A Holiday for Writers

by Alex Arnold, sophomore writing coach

NaNoWriMo has begun. For those of you who aren’t familiar with every novelist’s favorite time of year, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) takes place every November. Participants attempt to put fifty thousand words down before the month is out. It’s exciting and stressful at the same time, and I keep coming back for more despite the fact that I have never succeeded.

Everyone should try NaNoWriMo, even if you don’t like writing for school. Writing novels isn’t something we do in class, and it’s incredibly different from writing an essay. It’s a new experience that each and every person should have.

Writing fifty thousand words is a lot, especially during the school year when we all have homework and a variety of activities eating away at our precious time. Typing over one thousand five hundred words takes around forty minutes, but don’t use that as an excuse for not participating. Remember the old cliché: it’s the journey, not the destination.

Maybe you have the perfect idea all lined up. Maybe you’ve spent all year planning the perfect characters, plot, and setting, and when November finally rolls around you’re all set to go. Maybe you only have a vague idea for a plot, and you just want to see where the twists and turns take you as you write. Either way, give NaNo a shot.

Just remember that NaNoWriMo isn’t just for the hardened author. Anyone and everyone who has ever had the faintest interest in trying to write a book should join in. It’s your chance to put your ideas down on paper, and in NaNoWrimo there are no bad ideas.

Who knows? You might just create something special.

To find out more and sign up, go to nanowrimo.org

 

The Importance of Etymology

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by Christian Hilgemann, sophomore writing coach

If I were to ask you the question “Do you know the meaning of the word ‘disaster’?” you would probably respond with something similar to “Why of course, Christian! Everyone knows that!” and although it does seem like the answer is fairly obvious, there may be more to this question than you think.

It might surprise you to know that we can reveal a much deeper meaning of “disaster” than the Webster’s Dictionary definition of “a sudden calamitous event bringing great damage, loss, or destruction.” This deeper meaning of the word is called its etymology. Etymology is essentially the history or origin of a word. This includes the original language, roots, and language transitions, as well as any other things that might have been part of the word’s development over time.

For example, “disaster” was originally the Italian “disastro.” Literally translated from its roots of dis- and -astro, this word meant means ill-starred. Of course, without any other knowledge at hand, this doesn’t really make any sense. However, with the knowledge that the people who created this early version of “disaster” blamed most catastrophic events, such as natural disasters, on the positioning and alignment of planets and other astronomical objects, we can begin to understand where this word came from, and thus know much more about the nature of the word itself.

At first glance, it may seem like this knowledge has no practical benefit beyond being mildly interesting, but as much as I would like it to be, my mission isn’t to fill your head with useless little bits of information. Being familiar with etymology has a number of useful applications to both reading and writing.

Knowing the etymology of words gives you a great advantage in figuring out their most effective use. Understanding the original meaning of a word as well as how it’s been used in both the past and present can increase your comprehension of its nuances and connotation. This knowledge will help you differentiate between words that have similar uses or are closely related to each other and allow you to choose the best one for each situation, leading to more masterful use of those words within your writing.

Additionally, there’s the benefit of being able to better grasp the interpretation of literature from across all of time. As etymology deals with the development of words from their very conception, it can assist in comprehension of language from any time period. So next time you pick up that first edition copy of “The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam” (circa 1100), remember to break out some of your new etymology skills along with it.

It’s Poem in Your Pocket Day!

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by Adam Schneck, sophomore writing coach

April is national poetry month, and on April 27, schools and workplaces around the country celebrated Poem in Your Pocket Day, a day for carrying poems and sharing them with friends!

Poem in Your Pocket Day originated in 2002 in New York City, but since 2008, people from all 50 states have joined in with the fun tradition, spending the day sharing pieces of writing with others. The best part is that there are no rules when it comes to the poem you choose. As long as it stays appropriate for the setting you are in, sharing a sentimental poem, a funny poem, or whatever type of poem you want to share, is up to you. Although this national holiday isn’t something that everyone takes part in, it’s a great chance to read a piece of poetry that either you or others might enjoy, and have fun while doing it. Hopefully, just taking a minute to read a poem to a friend, coworker, or classmate can take some of the stress out of your day.

