How Starburst Saved the Day

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I’ve had the opportunity to teach a few mini-lessons in the composition class I’m observing as part of my TA program, for which I’m grateful. I’ve noticed, during those lessons, that the students are a bit sleepy. It’s not a lack of energy on my part; I’ve taught martial arts for years and I understand that students feed off an instructor’s energy. Part of the problem is that the class is at 2 pm on a Monday; another part of the problem was gray skies. And let’s be honest, not every student wants to learn about grammar and the nitty-gritty of writing.

Class During Nap Time

When I was an undergrad student, whenever I had class around two o’clock, I’d get sleepy. With a full stomach from lunch, and often having been in class as early as 8 am (which meant leaving home at 6:30 am because of traffic and parking woes), by mid-afternoon, all I wanted was a little cat nap.

It didn’t help that one of my classes scheduled at that hour was a history of world music course, and for a month we studied nocturnes. With the lights off.

The professor made it dark and played me lullabies. Sleep was inevitable.

I finally got around to asking her not to turn the lights off because I really did want to stay awake and focus on class.

So, as a TA, after observing sleepy faces in my first mini-lesson, I tried to get everyone on their feet for my second. It worked moderately well, and it was part of this past Monday’s lesson (which ended up not being mini at all–it clocked in at 50 minutes). But I knew, from my second mini-lesson, that it wasn’t going to be enough just to get them up and moving.

For one thing, they can’t really move about easily in the classroom without tripping on the furniture. I didn’t want to cause an injury.

Acknowledging the Issue

I started out the lesson with an introduction on what we’d be covering–when to cite in an MLA essay. Then I abandoned my slideshow for a moment to talk with them earnestly about the realistic challenges of class at this time slot.

“It’s your first day off the weekend,” I said. “You’ve spent the last two days working, doing homework, maybe seeing friends or traveling. I get it–you’re tired.”

Then, I talked about how hard it is to stay awake in class. I told them about my undergrad music history class and the nocturnes. I got a few smiles.

“It’s cloudy, too,” I added. “That always makes me want to close my eyes and go to sleep. And I get that some–or maybe even all–of you aren’t that excited about MLA citations.”

I don’t claim to be a mind-reader. I don’t know what they were thinking at this point, but I imagine the smiles and nods I received were in appreciation of my willingness to understand how sleepy college life can make a person.

Having graduated from my undergrad program in 2007, it’s not so long ago that I can’t recall how much some classes–especially gen eds–inspired sleepiness no matter how energetic the professor was.

Let’s Call it What it Is: A Bribe

Perhaps they were expecting me to just move on with the lesson. But I’d hidden a bag of Starburst on the podium at the front of the room. I picked it up and held it high.

“If you participate today,” I promised, “you get a Starburst. And I got the good ones–the red and pink flavors.”

Suddenly, the room livened. Students laughed. More of them smiled. Some of them sat up straighter in their seats.

I told them I knew MLA citations weren’t their favorite subject, and I wasn’t above bribing their participation. So, throughout the lesson, students were offered Starburst for  sharing their work. Some students elected to share even though they didn’t want Starburst. They donated their candy to another classmate.

The key here, I think, is to offer the candy-bribe in exchange for active and willing participation.

I wouldn’t use the candy-bribe in every lesson. But I had a lot of material to get through and I knew it wasn’t as interesting as discussing literature or debating hot-button issues.

Final Thoughts

Is it okay to bribe students? Originally, I was going to use the Starburst to reward correct answers during an interactive part of the lesson. However, two things changed my mind:

  • My fellow TA and I split the Starburst and I worried there weren’t enough for that, so she suggested using them as a reward for participation.
  • As the morning and early afternoon wore on, I decided it’d be wrong to reward the correct answers with candy.

The latter is more important–I don’t think correct answers should be rewarded with some kind of treat. I think that would discourage students from participating if their answers were not correct. What good is it to reward students who get the right answer at the beginning of a lesson when the purpose of that lesson is to teach them the right answer?

I ended up giving away the remaining Starburst at the end of the lesson, but I think the students had fun with it even though they knew it was a participation bribe. They actively and eagerly took part in the lesson even though they were sleepy. Even though the first snowfall started outside in the middle of class. Even though it was a Monday.

Starburst saved the day this week, but it was also, I think, my honesty in the purpose for the candy and the acknowledgment and validation of their sleepiness.

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Haven’t We Learned from SVU that Victim Blaming & Shaming Isn’t Okay?

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In the recent and growing flood of accusations against sexual predators, there is one question I hear again and again: “Why didn’t [the victim] report it sooner?”

