Hello there! Thanks for finding your way through cyber-space to the homepage of technical writer and college professor Alan Ackmann. I will be updating content regularly, so check back often. In the meantime, enjoy!
Hello there! Thanks for finding your way through cyber-space to the homepage of technical writer and college professor Alan Ackmann. I will be updating content regularly, so check back often. In the meantime, enjoy!
Because it was in my Chicago backyard, and because the folks from Pluralsight invited me to do an author meet-and-greet at their booth (that’s me, second from the right) I played hooky from my DePaul job last Wednesday and made my first visit to the Microsoft Ignite expo.
Well, technically, everyone was making their first visit to Ignite , since it had previously been TechEd. While there were lots of opinions about the McCormick Place venue and the new end-user emphasis (with some positive reviews and some not) I had no frame of reference except for my previous conferences, which skewed towards the academic crowd. I’ve been to MLA, AWP, and CCCC–impressive gatherings with a liberal arts bent. So with that as my scale of comparison, my first impression was: wow.
First, there was the scale of the venue, with a roomy, open-concept floor plan that felt more like a showroom than lanes of interchangeable booths. Some people said off the cuff that this layout made it difficult to find specific vendors, but as someone just there to browse I found that the generous line-of-sight helped me to plan a route.
That peripheral vision was handy because there was a lot to see, with both slick and ornamented booths competing for patron’s attention. At my academic conferences, most vendors have straightforward wire racks featuring their press’ publications, with the occasional author signing. It’s more like a bookstore (which is great; I love window-shopping), but there is nothing near the eye-catching extravagance of the techie world.
This also showed up in the infamous giveaways, for which everyone had prepped me. At my academic conferences, the bookfair (oh no; it’s never called an expo) mostly showcases collegiate presses and nonprofit groups, and a band-aid dispenser counts as killer swag. At one point during Ignite, though, I was registered for so many giveaways that I’d have been disappointed if I left McCormick place with any fewer than three new XBox Ones. I left with none, however, and reality came crashing down. A pity.
Fortunately, the conversations with industry professionals were ample consolation (as was the fact that no one else I talked to won anything either, which probably had something to do with the 23,000 people attending). It wasn’t just at the Pluralsight booth, though it was great to meet some of the people who watched our courses. It was also the community as a whole. I taught a course at DePaul on rhetoric in crisis contexts last year, and I’m interested in modifying that material to focus on IT subjects specifically. I therefore went up to every booth in the expo with a “security” tag hanging in the upper corner of the drapery, and talked to them about security gaps, and how people in their fields communicated when something went wrong. Almost everyone was generous with their time, which was especially gracious considering how obvious it was that I had no intention of purchasing their products.
Still, it was overwhelming by the end of the day.
Speaking of overwhelming, the day finished with a VIP author’s party at the Lacuna Artist’s loft in Chicago, which Pluralsight rented out. They wanted to throw an eye-catching bash, and between the 3D printing selfie booth, the rooftop open bar and buffet, the live music until midnight, and the blacklit pinball arcade, they succeeded.
My main takeaway, though, was a simple appreciation for the contrast created by these two worlds I’m occupying. My main career still centers around college, teaching technical writing and freshman composition in a time when the identity of both those fields, and even higher education itself, is rapidly changing. The more public side of what I do, though, is securely in the private sector, which has an entirely different way of thinking about things, and things it thinks about. I’m content to occupy both camps, however, if only because it illustrates what they can learn from each other.
So those are some first impressions from a guy wading into these waters. I may return to some of these ideas, and give some more detailed thoughts, in future posts.
In the meantime, Alan out.
Even though I grew up in St. Louis, I’m a Chicago guy now; I’ve been living here, shockingly, for almost a decade. By happy coincidence, Microsoft’s largest technology conference–Microsoft Ignite–is happening at McCormick Place this week, and Pluralsight has a booth. They’ve even invited me to stop by and chat with some of their customers! If you’re attending the conference, you’re invited to stop by and say hello from 3:00-4:00 tomorrow, May 6, when I’ll be having Author Office Hours as part of their meet and greet activities.