Here at Minnetonka High School, the late start on April 27 meant we pushed Poem in Your Pocket Day back a day in order to cherish and celebrate this holiday more fully. Each year the Writing Center plays a huge part in the organization and success of the school’s Poem in Your Pocket Day by hosting a school wide poem giveaway and putting together a prize raffle for those who’ve read poetry to any of their teachers and classes. Staff and students can both get in on the fun!

Poem in Your Pocket Day is such creative and unique way to share writing with others and brighten up someone’s day. The more poems you read, the more you enjoy yourself; and who knows, it might even become your new favorite holiday!

The Bear Story

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by Ms. Van Pilsum, 12th grade English teacher

The bear paused over the sleeping hiker, sniffed the air, and lowered its snout…

It was the night my husband, Tom, saw his friend get kissed by a bear.

Tom and Brian were two months into their trek along the Pacific Crest Trail. Somewhere in the High Sierra they bedded down for the night without bothering to set up their tent. Sick of each other’s company and smell, they were yards apart, zipped up tight in their mummy bags, with only their faces exposed to the freezing night air. That’s when Tom woke to the sound of a bear moving through camp. He watched it lumbering about and thought, “No worries. Our food’s hanging in the tree. He’ll pass on by.” Still, he kept a half-opened eye. When the bear stopped and hovered over Brian who was sound asleep, Tom thought, “What the…?” Brian woke to the sensation of a bear frantically licking his lips, lips now slimy with bear-saliva, lips that he’d coated earlier that day with cherry-flavored Chapstick. Arms pinned inside his sleeping bag, all Brian could do was scream a stream of panic-filled obscenities, scaring the bear back into the night.

When Tom tells this story at dinner parties, it’s always because I bring it up. I never tire of it. He tells it too slowly, setting the scene, building suspense, and I fight the urge to jump in, to hurry it along to its awesome end: It was the cherry Chapstick! But I’m happy to hear him tell it. I like to watch the listeners. I’m surprised all over again when they’re surprised. Roar with laughter when they roar.

What is it about a story?

I’ve come to this realization: The best times in my life involve stories—telling them, listening to them. Other exchanges seem weak or worse, in comparison. The complaints and explanations, the gossip and rants, the persuasions and, oh, dear God, the posts, especially the posts, feel like a waste of words, in comparison. What little satisfaction is had where those words are spent! But a story! When a story happens, it’s as close as we can be without touching. When we’re suspended in time together, moving through a landscape together, maybe that’s when the most important things get said in the most enjoyable way.

Even if the story is so sad it breaks your heart.

Brian dropped out of the hike a month after his close encounter. Tom finished the trail in the snow at the Canadian border. The hikers, so much older now and miles apart, must sometimes wake in their comfortable beds and remember. Grunting with the effort, they turn over to other dreams, like bears in the night.

A Writer’s Kind of Photography

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by Jessie Wang, senior writing coach

Dear Diary,

I’d venture to say that one of my best friends is my journal. Not only as my confidante, although I suppose journals are good for spilling your deepest, darkest secrets, but also as a sort of photo album. My love for journaling comes from the snapshots I create for myself: I have a record of myself, my feelings, and what was going on in my life from a single moment.

Although it’s important to allow time to reflect on experiences, I think it’s also incredibly interesting to have a snapshot of a moment. I’ll never feel the intensity of a moment so much as when I’m in it, or very shortly after, and journaling helps me better grasp my fleeting thoughts. Reflection is important, but I also treasure the way that I feel in the present.

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This is my favorite, cherished and beloved journal that decided to compliment me back. I received it as a gift from a close friend of mine, who knew that even though I had five journals lying around at home, I still needed another.

I started writing in this journal in August, while I was at All State Orchestra camp on the beautiful College of St. Benedict campus – where I stayed up past curfew every night to write (sorry, MMEA). This past weekend, we had our All State reunion concert, and before I embarked on my musical journey in the heart of Minneapolis, I reread some of my August entries out of curiosity.

It was magic: I could still sense and remember everything as I’d described it in my journal. The sense of inspiration and excitement permeated the pages. I could reimagine the bright green grass and cloudless cerulean sky, and I remembered the warmth of the sun and the refreshing cool air in the college’s arts center.

