I watch a lot of college football, and no, I’m not sorry), I happened on Noah, a movie I haven’t seen and will likely never see, because I’m not into giant rock monsters in Genesis. However, the part I watched was good enough, especially a particular exchange between Noah and Hermione Granger (actually Ila). She is a barren woman trying to justify her place on the Ark, the only safe spot in the world, and he’s promising her she has one if she wants it. But she asks about everyone else. He says it’s too late for them. Everything must go.

“This is the end of everything,” Ila says.

“The beginning,” he replies. “The beginning of everything.”

And they’re both right.

All endings are also beginnings. The end of pregnancy is the beginning of a new life. The end of nursing is the beginning of real food. The end of crawling is the beginning of walking. The end of high school is the beginning of something like a normal life. And so on.

2016 is nearly spent, and not a moment too soon, for the year that brought us the miracle of Leicester City also brought us Donald Trump, the glory of Rogue One temporarily eclipsed–and forever associated with–the death of Princess Leia (and a day later, her mother, the incandescent Debbie Reynolds, last survivor of Singing in the Rain).

For me, it was the end of the fiction that I could be happy as a loan officer and the beginning of the fact that I could only be really happy with fiction. In a year, in less than a year, I went from being penniless and grasping for something to do that would pay me, to having so many job opportunities I could not say yes to them all. It felt…it felt like Harry Potter grasping his true wand in Ollivander’s. It felt like Luke, under the blast helmet with a lightsaber, seeing the outline of the remote training bot. Like Neo. Like Peter Parker.

Like me.

I find endings difficult. I dislike them. The concept of time is alien to me, as if I were born for a different system, been crammed into this one, and have never quite fit. So I still do mortgage work, though now it’s a side dish that I eat for pleasure, instead of a main course I’m choking down. What concentrates most of my time is teaching, 40-45 hours a week, junior high and high school kids. It is a thing I love almost–almost–as much as writing.

But not quite.

I could, if conditions were right, go without having a class to teach. I could not, under any conditions, go without a story to create. I realize that now, and that’s an end, and a beginning.

It is the end of everything that was, and I fear that ending, the death of that life. But this year taught me that the beginning swallows the ending as a river swallows the trickle of a creek, not to erase it, but to show it what it was meant to be all along. I have lost nothing but my grasping at the pale shadow of life, when a truer life beckoned just over the rise of the nearby hill. Still not the true life, the True Life, but nearer to it. This life, too, is mortal, and thus will die, as all mortal things do. But there will be beyond it a new life that will burst forth from the ending of the old. Higher up and further in, as the Unicorn says.

In your life, doubtless you’ll see similar ends and similar beginnings. Maybe you haven’t left one job and acquired three this year–or, if you’re sane, at any point in your life–but you’ve surely stopped doing one thing and started doing another. Perhaps your ending didn’t come in a deluge, unstoppable and irresistible as death itself, but as a gentle change, as the rising of the sun. Most likely, some of each. That makes a life.

Dylan Thomas would have us not go gentle, but to rage, and sometimes that is right, but sometimes surely it is not. Steve Jobs went not with rage, but with wonder, I am told. Often, it is the struggle itself that hurts me, as the ending comes, not the ending itself, for the ending is just a beginning, as the last light of the sun shines upon the keyhole. On Durin’s Day, or on any day. On, perhaps, every day.

I’ve no big message here, no epiphany, it just felt like something I should write. This day is the end of something for me as well, and therefore, always, a beginning of something new. May all your endings lead to the beginnings you have dreamed of but never truly hoped would come. And may you have peace and joy and happiness right through the new year.

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Once More, With Feeling

This year’s writing time has to be confined to editing a novel that some people are threatening to publish. So by request, here’s one of my favorite Christmas posts. HT: Elise Bogle. I miss your lovely face.

This post talks about religion in a serious and believing way, and about Santa Claus in a similar way. If that bugs you, stop now, and read something else.

My dear friend and fellow Magyar Audrey Rindlisbacher wrote a blog post about Santa Claus. Do not read it with young children. But read it, because she’s a delightful person, even though on this issue she’s so wrong I’m speechless.

No, not really. I’m not speechless very often.