We can talk about my Pluralsight courses, but I’ll also be glad to chat about your own questions about proposals, resumes, or other technical writing topics. Or we can talk about pizza. Or baseball. Or other Chicago topics. It’s your call, really.
I’ll also be checking out the other vendor booths and trying to have some conversations about technical writing and emerging trends. Hope to see you there!
For quite some time now–about seven years, in fact–I’ve been teaching technical and professional writing at DePaul University. It’s a bit of a departure from my background in creative writing, but I discovered I really enjoyed both the students and the subject matter. Over time, it led to a lot of freelancing opportunities–things like developing training materials for IT network administration and operating system deployments (among other subjects), as well as a whole series of blogs about writing technical resumes. I also did some webinars on technical writing. Now, these side-projects have really materialized into a totally new venture: a full-fledged course on writing proposals now available from Pluralsight. Pluralsight mostly features technical training–for developers, admins, end-users, you name it–but they’ve been adding soft skills stuff as well, and we’re delighted to be working with each other.
The course focuses on developing written proposals in a technical and professional context, and covers things like evaluating a writing situation, creating a stable argument, and understanding the most common features of proposals as a genre. It even takes readers through a full-fledged sample proposal centered around a need to standardize data backup systems and protocols in small, nonprofit business. The course is officially released today, and I’m pretty excited about it.
I’d also like to publicly thank the folks at Pluralsight for making this such a pleasant experience. I got support from so many people at almost every turn, and even when initial drafts weren’t going exactly right, the feedback was always practical and charitable. And even though video-training is a very different medium than face-to-face teaching, my classroom work benefited as well. I got to learn about slide design, be much more organized and linear in my lectures, invent new ways of communicating old content, and really think critically about the goals of this kind of teaching. So it was a win all around.
If you got here to my personal website via the Pluralsight course: Welcome! If you arrived here first, and want to learn more about the course, you can check find it at Pluralsight here.
And if you just can’t get enough, I’ve already started development on a second Pluralsight course that will focus on writing process instructions. So check back soon for details!
I’m a bit late to the party in profiling Bloodroot by Amy Greene (it came out about a year ago to great acclaim, was featured in Entertainment Weekly and many other venues, and has been routinely applauded on best-debut and best-of-the-year lists) but I wanted to add my voice to the chorus anyway—because I enjoyed Bloodroot very, very much.
First, Bloodroot is like very few things I’ve read. Set in the mountains of Tennessee, it is exotic in the best sense of the word—a lush environment full of captivating details and authentic characters that, despite their initial foreignness, feel natural and accessible, unforced. A large part of this, no doubt, is Greene’s own background—she hails from Tennessee, and writes of this world with ease and authority, so details of scene and language roll out naturally, resulting in passages like this one, from early in the book:
It doesn’t take as much to poison a horse as people think. You just have to know what to feed one. A few oleander leaves, a little sorghum grass, a bit of yellow star thistle and a horse can choke faster than the vet can get there. Tie your horse to a black locust or a chokeberry tree and it could be dead within minutes. Bloodroot is dangerous to horses too. We have a carpet of it growing down the side of our mountain when springtime comes, thriving under the shady tree canopy high above our house. Daddy says such a lush stand is rare these days…Bloodroot can be harvested in fall but the leaves have died back, so it’s harder to know where the plants are. That’s why we always make the trip in early spring, when the flowers are spread across the slope like the train of a wedding gown.
Greene never writes as an outsider, and so reveals her subject’s grace.
Plotwise, Bloodroot is primarily the story of Myra Odom, who grew up on Bloodroot Mountain and eventually abandons it for town and Johnny Odom—as well as the stormy, ultimately destructive love that blooms between them. We see the passionate and sometimes literally torturous parts of Johnny and Myra’s lives, but the expansiveness of Bloodroot also lets us see Myra’s childhood, the aftermath of her life with Johnny, and its consequences on her two children. Amidst all this, there is mystery: until the end of the book, the exact nature of Johnny and Myra’s relationship—and how it ended—is unclear. Johnny has disappeared, and Myra is implicated. Tension in Bloodroot is generated by the systematic exploration of Myra’s character, and the limitations of the other characters to know her.