It seemed like I was looking at pictures of myself eating ice cream under the star-studded sky, or pictures of myself cracking jokes with the people I sat by during rehearsal. I was visiting a past version of myself, but not from an observer’s perspective – rather, it felt like I was becoming that past version of myself again.

Side note: this feeling isn’t always so enchanting. I’ve revisited middle school journals and both cringed and laughed. Even reading those entries on mid-puberty quarrels though, I can still understand precisely what that situation had been like.

Journaling still remains to be one of my favorite activities. I like living a life well documented. I’d highly recommend picking up a journal, or five, this weekend and just starting to write. Begin capturing your writer’s photo album.

How to Begin…

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by Addie Gill, junior writing coach

Something about the first sentence of every essay just gets me. No matter how hard I try, I never seem to be able to get the words quite right.  Most of the time, this just leads to not writing a first sentence at all, or any other part of that essay (sound familiar?).  I’ve gotten slightly better over the years at beating the starting blues, so I hope I can help my fellow procrastinators out there conquering the start. Without further ado, here are a few tips to get you going:

  1. Make your surroundings comfortable.  Yes, this might be a no-brainer, but it is extremely helpful to eliminate the distractions of discomfort. So do what you need — change into some sweats, get a cup of tea, put on some fuzzy socks. Just do what’s best for you to be comfortable, and start in on that essay.
  2. Put your phone away. No, I’m not kidding. I’m a teenager too, and I understand the temptation to quickly check your snaps, or take a quick brain refresher to update Insta. But I’ve found that putting my phone out of reach, even giving it to a family member at desperate times, truly helps me concentrate and get started.
  3. Have a strict time block. I find that my most efficient writing happens during timed essays in school. Setting a time block at home seems to be the best way for me to recreate this environment in order to be the most productive in a short time period. Simply deciding to work for a period of 30 minutes sometimes ends up being more productive than distractedly working for 3 hours.
  4. Have a plan.  It can be a very daunting task to write an entire essay, so having an outline, a road map, a thesis — anything to keep you focused — helps guide writing and diminishes the weight of the task at hand. I find that the less daunting the task, the more willing I am to begin.
  5. Free write.  This can be one of the most difficult things, but also the most helpful. For me, free writing means letting go of perfecting every word as it goes down on paper — free writing means to simply write. It often takes diligence to let go of constant revision, but it’s worth it in order to get ideas down on paper.

Starting is difficult, it’s true. But hopefully with these tips and a little motivation, getting over the first hill will be a little easier for you.

Beating Writer’s Cramps

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By Anne Malloy, junior writing coach and blog co-editor

My finals last week brought on an array of feelings, as always, but pain was not one I had prepared for. In the midst of writing in-class essays I got a visit from a writer’s cramp, that painful sensation any student or writer dreads. Rather than grit my teeth and work through the cramp, or switch the pen to my left hand mid-sentence, I decided to look into some hand exercises to combat these pesky hindrances the next time they happen.

For any aspiring writer or busy student out there, try out one of these exercises next time an unwelcome writer’s cramp pays you a visit.

 

  • Stress Ball: Believe it or not, the squishy spheres that help alleviate our stress can also help stop a hand cramp. Simply grab a stress ball and try squeezing it or rolling it out in your hand so it can work its magic.1-01

 

  • The Hunger Games Approach: You all know the gesture: touch your thumb to your pinky finger and you have the iconic hunger games hand gesture. When you feel a cramp coming, start with this District 12 salute, then move your thumb to each finger, one at a time, before ending on a clenched fist. Repeat until your hand goes back to feeling normal.1-02

 

  • Standard Approach: If you don’t have a stress ball handy and you’re not a big fan of the Hunger Games, another hand exercise you can try is the standard approach. Simply straighten out your writing hand for 5 seconds, and then make a hook fist, full fist, and straight fist on 5 second intervals as seen in the diagram below. Once you reach a straight fist, make a few circles with your wrist before beginning with a straight hand once more. Again, repeat as you need. 1-03

Any writer can commiserate about the painful hand cramps that show up at the worst of times (say, for instance, in the last few minutes of a final exam when you still have a paragraph to go). Writer’s cramps are anything but a pleasant surprise, so learn these simple exercises to end them as fast as they appear the next time they decide to visit. Happy writing!