This is never okay to ask aloud. It shouldn’t even be a thought. For any readers of mine who have never watched a single episode of Law & Order: SVU or who have never known a victim or been a victim, I’m going to lay it out plain and then show why this question should never be asked.

It assumes the victim is in a place of power.

Sexual harassment and abuse is about power, not physical desire. Usually, predators choose victims who don’t hold power over them. Children and minors, employees, students, protégés, etc.

When someone doesn’t have the power to stop another’s abuse of them, it’s usually a sign that they don’t feel like they have the power to report it. This is why when one person does make a report, there are often subsequent reports made public. With numbers comes power–suddenly the victim is no longer alone. This is one reason why the #metoo campaign was voiced by so many.

If an employer sexually harasses or abuses an employee, for example, the employee may feel as though reporting the misconduct/crime will mean losing that job. Then, not only has that victim taken a huge emotional risk, but she or he has also taken an immense financial one, too.

It assumes the victim is not emotionally affected by the incident(s).

When I was sixteen years old, my grandfather passed away. I did not cry for over a year, and then one day, while getting a routine dental cleaning, I just broke down. I felt bad for my dentist afterward, because not only did he think I’d somehow been grievously injured, but he also found himself in the position of having to empathize with a patient about grief. He’d been my dentist for over a decade though, and he altered his appointment schedule to sit and talk with me about when he lost his father.

My point is that emotional trauma, whatever its nature, often has lasting impacts. Sometimes it doesn’t hit right away; other times it’s ever-present.

For victims of sexual harassment, abuse, or assault, they must work through that emotional trauma. Sometimes it’s just not possible to report an incident right after it happens.

It assumes the victim feels they will be believed.

This is a big assumption because most of the time, situations of sexual harassment, abuse, or assault come down to one person’s word against another’s. When one of those people is in a position of power, say a boss for example, the victim may believe that the abuser’s power will lend credibility, and therefore her or his own story won’t be believed.

In many cases, this is true. Even if it’s not true though, the victim may worry that it is.

Imagine being sexually harassed, abused, or assaulted and having little to no physical evidence. Imagine deciding to report it and then imagine no one believes you’re telling the truth. Whatever emotional healing may have already taken place could be at risk, as well as other elements of a victim’s life.

It assumes the victim has done something wrong.

Saying that someone should have reported an event sooner is placing some blame at their feet. Maybe not for the event itself, but for its aftermath, and that’s not okay. It’s never a victim’s fault that she or he is attacked.

If someone speeds through a red light and T-bones your car when you have the right to cross an intersection, you’re not at-fault. We need to stop shaming and blaming victims. We need to stop putting the onus on them to keep themselves safe from sexual harassment, abuse, and assault. We need to provide a safe space for them to come forward when someone has victimized them.

Can it go too far?

The source of victim blaming and shaming isn’t often malicious. Often times, it’s fear of a modern witch hunt that causes this mentality to take hold. After all, since it’s one person’s word against a potential predator, who do you trust?

The answer is simple, I think. Far simpler than it may seem, especially for those of us not involved in investigations into claims of such abuse. Here’s what we need to do:

  1. Treat the victim with empathy. Make her or him feel safe to speak about what happened.

That’s really all we need to do, until something is proven in a court of law. Yes, the court of public opinion matters but we need to guard ourselves that it not go too far. I’m not saying I don’t believe victims. I think in 99.99% of cases they’re telling the truth. But there’s always the possibility for a shred of uncertainty.

In our country, people are legally innocent until proven guilty. We have due process for a reason. I’m not saying it’s always fair or right. I’m not saying that you can’t go ahead and believe someone is a sexual predator.

What I am saying is that unless you sit on the jury for that case, it’s not your job to decide. The system isn’t perfect and it never will be, but we have to work within it to improve it, and that starts with empathy for anyone who feels victimized.

Final Thoughts

I am a feminist, which means I believe in equality for all regardless of gender association or disassociation. I’ve also studied history and literature. Humans have a tendency to go into witch-hunt-mode and I think it’s important to prevent reaching that point while still supporting those who are suffering. Let’s focus on trying to make our system work better so that we can enforce laws that make those who are guilty a) easier to identify and prosecute and b) pay their debts to society.

I’ll leave you with this thought, which I learned from reading Witchcraze by Anne Barstow. Prior to the attachment of the idea of worshipping Satan, witchcraft was not a crime punishable by death. If someone accused a witch who was then found innocent, the accuser would have to pay a fine. The people of the medieval era understood that a crazed witch hunt would devastate the population.

So let’s not get crazy about this. It’s great that people feel safe enough to come forward. And I’m not suggestion they shouldn’t be believed. I’m just saying that judgment should wait until evidence is in.

McNellisWrites Podcast Episode 3: Getting Into the Mood

Do you have trouble getting into the mood of your writing? Do you want to add authenticity to help bring your reader into your story?