Bloodroot is also a triumph of point of view, and how it can develop tension in a plot. Bloodroot is divided into multiple sections, each of which features Myra’s story through the eyes of one or more of the main characters. Though each voice is spellbinding in its own right, the sequence of perspectives serves to initially keep Myra at a distance—allowing the reader to never fully trust or understand her, almost yearn for her—and then to bring her close. By the end, where Johnny Odom is given his own say, a combination of these perspectives has been achieved, so that Myra seems at once both known and unknown, clear and mysterious and lovely.
The characters in Bloodroot are passionate and moving, bearing their struggles with dignity and pain. Their lives are hard, and more than once throughout the book I felt emotionally devastated as one more tragedy in a seemingly endless thread threatened to unravel them. Saying more about the book, I think, would wreck what made it magical, or ruin the most powerful moments for someone approaching the book for the first time. So I’ll leave it at this: Bloodroot is fantastic. Read it, by all means, read it.
I picked up Roddy Doyle’s The Deportees at San Francisco’s recent MLA convention because one of the stories had been published in the same edition of McSweeney’s as a story of mine, and I’d been curious about Doyle ever since (though I hadn’t read any more of his work until now). And while some stories, unavoidably, were better than others, I’m glad to say I wasn’t disappointed.
First of all, one of the book’s advantages is that the stories are so clearly centered on a unified theme: the recent influx of foreigners into Irish society. The project began as an observation that, sometime in the nineties, Ireland had radically changed.
What had previously been an economically downtrodden afterthought of Europe, a place where “more people left …than were born [there]”, and which attracted only scattered immigrants, many of whom for questionable purposes, had become “one of the wealthiest countries in Europe”, full of romanticized (and romanticizing) immigrants who’d watched Riverdance, seen photos of the pretty hills, and come up to see what the fuss was about. Doyle’s new Ireland is a place of cultural and racial tensions where “one out of every ten people living in Ireland wasn’t born [there]”. So Doyle started with a simple premise: write stories that all begin when someone who was born in Ireland meets someone who wasn’t, and then watch the cultures clash and realign.
There are several variations on this theme. In “Guess Who’s Coming for the Dinner”, a hard-working Irish father confronts his own latent racism when his daughter brings home a Nigerian boyfriend. In “57% Irish”, a scientist devises a governmental test to quantifiably measure something as indefinably innate as Irish nationalism. In “I Understand”, an illegal Polish immigrant deals with being shaken down and exploited by underground drug dealers who threaten to report him to the authorities. The stories range widely in terms of tone and quality, but are best when the characters confront the limitations of their own capabilities to understand—although they occasionally suffer from Doyle’s desire to force them into tolerance. But almost all interactions are at least somewhat combustible and thought-provoking.
The most useful part of the book, from a craft study perspective, comes from the context under which these stories were first written. Although McSweeney’s and other journals later reprinted them in their entirety, each work originally appeared as 800 word monthly installments in Metro Eireann, a Dublin periodical. Doyle wrote many of the stories on the fly, and claims to have frequently not known how a story would end even as previous installments were being published. This working without a net creates stories that are occasionally uneven; in Doyle’s words “characters [sometimes] disappear, because I forgot about them. Questions are asked and, sometimes, not quite answered.” There are also occasionally redundant descriptions, as Doyle takes a minute at the beginning of a new installment to recap past episodes. This format also, however, creates a fantastic tutorial on the use of tension. The artistic constraints of Doyle’s format force him to create a moment of crisis or reversal every 800 words (at most), and this crisis has to be striking enough to make readers willing to come back after waiting a month. When read together, the installments become excellent lessons in how to tell a lengthy, unified story while simultaneously compelling a reader to wonder what will happen next on a moment-by-moment basis. In a way, this is story-telling stripped to the bones. Doyle can rely on no lengthy descriptions, no interior monologues, and no dawdling exposition—each of these take up space, and space is at a premium. So he relies only on swift characterization and compelling scenes—and the results are often as entertaining as a brisk, lively stage play.
