The key to on-line teaching is writing in a style that can be heard

by Dr. Stephanie A. Burns

 

Introduction

In this new medium of on-line teaching written expressions are central to what influence you can hold over the participant for the benefit of the learning process.
 

 

I rather had a sense early on that one day writing would become the dominant form of expression in my work, the medium through which I would teach others. That sense has most definitely come to true. I am glad I had the presence of mind to begin practising the art of writing many years ago in anticipation of this time.

All my life I have been fascinated by the craft of writing and story telling - both within the context of fiction and real life anecdotes. My goal when I started to write was to find a form of written expression that had a quality of impact on the reader that matched the impact I had learned to have on an audience when talking. In the same way that there is a real art to holding people's attention and getting them to participate in an 8 hour lecture, so too must there be in a written piece of work designed to educate.

I knew that many people read only a small portion of most of the books they buy. If I were going to use written works to educate than I had to find a means of writing that would compel people to read - to pay attention and then to act on the lessons they read.

I've been practising writing skills only for the past 10 years. I'd done very little writing through my 20s as I spent most of my life on stage. Then in 1990 I met a new friend who provided the motivation and spark to really begin on the path of developing a written voice that could be heard by my readers. We spent a good part of that year writing short stories. In these experiences I learned a great deal about writing, or at least about a particular form of writing.

 

In one exercise I become a lice on the head of a bird .. and go for a ride. Feeling everything and writing as I go. It wakes up my senses and a very strong voice.

When the Writer's Table is on offer as an on-line course information will is placed at the Crystal Ball. The course runs usually twice a year.

 

 

To stimulate my inner voice for writing, I have done, and still do, a series of exercises. These exercises stimulate the mechanism of imagination where I see things vividly, where I listen carefully to not only what is said, but how it is said. These exercises are the ones I have been using to teach in the "Writer's Table" on-line course, and below you will read just four of the hundreds of pieces of writing to emerge from the series of exercises presented in that program.

These exercises focus on the 'voice' of the narrator or character begin 'heard' by the reader. These exercises allow the story to emerge from the pen (well, keyboard actually) without conscious construction. The characters of my stories, even my biographical material, already have a story. My job is to enter the world of these characters, set them in motion and watch what they do. When I am writing an article on a topic I teach, I simply enter the character of Stephanie who stands on stage and let her lecture. If I do my job well, I will honestly describe to the reader the story my characters show me. This isn't to say there is no conscious effort in the task of writing, there most certainly is, it just isn't at the point of the first draft.

Two things bring me to writing as my dominant method of teaching now. First, is the Internet. We finally have a medium for educating large numbers of people with all the flare and style of a great lecturer and content expert.

 

 

There are four student assignments at the bottom of this article. For ease these links will take you directly.

The Ball Game
by Jim Williams

Eat Your Peas
by Marg Howard

The Prodigal
by Michael Gysi

Clem's True Story
by Stephanie Burns

 

  The Internet is a brilliant tool for those with the skill of crafting their written work such that it holds their reader's attention long enough to learn. Adults are not naturally good at learning from written text, certainly not once they leave school. The dominant behaviour with text in a professional is not reading, but scanning and quickly locating needed information. If you plan to use written work to educate, then you will have to write in a style that compels people to actually read.

People have the behaviour of scanning and closing a book. However, most people will not walk away from a conversation. Writing with a strong, natural voice for the narrator is very hard to leave, it is as if we are listening to someone speak, not reading what someone has written.

When I write I use the same cadence, timing and intonation of the spoken word. And, the proof is in the pudding. People actually reach to the end of my books in more cases than not. Visitors here to the website are actually reading articles and using what they find there. I am not a great writer. But if I am going to educate using written works (and all my on-line courses use scripts with characters written by me), then I have to keep working out how to influence people to move towards the act of reading, and from there, compel them to action.