If you have 15 minutes, learn 5 ways to get into the mood when writing with this episode of the McNellisWrites podcast.

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Weekly Writing Prompt: Animal POV

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This week, try writing a story from an animal’s point of view. Keep it under 1,000 words. Just as you want to take care choosing your topic/themes, consider what kind of animal through which you’ll tell your story. The animal narrator doesn’t have to be your protagonist, but it can be.

Freelance Life: Where to Find Work

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Last week, I wrote about how often I’m on the hunt for new freelance opportunities. Where do I spend my time looking? This is one of the most frequent questions I’m asked when people learn I’m a freelance writer. I imagine that’s because of a few things:

  • The freelance life can seem glamorous
  • For many, the idea of constantly seeking more work is a foreign notion
  • People are intrigued by how one can make life work without the 9-5

I’m going to talk about each of these and then I’ll share with you some of my best resources for finding freelance work…and some of my worst.

It’s a Glamorous Life

Many people I’ve met see me and think I’m living like Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City. They think I work for one to two hours a week and somehow make enough money to afford an apartment, high fashion, and expensive shoes. How they could think this while in the same room is still a mystery (I’m a sweatshirt and leggings/jeans sort of person), but that’s not what I’m here to solve today.

I think for some, freelancing can be a glamorous life, but it’s never that easy. It takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, and some of that effort results in nothing, so it takes the ability to accept losses and pivot into new opportunities. It takes the ability to pretend you don’t have writer’s block, to write even when you don’t feel like the words are coming out in a smooth stream. It takes a heck of a lot more than writing, “I couldn’t help but wonder…” followed by a string of puns (this is how I think of Carrie Bradshaw’s writing in the show).

Freelancing is hard, sometimes thankless work. Aside from the everyday hurdles, there’re the accounting hurdles. You’re self-employed as a freelancer, which for me, means I pay 30% of my income in taxes. I don’t get company-sponsored health insurance or a pension/retirement plan. No stock options or bonuses either. Every dollar I earn has a certain amount of time and energy attached to it; it’s all traceable. The benefit? I don’t have a boss. I don’t have to set an alarm. I can work in my pajamas if I want, early in the morning, in the middle of the day, or late at night. I can work three 12-hour days and take the rest of the week off. I could potentially travel and work from anywhere.

Flexibility. I think this is what people see as glamorous, and this is what they’re interested in. I get it–that’s what drew me too, and despite the difficulties of being a freelancer, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’ve done the 9-5 and felt like I wanted to just let my brains ooze out of my ears (pretty sure that’s anatomically impossible). So I get it–but it’s not what it’s portrayed as in entertainment. Like any job, it’s hard work.

If you want to be a freelancer, be prepared to work your butt off.

Always on the hunt…

For me, working in a 9-5 job was so stifling that I was always looking for another job anyway. The only exception to that was when I worked a 9-1 job and freelanced on the side. The morning job was a writing position, so really it wasn’t that different except I had to get up, get dressed, and get to the office. And even while I worked at that office, I was looking for gigs because that job was only part-time.

So, I’ve been constantly job hunting since about 2008. After a while, I have gotten used to it, but at first, it was tough to work all day and then on top of that, give time over to job/gig/client hunting. The thing to remember about freelancing is that jobs and clients can come and go. Maybe it’s just a temporary gig, or maybe a start-up company can’t keep it going and folds. Whatever the reason, you don’t want to find yourself without any work to do.

This isn’t a “stay with the same company for 30 years and then get a gold watch” kind of lifestyle, though does anyone have that anymore? I feel like in order to make it in this world professionally, you always have to be willing to jump from one situation to another. At least, with freelancing, that’s expected. No one looks at me like I’m a defective worker because I’ve worked with many clients and agencies. No one asks why I “only” worked with someone for six months. They just presume that’s how long the gig was, which would be my answer if they asked.

Because I’m always on the hunt for more work, my list of places I hunt for said work evolves. The list I’m going to give you soon is my current list, but if you’re reading this a year or more from now, who knows? I might have moved on to something else and chances are I’ve written a new blog post about it.

Balancing a Flexible Life

A flexible working life also means a flexible budget. People are often surprised that I can live on a freelance income. Here’s the key: Budgeting. Every month, I track what I spend on everything in my life. Like constant job hunting, this was exhausting at first. But it’s actually become quite freeing because if I have a week when I need to work less so that I can do more schoolwork, I know from my budget if I can move things around.

This is one such week because I have my last MFA deadline of the semester in a few days (not that other deadlines don’t follow).

