Beginning Again?

Robin Nest Photo © Linda Kloosterhof iStockPhoto®  #208792
Robin Nest Photo © Linda Kloosterhof iStockPhoto® #208792

Does it feel as though you’re always starting over? I’m beginning new projects, new rounds of old projects, new teaching quarter. Therefore, clients and students are doing the same; some students have even taken the leap to begin or return to their higher education. Their stories and their dedication inspire me.

Beginnings take courage, so I offer this favorite passage from John O’Donohue’s To Bless the Space Between Us: 

“Perhaps beginnings make us anxious because we did not begin ourselves. Others begat us. Being conceived and born, we eventually enter upon ourselves already begun, already there. Instinctively we grasp onto and continue within the continuity in which we find ourselves. Indeed, our very life here depends directly on continuous acts of beginning. But these beginnings are out of our hands; they decide themselves. This is true of our breathing and our heartbeat. Beginning precedes us, creates us, and constantly takes us to new levels and places and people. There is nothing to fear in the act of beginning. More often than not it knows the journey ahead better than we ever could. Perhaps the art of harvesting the secret riches of our lives is best achieved when we place profound trust in the act of beginning. Risk might be our greatest ally. To live a truly creative life, we always need to cast a critical look at where we presently are, attempting always to discern where we have become stagnant and where new beginning might be ripening. There can be no growth if we do not remain open and vulnerable to what is new and different. I have never seen anyone take a risk for growth that was not rewarded a thousand times over” (2).

He also warns, “There are journeys we have begun that have brought us great inner riches and refinements; but we had to travel through dark valleys of difficulty and suffering. Had we known at the beginning what the journey would demand of us, we might never have set out. Yet the rewards and gifts become vital to who we are. Through the innocence of beginning we are often seduced into growth” (3).

Isn’t it great we aren’t in it alone? We support each other in our beginnings and our risk-taking, and here we are! Before we know it, we’re completing something and beginning again. Wishing you “great inner riches and refinements.”


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Photo © Linda Kloosterhof iStockPhoto®  #208792

Dead Grandmothers

We’ve been known to joke about it in faculty meetings: how many grandparents some students can lose in a single year. (And yes, we do name names.) Here’s one professor’s concerns about responding to those situations: Thomas H. Benton (William Pannapacker) in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

In my classes, the work has to be done at some point, no matter what obstacles must be overcome. There’s no authentic incentive to lie–and I hope I’m teaching them that a clear conscience matters–and yet it happens. I can empathize, but empathy doesn’t include passing an unprepared student on to certain failure. How could the deceased ancestor approve?

Ironically, students struggling with attendance and punctuality are often those inspired by dead grandmothers. “My grandma said it was time to stop being a baby and get my degree.” It sounds like a noble ambition to honor a parent’s or grandparent’s advice, but it’s never enough. They have to want it for more selfish, more immediate reasons.

Whenever a student returns from a funeral saying, “It’s hard. I’m grieving. Sometimes it’s hard to concentrate. But I know she [or he] wants me to finish,” I know they’re going to succeed, against this and all other difficulties. And those dead grandmothers are going to be proud.


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

College Endeavor

NASA Chuck Tintera Endeavor final landing 05 31 2011
For NASA by Chuck Tintera: Endeavor final landing 05 31 2011

With the final landing of Endeavor, this shuttle chapter of space exploration will be closing soon. At the moment, I’m closing a college quarter and identifying with NASA. I have advantages over NASA: my physical life in adjunct teaching is only occasionally at risk, and I do know where I’m working for the summer.

But like NASA, this is also a career more celebrated than funded. Our institutions depend on our intelligence, passion, tolerance for uncertainty, and ability to make course corrections. Our circadian rhythms are rarely consistent, and even off-duty, our creative and critical thinking processes never end. When the project ends, evaluations are only beginning. Like NASA, we reclaim spare parts, including engines, for future study, and possible reuse.

And this time, some of my students are graduating. May they be happily and successfully launched.