What I Wish I Knew When I Was in High School but Know Now as a Professional Writer

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Theresa Malloy with Principal Dave Adney

By Theresa Malloy, class of 2009

When I was a student at Minnetonka, I was likely seen running around with a notebook, interviewing people for the latest issue of Breezes. The thrill of reporting in high school led to my career as a professional journalist. I still can’t believe I get paid to do what I do. My career has allowed me to write and edit for community newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, blogs and websites throughout the Twin Cities. My writing is constantly evolving.

While being a professional writer is a dream come true, there are some things I’ve learned now that I wish I knew when I was in high school:

  1. Making mistakes as a student is a good thing – I am a perfectionist accustomed to writing crisp, edited copy on deadline. As a professional journalist, mistakes can cost you your job. But as a student, you get to learn and make mistakes. In fact, you learn more from your mistakes. Constructive criticism is a great way to learn. Everyone needs an editor. The Writing Center is a great resource and your teachers are as well. Those red marks on your paper are a good thing.
  1. Don’t stop asking questions, especially if you don’t understand something – As a reporter, I have to write stories about things I don’t know a whole lot about. I once spent an hour on the phone with a geologist trying to understand how chemicals contaminated drinking water. I had no idea how it worked so I was asking basic questions. The geologist laughed but appreciated that I wanted to learn. As a writer, I need to be able to communicate something complicated simply to readers. If I don’t know how it works, who else might not know? Get in the habit of asking questions and learning. You can’t learn if you don’t ask. The best writers never stop learning.
  1. Challenge yourself to get outside your comfort zone Some of the coolest stories I write are about things I am not familiar with at all. I have fed elk at an elk farm. I rode with a fire chief to a house fire on a day that was 50 degrees below zero. I spent a day with gang members. I took late-night ride-alongs with police officers and responded to a robbery in progress. A helicopter was dispatched, and the house was surrounded. It turned out to be a cat. You can’t make a story like that up. Experience the world that’s unfamiliar to you. Remember that every person has a story to tell. Don’t shy away from other types of writing.
  1. Find a creative community that supports your writing – Even as a professional writer, I get nervous about people reading my writing. As a graduate student, I write academic research papers and dabble in creative writing which is uncomfortable for me. I have built a great writing community of friends, classmates, professors and family who will give me honest feedback on my writing. Half the fun of the creative process is sharing it with other people. Don’t be afraid to share your writing – be afraid of not sharing it.
  1. Read, read, read – The best way to improve your writing is to read great writing. In high school and college, I fell out of the habit of reading for fun. Now I read magazines, books, poems, newspapers and literary magazines. Inspiration is everywhere. Make time to put your phone away and read. It’s a great way to explore the world. Get lost in a library.
  1. Reach out to people who inspire you – Professional journalists, writers and editors were in high school once, too. I was surprised to learn that professionals were really interested in me. Professionals have mentors, too, and many are excited to have their own mentees. It is so easy to connect with people on social media, LinkedIn or via email. If you admire someone’s work, reach out. You will be very surprised who returns that message.

Theresa Malloy is a 2009 Minnetonka High School graduate. As an MHS student, Theresa was the Editor-in-Chief of Breezes, in the IB program, NHS and a student interviewer in the Writing Center’s first ever Off-the-Page event. Theresa currently works as a national news editor for LAKANA, writing and editing web content for 120 TV stations throughout the country. She is also a graduate student at the University of St. Thomas, getting her masters in English with an emphasis in literary journalism.

Preventing Procrastination

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by Libby Isaacson, senior writing coach

Hi!  My name is Libby, and I am a procrastinator. Admitting that you are a procrastinator is the first step to conquering it, right?  I’ll even admit this — I procrastinated writing this blog post, finishing up my first draft only moments before conferencing with one of our lovely editors.  The thing that I am the worst about procrastinating is, without a doubt, writing assignments.  If I get a paper assigned for a class, I’ll write it down in my planner immediately, but then push it out of my mind.  