Below are four short stories that emerged during exercises in the first Writer's Table course. 29 people were given 8 writing lessons and assignments. We did one lesson and assignment each week. Hundreds of assignments were collected and I have been given permission by my table mates to use what stories help me to help you understand this notion of voice in writing. It was very hard to choose and in the end I just threw darts. As I write more on this topic I will include short stories from the others at the table. I had to consider it was better 4 stories that will get read, than 29 that will look overwhelming and never get read.

Enjoy the stories below.

More later!

 


Jim's daughter at bat

 

The Ball Game

by Jim Williams

In life I never really gave much credence to reincarnation, and certainly the tales I'd heard never once mentioned inanimate objects, least of all a ball.

My latter years were heavily devoted to my daughter's chosen sport - softball. I coached, I scored, I umpired and I rarely missed seeing her play. My fate, I suppose, was inevitable. To be reborn into something I cherished in life.

I felt his firm grip encase my whole being as he withdrew me from his back bag. How roughly he thrust me into the leather glove. Oh! that wonderful smell of freshly oiled leather mixed with dirt and dolomite - I truly felt at home.

The noise of the crowd, the calls of encouragement from the bench, the sheer unadulterated thrill of a 'Nationals Final', and staring down at me, as if she somehow knew we were connected, was my daughter. I had returned as the match ball at the National Fastpitch championships between NSW and their archrivals, Victoria, and once again I felt the embrace of my little girl.

For the next two and a bit hours, it was the ride of my life. This was so much more exhilarating than the 'Demon' or the roller coaster at Luna Park. This was fastpitch at its best; and this pitcher was dynamite. She sent me down at close to 100Kms/hour and what movement. She had me rising, dropping, curving and her fastball was something to behold. And every now an then she delivered a 'change-up' (sorry, that's a slower pitch that takes the batter by surprise) that had the batters tied up in knots. And the best part of all was being caught by my girl at every pitch. And it seemed like she gave me an extra special squeeze each time, just before throwing me back to the pitcher.

It was the bottom of the seventh inning with the score level at 3 all with NSW still to bat. They could win it from here with good solid batting.

The Victorian pitcher preferred her own ball, so it seemed I would have to sit this one out in the Umpires pouch. I could sense the tension in the players and the crowd - would NSW win or would the game go into a tie-break situation.

The first two batters for NSW did their best but were unfortunately struck out. And who should be the next up to bat? My girl. I have always hated seeing her in such a pressure situation.

"Strike One!" called the plate umpire as she let the first pitch slip by.

The second and third pitches were astray which meant the count was 2 balls and 1 strike. The next pitch was there to be hit, but it carried over the foul ball line and onto the clubhouse roof. There's no way that ball is going to be retrieved for this game.

Suddenly the umpire reaches into his back bag and pulls me out into the sunlight. I'm blinded for a moment, but then I see her. She's taking the signal from her coach and now she's turning toward the batter's box. She sees me and she smiles - I think she senses that I'm here for her. The catcher throws me to the pitcher.

The signal is an outside rise - they know her well. She can't resist them when they're high like that. The pitcher's arm rotates, I'm catapulted forward and I feel myself lifting with the pitch - NO!!!!! I will myself not to rise. I make myself as fat and flat as I can. The bat strikes and I hear a deafening 'crack'. I'm lifted high, way, way up in the air over the third base and out beyond the dolomite infield area. The left fielder is racing to intercept me but I have other ideas. I streamline myself and make myself fly... and clear the boundary fence to the roar of the spectators: HOME RUN!!!

NSW Wins!!! and my little girl has hit the winning run.

I don't remember too much after that, except being passed from hand to hand and players signing their name all over me. I was eventually shoved into a player's kit bag and there I remained for several days.

Finally, the bag is opened. I am someone's prize. The match winning ball from a National's Fastpitch tournament. I wonder who got to keep me.

I'm grasped by a firm hand. I can't see who it is because their hand is wrapped tight around me. I'm being placed in some sort of glass cabinet along with a whole array of trophies and medals. I look out through the cabinet glass at the owner of the hand and to my joy, it is my very own child. She has won me as her prize and I am the proudest softball that there ever was.