In fact, here is my response to it:

Audrey-

I read your blog. I didn’t like it (you should not be dismayed in the slightest by this), but one of the reasons is that I think you’re lying to your children in a different way. I shall offer an example dear to my heart and see if I can illustrate what I mean.
Is there a Jesus Christ? Yes, assuredly. How do you know? Well, because there are writings about him of an historical nature, there are millions of people that believe in Him, and we can see His handiwork all around us (and the Holy Spirit has so testified, but leave that aside for the moment). But none of this is proof, in the commonly accepted sense of the term. And, as you probably already deduced, all of it also applies to Santa Claus.
In fact, there is a Santa Claus, although it might be slightly less inaccurate to talk about Father Christmas, or even better, Saint Nicholas, who was almost certainly a real person. Since the three names (and hundreds of others, like another person above) all mean the same dude, let’s just pick St. Nick as the name we’ll discuss.
He was probably real. He was possibly also magic, in the sense that he performed deeds that defy easy explanation and could be called supernatural. If we were Catholics, we could dispense with the formalities and just say that he did miracles. Again, there’s a close analogue in Jesus Christ.
But, you will say, Christ is alive, right now, and active. I won’t dispute that for one second (I’m not at all sure that St. Nick isn’t, too). In spite of His activity and reality, most of the discernible work being done here on earth is being done not by Him directly, but by people like you and me, acting in His place.
And that sounds a lot like St. Nicholas, too, doesn’t it?
There are a lot of people that believe in some cartoon version of Christ, where He is alleged to have done things He almost certainly didn’t do, and even where He has behaved (or asked them to behave) in ways that are completely unlike Him. That doesn’t change His reality. It doesn’t change His importance, or His power, or diminish my obligation to behave in a way that testifies of the truth about Him. So St. Nick is cartoony and weird in claymation videos. So what? They’re fairy tales, which are dead useful and fun to boot. Lots of people think the Bible is fairy tales, you may be aware. Some Biblical stories may even be legends, not precisely accurate in the modern CSI sense. Does that mean there is no Bible? Of course not. The “legend of Job” (not saying there’s no truth in it) has no bearing on the historical Christ. Rudolph has no bearing on St. Nick, either.
Lest I be accused of equating Christ and St. Nicholas, I should say that analogies always break down at some point, and this one breaks down here, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have uses. In my house, St. Nicholas is alive and well, and Christmas wouldn’t be the same without him. He isn’t Christ, but he isn’t a fake, either. He has true power, and his example moves millions of people to behave in better ways than they otherwise would. That isn’t real? What’s your definition of real, then? Is Nephi real? Paul? Caesar? None of them have anything like the impact on the modern world, either for good or ill, that St. Nick does. Each of them has problems of historicity (yes, even Caesar, whose image is funhouse-mirrored by Shakespeare) analogous to those that St. Nicholas faces.
You can say there’s no Santa Claus, in the magical fairy sense, but there’s also no St. Paul in that sense, either. So what? Both of them are real, just as real as you and I are. Every day I’m going about doing things in the name of a long-dead (and now living nonetheless) being that wants me to be a better person, kinder and more generous to everyone around me, who has asked me to give gifts at particular times and places to people near and far. If I can do that as a disciple of Jesus Christ, who can tell me I’m not also Santa Claus?

Our family’s approach also isn’t for everyone, but I think it has an imaginative and magical element that defies the simple “I told them there wasn’t a Santa Claus” bailout mode that seems to be the default for so many people, almost all of whom mean well, but seem to me to be missing some of the point. I’ve written about that here, among other places. And to me, it has the virtue of being as close to the reality of the situation as it’s possible for a bear of Very Little Brain to come.

Thanks for a stimulating blog post, Audrey. No matter what this serious treatise may sound like, I’m a fan. You do good work, and I’m proud to know you.