The point is that in order to survive without a 9-5, I have to know what’s going on with my finances at all times. There are tons of apps out there to help with this, and that’s a topic for another post (look for it later this month). But without budgeting, I’d be lost. It’s also helped me to cut down on unnecessary costs so that I can fit things in like an annual budget for writing contests.

The other piece of this that goes along with constantly looking for new work is that I’m always seeking ways to be more efficient or earn more per hour. Yes, many freelance gigs pay by the word or piece, but I can time how long it takes me to finish an assignment and then know what my hourly rate is. Right now, for example, I’m hovering between $30 and $40 an hour.

That may sound glitzy to some, and it’s more per hour than I’ve ever made in my life up until this point, but keep in mind that more seasoned freelancers make upwards of $150/hour. Also remember that because of my school and teaching commitments, working a 40-hour workweek isn’t possible at this time and that even if I did, 8 of those 40 hours would be devoted to finding new work.

I don’t have a boss or HR department that allows me the chance to negotiate for a raise every year. The way I get a “raise” is to find new, better-paying work, work faster, or charge more for individual clients.

Where to Find Freelance Work and What I Avoid

I’m not new to writing; I’ve been writing professionally for about ten years now. But I am new to considering freelancing my primary source of income, so many of my sources for job hunting are great if you’re just getting started. Admittedly, when I was brand new at this, I worked for content mills.

I really discourage this because even if you’re new, you deserve to make more than a quarter of a penny per word. The only benefits to content mills are that you typically get a broad range of writing assignments for different clients and that it will help you train yourself to meet deadlines.

But you know what? You can find those benefits elsewhere too. So to reiterate, because I don’t think I can say it enough, don’t bother with content mills.

Don’t bother with content mills.

Don’t bother with content mills.

I also steer clear of sites like ODesk and Elance because, in my opinion and experience, most of the jobs posted on sites that encourage bidding wars pay far too little. Another problem is the potential for the theft of your ideas. Many of these sites ask for samples and test articles that are unpaid, and trying to trace who is illegally using your material can be difficult and time-consuming. I have written samples and tests before, but I’ve noticed that the legitimate companies and clients looking for a freelancer will pay something for those tests and samples.

So here’s something to help you remember: If they don’t pay, walk away.

You’re not doing this for free. You’re doing it to make a living. Your time and effort are worth something.

My Job-Hunting Resources

Now that you’ve made it this far (congrats!), I’m happy to provide you with a list of resources that have led to great opportunities for me in the past.

In addition to these resources, my own network has started to provide some interesting opportunities. I take every opportunity I can to tell people (without badgering them) about my work. When they ask me about freelancing with that dewy look in their eye that says they’re imagining I spend all day shopping and gabbing with my friends like Carrie, I tell them about my life and my work. Sometimes they know someone who needs a wordsmith. Sometimes they are the ones who need a wordsmith.

Some Final Words of Wisdom

Don’t give up. If freelancing is what you want to do, it’s going to take a thick skin and a will to succeed. This is my third attempt to make freelancing my primary source of income. The first time, I had no experience. The second time I had some experience, but the U.S. was deep in the worst recession in almost 100 years. Both times I got scared when money got too scarce and I caved and went for the 9-5 job.

Both times I regretted it.

This time, I’ve stuck with it and even though there have been some lean months, and I’ve had to supplement with part-time work here and there, I’ve made it a year so far relying mostly on a freelance income and I’m starting to see some growth.

That’s my final tip for you. If you get nervous about money, take a part-time job if you can swing it. That will allow you the time it takes to keep freelancing. Now I’ve reached a point where I have enough freelance work that I can get by with working about 20 hours a week, which is allowing me to start pitching to magazines and looking for ghostwriting and editing clients, so that I can add to my repertoire different types of work, and really diversify while also–I hope–specializing in a few topics.

A freelance writing career is always growing, always evolving, and that’s one of the things I love most about it, in addition to being able to work in my PJs. So if you think you want to give it a try, do some soul searching first and then start looking for gigs. Don’t be upset if you’re rejected. One of my favorite jobs started with a rejection, and then they needed another writer so they asked me to join the team, and I love it so much that I look forward to new assignments.

Don’t stop writing and don’t stop hunting for more work.

McNellisWrites Podcast Episode 2: Get to Know Your Character

McNellisWrites PodcastCheck out this week’s episode of my podcast for writers for five exercises to help you get to know your characters better!

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If the above player doesn’t work, click here to listen…

Weekly Writing Prompt: Lies

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Today’s writing prompt is from 642 Things to Write About by the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. I’d give you a page number but the pages aren’t numbered and I’m not counting them (because you won’t either). Here’s the prompt:

The first lie you were caught in.

Make it a story. 500-1,000 words. Feel free to come back and post the link to your story in the comments below!