The end


 

Eat Your Peas

by Marg Howard

She struggles to pull closed and lock the heavy back door, letting the flimsy screen one that sat in front of it bang behind her. Hid the key in the usual place in the tank stand, underneath the tangle of ivy and walked purposefully down the driveway; dirt in those days, uneven and pot-holed.

Even though she was quite short; very short in fact, there was always something about her gait that made her seem more substantial in height.

She walked places a lot. And caught buses and trains. Many years later when she complained that she'd lost the spring in her knees, and found getting up the bus steps too much of a challenge, she still walked a lot.

But now, dressed in her best, as is her habit every second Friday, she catches the ten fifteen train to town for a spot of shopping and lunch at Coles Cafeteria. She sits primly, swaying comfortably with the movement of the train, hands clasped neatly over her handbag. Navy today, to match her shoes. She glances down, spying traces of dirt and silently chides herself for not paying more attention to her nails. She's been up early this morning, trimming the lawn edges with a sharp knife.

It's January and the school holidays. Not so hot today as it has been. I love the school holidays. I spend most of them with her usually. And today I was on the train too, sitting opposite. (I was facing in the direction we were traveling. This was one of the many sacrifices she often made for me.

"You sit there dear, it's bad for you to face the opposite way to the direction that the train's traveling."

"Why Grandma?" I'd ask.

"It confuses your brain dear, and you can get sick," was the usual reply.

"But Grandma, won't you get sick?"

"No dear, my brain's been in place for a long time, so it's not as likely to get confused." Couldn't argue with that.

I sit quietly, as she's taught me, taking careful note at each station of how many people get on. Particularly how many adults, especially the older ones, and especially the women, so that when the time is right I'll be ready to stand and offer my seat to one of them, without being prompted, as she's taught me. This makes her very proud, and I am always pleased to make her proud. Anyway, it seems fair enough. My train ticket only costs half of what theirs does. We're half way there, so at this rate, I reckon I won't need to stand until the last station before town.

Going to town with Grandma was fun. For one thing, I could keep up with her without having to run. It was always nerve wracking going with Mum. She walked so fast that unless I kept close to her constantly I risked being swallowed by the crowds on the footpath. The other thing was that I knew Grandma would surprise me with a gift of some sort. Probably something she'd let me pick myself.

The best thing though was lunch at Coles Cafeteria.

At noon (because that's always lunchtime) we climb the stairs to the first floor to find ourselves in the busy throng of mothers and babies, noisy children (unlike me) and pensioners, all looking anxiously for a spare table, preferably by a window. Metal trays and cutlery clanging as the queue of hungry shoppers makes its way slowing to the cashier, collecting sandwiches, jelly tarts and pots of tea on the way.

Of course we have a window table. Grandma knows that's a special part of a visit to town. For her, an egg and lettuce sandwich buttered fruit bun and a pot of tea. For me, pie, chips and gravy, a frog cake and lemonade. Unbelievable. All my favourite food in one meal. Only ever at Coles Cafeteria with Grandma. If Mum had been here I definitely wouldn't have been allowed the frog cake. "Don't tell her dear, it'll be our secret."

The women at Coles Cafeteria had the most glamorous job in the world I thought. Starched, white uniforms with the red logo on the breast pocket, and the stiff nurses cap, once again with the red logo on the front. Red and white check aprons with a pleated frill around the edge. They always seemed so cheerful as they cleared away dirty plates and wiped down tables. This was a women's place. Clean, fresh, chrome and terrazzo. Noisy with eating and talking and serving. No men worked there, and mostly any male customers were of the harmless grandfatherly type. Grey haired wearing cardigans.

Later on, back home at Grandma's, I am allowed to change out of my Sunday school dress, and back into my shorts and top. Bare feet, brown legs, I spend the rest of the afternoon climbing the huge apricot tree, its boughs weighed down by ripening fruit. It will be time for the annual great apricot cook up soon. Apricot jam, apricot chutney, stewed apricots, apricot pie. (This is usually followed by the annual great tomato cook up - tomato sauce, tomato chutney, mock strawberry jam.)

In her housedress, Grandma spends the rest of the afternoon mincing mutton and finely chopping turnips ready for the pasties she is going to make tomorrow.