Cj

P.S. The magic of Santa is an interesting (but to me tangential) point. In our family, we read a lot of fantasy, and one of the things that Dad has been heard to loudly complain about is magic that has 1) no rules and 2) no cost. Magic always has rules, and always has costs. Always. Santa doesn’t magic up toys without limit – no one can do that. To return to the analogy, Christ’s gift is infinite, but that’s only because the COST was infinite. You can’t pay it, not even the smallest part of it, nor can I. But it was because of the rules that it was necessary in the first place, and it has a tremendous cost. At our house, the mechanics of this haven’t been discussed, but the letters St. Nick leaves (on December 6th – St. Nicholas’ Day – not Christmas Day) always reference not only his need to make sure there’s enough for everyone, but also that he expects us to be giving much more than we’re receiving at this time of year. Yeah, I suppose I have to admit that the Jones version of how all this works is complicated and possibly not all that coherent, if you press it, but my very inquisitive children have come to terms with it, each in their own way. Nevertheless, they all know, in no uncertain terms, that Dad and Mom believe in St. Nicholas, whatever his trappings and location and size of helper. He is real to me.
BTW, I’ve never seen a Christmas list in my house. Not one. Ever. The kids would be offended at the suggestion they should have one. Once one of my kids did get a blank “Christmas list” from a department store Santa, and all he used it for was to write a lengthy list of what his brothers and sisters wanted for Christmas. What WE want for Christmas couldn’t be less relevant; the only thing we ever talk about is what we’re GIVING.
Call it luck. Could be – there’s surely an element of luck to it. No dispute. But a lot of it is planning and discussing and hard work. It’s made Christmas as greed-free as it can be, I think, without in any way diminishing the magical unpredictability of it.

I love Christmas, and I hope yours is very merry indeed.

P.S. My favorite, and probably best, post on Christmas is here.

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I Spend a Lot of Time Doing This. I Need to Stop.

It’s exhausting to live your life in such a way that you are constantly signaling to other people that they should value you. It’s much harder to do everything with one eye on everyone else, to see what they think of you, whether they approve of you, whether they are impressed.

And regardless of what it may look like, my life has been spent pretty much constantly signaling to other people, instead of–as my father would say–tending my own onions. It makes me twitchy, sad, and irritable. It’s stupid. It’s also a habit.

Like a lot of people, I have a chronic case of Impostor Syndrome. I constantly feel that my clients, my bosses, my students, will wake up one day and say, “Holy cats, this guy really isn’t very good at (insert task here). We gotta get someone else.” In order to prevent this dire happening from…happening, I pose. I signal. “Look, I’m doing good work! See how I’m at my desk? See the books I bring to class? See my bright smiling face? You like me, don’t you?” I stay late. I send email at 1am. Much of what I do is designed to make sure people see the performance I think I’m supposed to be giving.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with that. Except, it keeps me from doing two things that would have a hugely positive impact on my personal effectiveness: one, it keeps me from enjoying myself, and that’s a tragedy, because most of my work is quite enjoyable; and two, it keeps me from working.

Right. I spend time trying to appear to be working, when I could be doing the actual work. Then I’m annoyed if people don’t notice, and I compose elaborate defenses in my head in case anyone accuses me of not performing. Instead of simply doing the work and getting the actual results.

Look, it’s not an all-the-time thing. I do real work sometimes. One reason I can send email at 1am is that I am not infrequently awake at 1am grading papers or writing or running mortgage numbers. So I’m not hopeless. But oh, how I wish I would just stop watching everyone else to see if they’re watching me.

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The Power of Time Off

Thesis: The reason the Super Bowl is super is that the next meaningful football game is almost seven months away.

We love champions, and part of the reason is that they are the winners of the last game that will be played in that sport for a considerable period of time. In other words, flipping it around, what makes a champion is the presence of an offseason. Offseasons are critical parts of seasons, though we rarely think of them as such.

Bodies and minds need time to not be engaged. We sleep–we should sleep–in order that the mind may process the information of the day and the body may rest for the morrow. Over time, though, we need more than that. Farmers have winter (which isn’t time OFF, necessarily, but the rhythm is different, slower). School has summer. God made the Sabbath (not that we use that for rest, any more).

What do we have, in the modern era?

Despite our having more tools to do more work faster than ever before in the history of man, we take very little advantage of it. Despite having a longer average retirement than ever, we do less retiring when we have great physical capability and try to pack all of it into the part of our life when we have the least.

Last year, I took May off. I still wrote 50,000 words, of course, because that’s sort of like brushing my teeth, something I just do because it’s part of me, but I didn’t do anything else. No mortgages. No teaching. I stayed home. I read. I went to Oregon with my wife and went to Phantom of the Opera. It was a time so rich and so full of peace that I think back on it almost like a dream.