Once I begin to write, it flows pretty quickly , but getting to that point of writing takes a while.  I always finish my papers and my assignments, but typically will stay up late the night before putting the finishing touches on something that should have been done days before. I end up ignoring the recommended method of splitting the work into chunks so that none of my oh-so-valuable sleep is sacrificed.  Sometimes, my procrastination is so bad that I end up looking up ways to not procrastinate while actually putting something off at that very moment.  However, I am not alone in my procrastination. Everyone does it at least once or twice. Therefore, I decided to share with with you the things I have learned through my many attempts to prevent procrastination:

  • Use a planner you like to look at – I love planners!  I am definitely one to forget about assignments, and writing them down helps me keep my to-do list in a central spot.
  • Write something, anything down – seeing words on a paper (even if they’re complete jibberish), at least for me, almost tricks my mind into thinking I’ve finished the hardest part of getting started, and kickstarts me into writing the rest of the assignment.
  • Physically cross things off a to-do list – seeing little checkmarks by a long list of items I have to finish helps motivate me to stick it through and cross everything off!
  • Keep your phone in a different room – I fall victim to this one alllllll the time; if my phone is anywhere near me I’m tempted to pick it up and quickly check a notification, without fail I will be sucked into the vortex that is social media.  Don’t even take that chance and just put the phone far away!

While all these tips have helped me in one way or another over the years, occasionally the best way to deal with procrastination is just to accept it.  By being aware of your tendency to push work to the last minute, it’s easier to work towards starting things earlier and being more efficient with your time!  And honestly, leaving something to the last minute forces me to be a little less of a perfectionist. But hopefully these tips help prevent you from starting those six-page papers at 11:30pm the night before they’re due – good luck!

Handwriting or Typing?

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by Anna Barnard and Elise Johnson, junior writing coaches and blog editors

Overview:

With the technology revolution of the last few decades, computers and word processing have taken the world by storm. Notes can be jotted down and kept on our phones rather than in notebooks, and documents can be saved all in one place together. However, with this new use of typing, many have neglected the tried-and-true practice of handwriting. There are benefits and drawbacks to the use of both methods in today’s day and age; today we will debate and explore the two sides.


Anna’s argument: With handwriting, you can process and retain more in-depth information through motor memory, have more freedom with use of space, and use style variation.

Elise’s argument: New technology now allows you to write faster, more eloquently, and more confidently, and improve your overall creativity through the volume and ease of typing.


1st point:

Anna: When taking notes, handwriting is often proven to be more effective for retaining large amounts of information. When typing, note takers end up typing verbatim what they hear in a lecture while not processing any of the information. Handwriting allows your brain to process the information easily and to give more time for the information to sink in.

Elise: The problem with handwriting notes is that teachers often talk too fast for students to keep up. Although it helps you remember information better, there’s no point if you don’t listen to the whole lecture because you’re too busy writing. Typing allows you to get the info down quickly while still listening.


2nd point:

Elise: Typing allows you to see what you’re writing more clearly. Handwritten brainstorming and notes often become illegible and confusing. Clear, typed information is easier to move around and edit. You don’t have to erase or rewrite anything, you can just copy-and-paste. This allows you to write confidently, without fear that you’ll have to rewrite things that you wrote in pencil or ink.

Anna: Although typing result in a more clean and clear final product, handwriting provides for more freedom with use of space. It is much easier to draw diagrams and make side notes with handwriting, as you are not bound by formatting or margins.


3rd point:

Anna: Handwriting ultimately allows the writer more ease of creativity and variation: with handwriting, you can use multiple writing utensils and write without being limited by fonts, sizes, or symbols.

Elise: Although typing isn’t quite as organic, it allows the neat-freak in all of us to stay organized and see the overall picture. Even if all your ideas are flowing quickly, you don’t need to worry about messiness and confusion on the page. This gives way to more creativity, as you can just let all your ideas out, without second guessing yourself.


There are clearly advantages to using both handwriting and electronic word pressing, and often times a mix of the two can be most beneficial! Obviously, both writing systems work differently for different writers. What is your preferred method of composition, and why? Comment on this post and let us know!