I pretend I am going to live in the apricot tree forever. Or perhaps under the passion fruit vine. I sit high in the tree, hidden from view and the sun by the dense dark foliage. Grandma comes outside looking.

"Margaret," she called.

"Where are you?"

"Up here Grandma."

"Well it's nearly four o'clock. The Three Stooges will be on in a few minutes."

"I'm coming Grandma."

The afternoon ritual was always a bind. Four o'clock meant The Three Stooges. I loved watching The Three Stooges. I loved watching almost anything on television though, because we didn't have TV then. Four o'clock also meant that Dad would be here to pick me up in about a quarter of an hour. That meant we'd play the little game of me pleading for us not to go until The Three Stooges was over. He'd act stern, and then give in. I was always confident of this outcome because he laughed at The Three Stooges more than I did. Dad's humour was not sophisticated.

Dad's arrival also meant that I'd be going back to our place at the end of The Three Stooges. Not something I particularly looked forward to. Grandma's house seemed comfortable and compact. Our place was bigger and colder. Even though it was holidays I knew Mum would make me practice piano for at least half an hour and probably want to give me a spelling test as well.

Today being a Friday made it worse that usual. Friday meant fish for tea. Fish that was inadequately crumbed, over cooked to dryness, served with potatoes boiled in the pressure cooker to mush along with frozen peas that had been meted the same fate. The fish always had bones.

So the knots in my tummy start at four o'clock each afternoon and become progressively bigger and tighter as each evening progresses. Fearfully sitting down at the kitchen table, knowing that I'll gag on the peas. Waiting for the first warning. (A familiar one to many I realise now.)

"Eat your vegetables. Think of those poor starving children in India."

"Well let's send the peas to them."

"Don't speak to me like that."

Dad intervenes. Second warning.

"You'll eat everything on your plate or else there's no dessert."

"I don't want any dessert."

Peas are stone cold by now. Big warning. Out comes the strap. (The "strap" is a thick leather belt, about three inches wide.) It sits coiled next to Dad's bread and butter plate.

I know things are past the point of no return. I can't stop the tears. They flow from a mixture of fear of my father, the horror of being forced to swallow the peas, and knowing from experience what is about to ensue.

By seven thirty on Monday morning I'm back at Grandma's. I notice that the knots have gone. I tell her about the peas. And the argument that Mum and Dad had about it. And what happened after that. I show her the yellowish purple hand marks on my legs and on my arms. Her face becomes an impression I've never seen before.

I climb up into the apricot tree and disappear amongst the leaves. I pretend I am going to live in the apricot tree forever. Or perhaps under the passion fruit vine.

The End


 

The Prodigal

by Michael Gysi

He stood on a rocky outcrop high above the waves crashing on the fallen rocks below. The sound drifted upwards to him as he stared out towards the horizon. It was going to be a beautiful day, there was not a cloud in turquoise blue sky. He could see distant sea eagles soaring on unseen waves of air.

He was lost in deep thought. Thoughts of days gone by when he had first left this place. He had gone with these people willingly not knowing what was in store for him. He was unaware of the hurt that he would leave behind for these past 20 years. Would anyone believe where he had been and the message that he was bringing back to them now? Would anyone listen to him or was he going to have to force them to listen?

He stood motionless in his black uniform with his eyes squinted against the brilliant sunlight the peak cap affording no protection for his eyes against the brilliant light. His rank of the General of Seven showed on his left breast for all to see. He had worked hard for this rank and even as was custom had had to kill for it.

His thoughts were interrupted by the voice of his second-in-command who barked "General of Seven, that men a wait your command!"

He turned not unhappy to have his thoughts brought back to the present so that the thoughts of the past were put back where they belonged. Thank you Gon, General of Seven replied walk with me down the path to the men I need to address them. They walked quietly down the steep path not saying a word but picking their steps carefully as one wrong step would mean a fall which would take them to their deaths on the rocks below. For this was a narrow path and only frequented by the mountain goats which lived on this island.