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Photo © NASA by Chuck Tintera: Endeavor final landing 05 31 2011


FIRST Robotics Fans
FIRST Robotics Participants --- almost as creative as the ones I saw in person

While witnessing my first FIRST Robotics competition this spring, I was initially impressed by the enthusiasm. It’s a high school sport! Fans rock a basketball court while nerdish guys in imaginative costumes lead cheers and dance with abandon.

FIRST Robotics competition
FIRST Robotics competition

Next I was impressed by the engineering talent as giant robotic crafts negotiated competitive and cooperative tasks.

Then best of all–the part near and dear to a writer, and found only in the printed program–the mottos. They ranged from boring to inspirational to hilarious. Here are my favorites:

  • “Drive it Like You Stole It!”  (Cobra Commanders, Cactus High School, AZ)
  • “Pass the duct tape!” (Mecha-Knights, Casa Grande Union High School, AZ)
  • “There is No Spoon” (Falcon Robotics, Carl Hayden High School, AZ)
  • “Putting Others FIRST” (Beach Bots, Hope Chapel Academy High School, CA)
  • “Don’t Stop Believing” (The Phoenix, Queen Creek High School & District, AZ)
  • “Keep it simple” (Team Paradise, Paradise Valley High School, AZ)
  • “Si Se Puede” (Si Se Puede, Chandler High School, AZ)
  • “Make it work!” (Bearded Dragons, Verrado High School, AZ)
  • “Clamp it down” (Hamilton Microbots, Hamilton High School & Space Grant Robotics–ASU, AZ)
  • “GO NUTS!” (CocoNuts, Coconino High School & Flagstaff Unified #1, AZ)
  • “Dr. Gear–Sir, We Salute You” (Critical Mass, East Valley Institute of Technology, AZ)
  • “We put the ‘eek’ in Geek” (N.E.R.D.S Nifty Engineering Robotics Design Squad, Buena High School, AZ)
  • “Pride Determination Respect” (Bionic Bulldogs, Kingman High School, Kingman Academy of Learning High School, and KUSD #20, AZ)
  • “Hey this might work!” (BioHazards, Bioscience High School, AZ)
  • “Fueled by HotPockets” (Team Thundercats, Deming High School, NM)
  • “The 10th time is the charm” (Team CAUTION, AZ Community Robotics, AZ)
  • “It’s only temporary unless it works” (Sentinels, Seton Catholic, AZ)

And there was even a meta-motto:

  • “We make Robots, not Mottos” (Boxer Bots, Vail School District, AZ)

No motto was listed for 15 of the 46 teams; 22 teams named their robots: Beach Bot, Chipper, Heather, Score, Caprica, Neo, Velcro Radical 25, Dionysus, Pocket Protector, Robobuff, Aztecbot, Anthrax, Scorpio, Marmaduke, Thundertank, Goal-E, Beth, Panchobot, I, and Viper Prime. There was even a TBD–to be determined.

For those who joined the linguistic game, these mottos and names (of teams and robots) suggest the whole adventure: the thrills and heartbreaks, the persistence and resilience, the team spirit and mutual respect. Even the organization gets into word coinage, trademarking “FIRST” (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), “Gracious Professionalism” and “Coopertition.”

A study at Brandeis University concluded that FIRST Robotics participants are “roughly ten times as likely to hold an apprenticeship, internship, or co-op job in their freshman year. . . significantly more likely to expect to achieve a post graduate degree. . . more than twice as likely to expect to pursue a career in science and technology . . . more than twice as likely to volunteer in their communities.”

But win or lose on the robotics court, and pursuing whatever careers they choose, these young engineers obviously experience collaboration, sportsmanship, revision, and celebration. Sounds like a great way to build our next world leaders.


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Photos from

Composing Language

Every time I see my composer son, he raves about and demonstrates some new tool in his repertoire: something about counterpoint, some chord he picked up from another composer, some skill understood in theory but finally mastered. And almost as frequently, he reports what he said to that day’s would-be composer who wants to get there without studying composition, or even basic music theory.