I’m going to do it again. I don’t have a huge number of choices with regard to when, anymore, as I’ve committed to teach class at Lumen through this school year, but May is the end of class, and I’m going to take another month off then. This time, I’m not going to answer the phone. I will be off Facebook and Twitter. I won’t do regular meetings. I’m taking sabbatical, which I know is supposed to be a seventh of my time, and this is just a twelfth, but that’s what I think I can do. My Super Bowl is May 8. And I’m going to win. And then I’m going to stop playing the game for a while.

Already, I can’t wait. In the interest of sanity and peace for your soul, let me encourage you to find some time off as well. Find it, make it, and take it.

Let me know how that goes, too. I’m interested.

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Dog, It’s a Beautiful Time to Be a Writer

It’s the best time ever to be alive.

I’ve sounded that note more than once, here and elsewhere, but it’s a tune I believe, and I’ve lived nearly half a century now, so I think I’m able to comment on how good things are with some accuracy.

Beyond the awesomeness that is record-cheap energy, fuel, and travel, is the astonishing array of resources the author can draw on to help make her better. Just a few examples:

  • Thesauruses. You want a new word for “walk”? I have, next to me, a Roget’s Thesaurus, the gold standard, in book form (best option, for me, because of the serendipity of finding words I wasn’t looking for). Centuries-old tech, of course, but I got it from Amazon, shipped to my door. If you don’t like books, there are hundreds of different thesauruses out there for you to use (including some just for writers). Seconds, mere clicks away.
  • Dictionaries. See “thesauruses” above.
  • Training. Conservatively speaking, there are four kajillion writing blogs, not including this one (which would make an uneven four kajillion and one), which are crammed full of great advice. I recommend Chuck Wendig (occasionally NSF, always a language warning and a “don’t be drinking coffee while you read this” warning), The Write Practice, Amy Trueblood, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and (every day) Kristen Lamb’s astonishing blog of awesomeness. There are an impossible number of others as well.
  • Research. I’m writing a novel of surpassing elegance and charm, a thing I can handle on my own, but it happens to be set in 1920’s New York, and my Big Apple experience is limited to my running down all 106 flights of stairs at the Rockefeller Center when I was fifteen. Not to worry. I have bookmarks for close to seventy sites that have resources for me to use, including photographs, maps, and original research. It’s astonishing. If I want to know it, I can. As a writer, the research has never been easier.
  • Books. It used to be very difficult to find books in the genre you wanted to read, or if not difficult, then expensive. And now? Playah, please. Any genre, any title, it’s all there. Some of it is a penny. Some more of it is free.
  • Discovery. This one is a double-edged sword, because everyone else is discoverable, too. But your natural market can find out about you more easily and less obtrusively than they ever could before. If you’re publishing good stuff, people can find it, and they can buy it.

It’s the best of times.

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Where to Begin?

Today is the last day of my 47th year.  Last year at this time I was riding a wave of leisure, having good things ahead but not all that much happening at the moment. This year is hair-on-fire crazy, with more projects and possibilities than I have space or inclination to write about. So let me hit a couple of highlights, and let that suffice.

Tomorrow I’ll be starting Camp NaNoWriMo (again, yes I know I just did one in May). I need to be writing 50k a month, and despite the exceptional difficulties that seems to me that it will occasion, you have to do what you have to do. The project really is to write an entire novel in a month, something I’ve never done, despite my 50k run over the past couple of years.

This July will see the birth of the first of what I hope will be a long series of novels featuring America’s newest and brightest star, Trinity Flynn. Think Indiana Jones and James Bond packed into Amelia Erhart’s leather cap and goggles, racing through the international adventure of the 1920s. Prohibition, Rhapsody in Blue, Albert Einstein, the League of Nations, penicillin, Mickey Mouse, the Jazz Singer, Louis Armstrong, Al Capone, and a powerful gangster in New York’s Five Points neighborhood named Monk Eastman, lying in a pool of blood on a Brooklyn sidewalk, the day after Christmas, 1920. The killer unknown. Suspects everywhere. A gang war brewing. And a naive, compromised freshman from Barnard College caught up in the middle of all of it. Anyone that comes to her rescue better plan on taking on the whole city.

How could Trinity resist?

Trinity Flynn and the Five Points Gang. I’ll let you know how that goes.