As they neared the encampment the General of Seven could hear the men talking in a native tongue of Quokan. This irritated the General of Seven and he moved a lot quicker so that they were in the encampment faster. He turned to Gon and angrily said, "bring me the commanders immediately".

Gon hurried off to get the commanders for he had only seen the General of Seven in this sort of mood once before, and knew not to displease him for he had seen the outcome of this mood before. The Seven commanders hurried along and entered the tent of their general. In the short time that it had taken them to arrive in his tent he had calmed down, but they could still see that there was anger there. Commanders, I walked down the path from a cliff above and as I approached the camp I could hear the men talking in Quokan. The men have been told only to speak in English whilst on this planet, that is why they had been chosen for this mission. Inform your men that the next person I hear speaking Quokan will be executed. We do not need these people on this planet to know where we come from before I have spoken to their leaders and start some hysterical outbreak against us. Do I make myself clear?

The Seven commanders knew that he meant what he said the General of Seven from the strange planet was not one to make angry and if he said he was going to do something he always did. There was no more to be said so they left immediately and each of the Seven commanders called their seven Lieutenants to pass on the command of the general to their 7000 men.

Gon, the General of Seven said, I am going to rest for an-hour, wake me at the end of that period and have the men fully assembled on the beach so that I may address them before we embark on the transport ships. He lay on his bunk thinking of the mission that lay ahead. How do you prepare a planet of people who have a problem with believing that there is life on any other planet except their own and tell them that within the week a force of Wahri will be attacking them. And that you are here to help them prepare for this attack.

The general seven slipped away into a restful sleep.

At the designated time Gon entered the Generals tent end gently awoke him from his deep sleep. The men are assembled and await your words. Gon advised.

The General of Seven looked up at Gon and smiled. They had been together through many campaigns and Gon was not only his second in command but also his close friend for it was he who encouraged him to go to combat for the rank. He knew the men would be waiting outside in the heat not caring but waiting for their commander. For they knew they were here as emissaries. They did not know what the full plan was about they only knew that they where here to help this planet of nonbelievers in some way. He climbed out of the cot and looked in the mirror and was pleased with what he saw. For in front of him he saw a tall, closely cropped dark haired man of 27 years with a tanned complexion. He stared into the eyes of the deep blue which was nearing on Black and saw that in the reflection was someone who had in the 27 years that he had been alive had seen and done and accomplished more than any other person of similar age. His face was long and narrow with finely chiseled chin and defined nose. He had a laser scar on his left cheek which did not detract from his good looks but actually enhanced them. If he had stayed here he would have been considered a very handsome man.

He walked out of the tent and there before him was the finest command that any of the General of Seven had. To stop at the opening of his tent and gazed upon the 340,000 men and women under his command. These men and women, some of them his age the vast majority twice his age had been in many battles together and he would trust any of them to do their duty. They knew of his high expectations and if any of them disobeyed a command then there would be dealt with very severely including death. On the other hand they knew that if they fulfilled their duties to the best of their ability then there would be very well rewarded and for these two reasons this General of Seven had their utmost respect.

He was not known for his long orations about their duty. He stood before them in exactly the same uniform as they all wore the only difference was the emblem of rank on his left breast.

He started to talk to his companions in a clear voice, which carried to all without the aid of any artificial enhancements. "Most of you have been with me for the last three years and we have seen many battles together, he paused and could see the smiles on the faces of those closest to him. Many of you have fought in battles against the Wahri and know of their sadistic and cruel ways of killing. None of you know this, but this is the planet from which I came and we have been assigned the task of protecting it from the Wahri.

To do this we need to get the assistance of the inhabitants because within the next seven days this planet will be attacked by the Wahri. It will be a hard enough job convincing the inhabitants of our good intentions and that they are going to be attacked without them fearing us. For that reason you have all been ordered to speak this language of English and you have all been advised what will happen if you speak in our your native tongue. I do not want to carry out that threat but believe me I will if the inhabitants here find out about our existence and where we are from before I have spoken to them and convince them of our good intentions.