Recently he compared it to learning a spoken language. Some musicians learn by immersion; they might not be able to teach it or explain what they’re doing, but they are fluent. And the great composers thoroughly understand theory. Those who revise new versions understand the traditions especially well.

So I asked him, “How long do you think it takes to become fluent in composing language? Is the basic four or five-year Bachelor’s program enough? Does it take a Master’s?”

Drew said, “It depends on what you bring to the program and these two things.” He immediately revised that to three:

1) The frequency of getting your music performed by real musicians. Crucial.

2) The amount of music you expose yourself to.

3) Writing above that which ye are able. Being willing to stretch beyond what you already know will sound good.

You know what I’m going to say. It sounds strange to say there’s a writing language, a meta-language behind the language you think you already know because you’ve been speaking a form of it all your life. But to become a fluent writer, try his advice:

1) Get your work read by real readers. Blogging, writing groups, mentors, classes, editors, publishing!

2) Read great writers. Read their work and what they say about their work. (You don’t even have to like them both at the same time.) Subscribe to journals and magazines to join the tribe.

3) Stretch. Dare to flop.

As I write this, Drew is at the piano, playing with chord patterns. He forgot one:

4) Practice privately. (Journal! And that’s really number 1.)


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011, All Rights Reserved.

The Sport of Writing

Some sports are played against the clock. Their time-centered rules vary greatly, but they include judicious use of the time available. Basketball rushes through its quarters with shot clocks to keep things hectic. If you want to pause and plan, you call a time-out, hoping to save one for any last second, secret club preparations for buzzer miracles. Football stops the clock for every play. Even competitive chess has cumulative time limits.

It could be that life is like that, racing against a pre-assigned death date to get all of life in, until ready or not, your buzzer sounds. But I like to think that life is more like baseball. It can go on all night if necessary. You have nine innings in which to alternate your roles and get the whole job done. You have at least three tries per player, and succeeding about a third of the time makes you a star. You can steal ahead and/or slide in at the last second, and it all counts. Ties do get broken, and only by one run, not a whole new time period. It all seems designed to give you every possible chance, like a benevolent God.

The catch is that, naturally, your opponent enjoys the same favor. And here’s another way baseball is like life. You need that opposition. The better your opponent, the better you become. You can’t hit a home run if that pitcher walks you. And if you strike out, there’s more respect if you strike out swinging, not merely looking.

As a writer, sometimes you’re on the clock. (Blog challenges.) School is like that: timed essays, calendared classes. The pressure’s intense, especially for perfectionists. As an undergraduate, I took two creative writing seminars. The playwright/Russian professor didn’t know what to do with me because I’d write a beautiful page and get stuck. (Blogging had not been invented.) Because I never finished anything, he gave me a C.

In my second creative writing seminar, poet/English professor didn’t know what to do with me because I’d write a beautiful page and get stuck. (Blogging still hadn’t been invented.) Because I never finished anything, he said, “Well, I don’t know any publishing writers who finish anything in four months either.” He gave me an A-.

Journalists keep writing to length and to deadline–in public. That’s the basketball of writing. There are novelists who write one book per lifetime: chess?

It helps to have some clock, some external deadline, to keep us in motion, and it’s nice to have flexible projects where you can take an inning here and there.

When I edit, I get to be the catcher signaling pitches, pounding “Put her there,” pulling a wild pitch into the strike zone. For me, journaling is my batting practice, and blogging is like a pre-season game, still practice, only public.

(Remind me to tell you why I like cross-country.)


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Friday Flick: Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Sir Ken Robinson TED 2006
Sir Ken Robinson TED 2006: Do Schools Kill Creativity?

Sir Ken Robinson, author of Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, and The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, spoke at TED a few years ago about how we’re born creative until we unlearn it. If you know a child who can’t sit still (and which of them can anymore?), you’ll love the story of Gillian Lynne.

It’s time to unlearn our unlearning. Even Robinson’s second edition of Out of Our Minds turned into a far more extensive revision than he expected because the world had changed so dramatically. We can’t even imagine what’s next, and yet we’re preparing children for that future.


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Photo: screenshot from YouTube.