I will, of course, continue hammering out the Harmon Brothers book, currently titled (this is working title number four) And They Saw That It Was Good. Progress is being made there. Editing continuing apace for Cheating Death as well, and should be complete this weekend. “Three Boodles” just appeared in Eagle Mountain’s Summer anthology, I have another story (On the Bridge) appearing next February in an anthology, and if I had time to submit stories anyplace maybe more of them would be.

Beauty and the Beast rehearsals are going well. The class schedule for fall has eleven courses on it. Defense Against the Dark Arts has been a whole lot of good fun this summer. Libertas is about to get into a serious scrap with the state over occupational licensure, and I just landed our largest grant ever.

Couple of things going on. It’s been fun, and to me, it looks like the fun is only beginning.

Here’s to 48.

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Do NOT Look for Your Passion

Passion burns hot. It also burns out.

I’ve written on this before, in terms of relationships, but it applies to professional achievements as well. I just spent the weekend with a group of undeniably passionate people, spending hundreds of dollars to consume (quite excellent) advice from successful and kind-of-successful professionals in their industry. I love these people. There was passion everywhere you wanted to look.

Purpose-Quote-800x533There was also, in a few places, commitment. Purpose. Persistence. And a heaping pile of tenacity.

Without those things, all the passion in the world will get you precisely nothing.

I’m a working writer. I make consistent money turning out content, some of it okay, some of it good, occasionally something brilliant. The key is, though, I’m a factory. I make stories (among many other things, but that’s a post for another day). I sell those stories. I intend to make more and to sell more.

Prosaic? Why, yes, actually, although I also sell poetry. But writing is art! It’s supposed to be, I don’t know, where the Muses come and whisper genius in your ear. Newsflash: the Muses are more like Rosie the Riveter than they are like Madam Trelawney. If you show up with your lunch pail and put in a shift, they’ll help you more often than not. If you wait for them to get there, you’ll be like Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) in You’ve Got Mail, sitting at the table, waiting, while the love of your life sits opposite you, dismayed and incognito. You’ll never recognize him as opportunity, because he looks too much like work.

There’s some burgeoning discussion of this these days, and about time. Passion is a lovely thing. It’s entertaining. It makes movie plots and book deals. What it doesn’t do is write books or make movies, both of which are hard, long, complicated processes that require a lot of thankless, stultifying, often boring work.

I’m coming off a year and a half of such work, writing 50,000 words a month, every month, to where I’ve now written about 920,000 words of new fiction in that span (to say nothing of blog posts, letters, essays, and suchlike, none of which counts). I did that not because writing is my passion (though I am, often, passionate about it), but because I wanted to find out if I could make writing my purpose. Appears I can. Okay. On to the next phase of the career.

Writing with purpose, learning with purpose, marrying with purpose is far more likely to lead to successful outcomes than waiting for the white-hot blaze of passion to light up your life. And in my experience, purpose is far more likely to stack the wood so that when the heat of passion ignites, there’s fuel there to sustain the blaze.

I often say that my job as a teacher isn’t to teach; it’s to light kids on fire. Maybe I should add to that encouraging them to build a woodpile, so that the fire has something to burn.

Don’t look for your passion. It will find you. Instead, put your shoulder to the wheel, and push along. Then when opportunity sweeps by, you’ll have the muscles to catch it.

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Happy New Year!

This is New Years Day, for me. Seriously.

I actually demarcate my year in four bits. July 1 is my birthday, so that’s a logical. Christmas/New Years is a given, because that’s the break at the end of a hard (they’re all hard, aren’t they?) calendar year. BYU Education Week and the start of school used to be important-but-not-critical, but now that I’m teaching this is pretty much the biggest day of the year.

But there are two events that mark the first and middle of each year, for me as a writer. One is, not surprisingly, National Novel Writing Month, November of every year. For those not in the know, that’s a month where the entire writing world comes together to write 50,000 words in a single month. If this doesn’t sound like a lot, consider that this blog post is right now 140 words long. The average news article is 400 and change. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is 47,000. I’ve competed with myself three times on this, and am a three-time winner.

The biggest day of the year for me, though, is today, the first Friday in May. It’s LDStorymakers. It’s a wonderful writing conference in Provo, UT, one of the best you can imagine. But for me, it’s more than that. This conference changed my life. Twice.