Within the hour we will board our aircraft and head towards Switzerland where their heads of nations meet.

I know you have all been itching to get back into battle and that these days of building our encampment here have been boring. But rest assured that when the time comes you will be called upon and I know you will fight as you have fought before, bravely and ferociously.

With these last words the 340,000 men and women in front of him erupted into a cheer which drowned out the crashing waves on the sandy shore behind them.

The End


 

One of the best books I have
read on the craft of writing is Stephen King's book "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft".

I wrote a review in the "recommendations" file. You can read my quick review and from there go directly to Amazon to read many more reviews. This book is now available locally.


On Writing:
A memoir of the craft

 

 

 

 

 


 

Clem's True Story

by Stephanie Burns

I am not believin my own eyes. Out there on Wall's Road heading out of town. The sheriff all skin like that ... looking like a fright just sucked all the middle bits out of him.

I first just saw the lights. Headlights sitting by the side of Wall's Road when I passed by. I gave a glance, but they were just a set a headlights. But I was thinking as I passed who'd be sitting like that on the side of road. Not a soul came to my mind. Everyone I'd know would be at Bull's Bar by now. Surely by now.

I don't know either what made me turn back. I am not a curious type, But a real like hand grabbing my shirt collar seemed to tug me. Just the unusualness I had thought if in the end I'd seen nothing. But not now ... not now.

As I approached the lights I could see it was a truck, cocked on an angle as its left side rested a bit lower off the shoulder. I slowed in tempo to the rising chill up my arms. The driver's door was open but there didn't seem to be anyone about. There was a faint sound of music that could be heard through the window as I rolled it down to look harder at that truck.

By gee that's Champ's truck. Just Champ's truck too. Nothin else. Left like he'd just stopped opened the door and walked away. I remember thinking Champ loved that truck he wouldn't be leavin it like that.

I pulled up behind and climbed down out of the cab of my own truck, and put one foot, then the other on the ground. The roadside crunched under my boots as I walked, hair now firmly standing on end, towards the dead truck. I peered slow around the right side, and then double-backed to the left and stared at the open door. Nothing odd at all.

Then I noticed the foot print. A big left foot print right where'd you'd put it if you opened a truck door and took your first step out. But then I saw it ... well saw them ... more prints. Something odd about these but can't get a handle on it. So I walk with the prints. They lead me back toward the highway, the way I came in. Something still seems odd, these prints, they're getting smaller. Just little by little. I keep walking and now I am measuring the foot print with my own. Just little by little, these foot prints are shrinking.

I hear something coming from the corn on the side of the road but it is faint so I keep walking. What funny prints these are now, like a child's. And I hear the noise again, like a voice now, there in the corn.

Oh boy, the prints I've been following are small now and not making much of a dent in the ground. But I do see that they are rolling away - yep straight into the corn. I don't like this one bit and I am telling myself loudly in my head to get back in my truck and hightail it outta there. But I can't.

I am hearing that voice and it's what I head for. I listen close and it makes my eyes head toward the ground. I squint and flinch and squint more. Can't be. What. I listen close because my eyes are definitely trickin me. I hear, Joe don't come ... high pitched like a little girls screech. It's him, it's Champ all right. Little. Very very little. Little clothes and boots and hat. Little hands cup around a very little mouth, yelling Joe, don't come here ... I yell back like he can't hear me! "Champ what's goin on?"

Champ's waving me back, and covering himself with a leaf. Do I run? How do I leave?

Then, I hear it. A rustle. I turn quick. Standing there is Sheriff and right behind him is a dusty blue cloud. The Sheriff is not standing at all, he just a rag of skin flapping like old one piece underwear on a clothes line. Now I am freakin out. I think I scream. I know I run. The rest, it's just a blur.

I've been sittin on this bar stool for a long while I reckon. I must be wearing a do not disturb sign on my back - even my mates ain't talking to me. What's there to say, what would you say. Someone else is going to find them, and then they can say somethin. Won't be me. I'm never closing my eyes again. I wonder if you can die from keeping your eyes open too long, like taking a fish out water. I hope so.

The End

   

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