Once was three years ago. I came to Storymakers looking for writing inspiration, and left having quit writing altogether. Not because of the conference itself, but because of a loan that threatened to blow itself to smithereens while I was there, which took me out of the conference more than I would have liked. I decided that I would have to quit writing, give up this hobby and become an adult.

The second was the following year’s conference, 2014. I didn’t go, because I had no money, because the year of not writing was the least successful of my life, in every area. EVERY area, professional, personal, spiritual, ecumenical, grammatical.

I’ll never miss it again. I’ll never come here not having written. These are my people. This is my tribe.

P.S. That first conference, that I thought was such a failure, did feature one class on writing dialogue that I remember quite well. I remember it, because as part of it we did an exercise wherein we had to write a page of dialogue entirely without tags (no “he said”, or “she warbled”, stuff like that), but keep it intelligible. I did it, it was hard, and I forgot about it.

A year or so ago I was leafing through the forgotten pages of my hard drive, and found the dialogue snippets, and thought, huh. There’s something interesting happening here. I wonder where this goes.

Where it went was a novelette called Cheating Death, which is now a full novel, my seventh. It’s also the most publishable thing I’ve yet written, and I’m convinced that relatively soon someone is going to pick it up and you’ll be able to buy it.

So even when Storymakers fails, it succeeds. Best. Thing. Ever.

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Leicester City are Premier League Champions.

pC1vq2QlThat is not a title that can possibly be written. No purely American sports fan can possibly understand how ridiculous it is.

Listen. In the last 26 years of English soccer, up to this year, a grand total of FIVE teams have won the title. Let that sink in. It’s as if Notre Dame, Alabama, USC, Texas and Florida had won all the national titles since the BCS began. As if the Super Bowl was only won by Pittsburgh, Green Bay, Dallas, San Francisco, and New York since Clinton beat Bush. As if the World Series were the Yankees, Dodgers, Giants, Red Sox, and Cardinals.

Oh, it’s more than that, though. In English soccer, if you aren’t Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, or Manchester City, you don’t win the title. You just don’t. It’s not only that you don’t win the title, because that’s a pipe dream, but that you don’t crack the top six, which is always populated by the four above plus a rotating group of Liverpool, Tottenham, Everton, and some other big clubs. Leicester City? You must be joking.

Except that today they won the league. No team of their size has ever finished in the top six. Last year in mid-April they were cast-iron locks to be sent down to a lower league.

I can’t relate this to Americans. There isn’t any upset even close to this. Butler beating Duke for the NCAA title (which they didn’t quite do)? No. Butler were 10-1 underdogs. Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson? 80-1. The USA beating Russia for the gold medal, arguably the biggest upset in the history of sports? 1000-1.

Leicester City were 5000-1 underdogs. 5000-1 are the odds you can get in Vegas that Sasquatch will be found to be real. FIVE THOUSAND to one. Those are the odds that, say, you could put the North Carolina Tar Heels in the NBA and they would win the title. That the AA River City Mudcats would win the World Series. That Amy Poehler could actually become President of the United States. That you could personally run the Kentucky Derby and finish in the money.

Five thousand to one is what you do with a bet you can’t really value at all, because it CANNOT HAPPEN.

Your odds of having Simon and Schuster take your manuscript and make it into the Hunger Games are SIGNIFICANTLY better than that.

All those movies about how hard work and discipline and focus can accomplish anything? They’re true. They really are. Manchester United spent more on ONE PLAYER this season than Leicester spent on their entire starting eleven. The Foxes (that’s Leicester) spent $48 million pounds on their whole roster. That ranks SEVENTEENTH in the league of twenty. Chelsea spent 215.6 million (and will finish tenth).

I can’t even process this. The impossibility of this marvelous thing is off the scale.

Why would I do a whole post about this? Because it’s a validation of the little guy. It’s proof–not one-game, any-given-Sunday give-it-a-shot stuff, but 40-game eight-month proof–that a plucky band of hardworking nobodies can, actually, pull off a miracle and win what is reserved for the bluebloods.

Because it leaves me without an excuse. The next time I start saying, “well, I’ll try, but it can’t really work,” my son Nicholas will say, “Leicester City”, and I’ll shrug and say, “okay. Fair point.” Nothing like this can happen.

But it just did.

 

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