For the curious, the story published in what I’ve playfully come to think of as “my” issue of McSweeney’s was “New Boy”. I liked it well enough when I first read it, but after reading The Deportees I’d rank “New Boy” near the bottom of my favorite stories from the collection. That’s a mild indictment of the story, of course, but I hope it’s more of an endorsement of the book.
I just got back from AWP (okay, back is a strong word considering it was located here in Chicago) and it was just as energizing, intimidating, desperate, and comforting as usual. I’ll post specific responses to panels and whatnot over the next few days, but here’s a reflective tidbit to get you started:
What more can I say? I met Peggy (a poet) this weekend through a mutual friend, and on numerous occasions she was gracious, warm-hearted, and seemed to take genuine delight in introducing people in her life to one another. We had dinner at Pegasus on Friday night with a whole crew of other writers and editors, and the embarrassing buffet of sumptuous Greek food was enough to bond anyone. In addition to being a kind woman, though, Peggy is also a great poet. I highly encourage you to visit her website and check out her work. While you’re at it, why not order a book or two?
I’ll be posting additional updates/insights in the next few days, but if you simply can’t wait you check out some guest dispatches I did for therumpus.net. They’re a fun little e-zine of perceptive people, and very much worth your time.
I’ll post more updates later this week. Enjoy!
This Side of Brightness is one of the most lyrically gorgeous novels I’ve read in quite some time, with quietly lovely and delicate sentences and descriptions that reveal their subjects’ inherent dignity and grace, whether those subjects are 1920s “sandhogs” (diggers who first built the New York City subway tunnels) or the modern day homeless residing in those same tunnels. As that last sentence might suggest, Brightness follows two stories: one is that of Nathan Walker, bonded with his fellow sandhogs for life by a spectacular accident that occurs in the novels early pages; the other is that of Treefrog, who has now made a home for himself in the tunnels that Nathan helped dig. I can’t talk much about either story without giving away plot points, but suffice it to say that the material seems well-suited to McCann’s gifts as a writer, and that his eye for isolated spots of beauty in otherwise rugged worlds is put to very good use—particularly in Treefrog’s sections.
The novel has flaws, of course: it follows the two stories parallel for two-thirds of the book, and when the sandhogs’ story eventually intersects with the tunnel dwellers’ the collision is predictable, and not entirely effective. The twin storylines also create a peculiar imbalance in the pacing. Nathan’s sections, spanning seventy years, feel rushed occasionally, while Treefrog’s sections, spanning slightly over a week, often feel needlessly elongated, as McCann loses himself in the minutia of Treefrog’s world at the expense of his narrative momentum. The conflict in Treefrog’s section is also much less gripping than in Nathan’s, and weighting them equally seems like a mistake. McCann’s eye for artistic detail, however, sustains the choice. Great swaths of time in Nathan’s portions are accented by crystal clear details and scenes which slow the exposition, while Treefrog’s portions are given remarkable precision and authenticity, which (most of the time) makes them seem pristine rather than plodding. Even with the structural imbalance, therefore, I would recommend the book. If nothing else, McCann illuminates a world of New York that is often oversimplified or disregarded, giving it life and resonance. The novel has stirrings of a social consciousness that are frequently absent in contemporary fiction, but you never sense McCann exploiting or condescending to his subjects. It is a novel, to borrow a phrase from The Boston Globe, “resplendent with dignity”, and for that reason alone it merits a look.
In a frenzy of eleventh hour book-buying at December’s MLA convention (“All paperbacks three dollars! Everything must go!”) I picked up The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders, which became my book of choice for the long flight back to Chicago. I’d read Saunders’ In Persuasion Nation, but this was my—and his—first experience with a book of essays. The Braindead Megaphone can be loosely divided into three types of essays: discussions of literature (Saunders writes about Slaughterhouse Five, Huckleberry Finn, Donald Barthelme’s “The School”, and even Johnny Tremain), travel writing (see Saunders go to Dubai, England, the Mexico/America border, and Nepal—often generously funded by GQ magazine!), and political satires.
Of these three, the satires were the least engaging—often hinging upon devices like a pseudo-fictional explorations of “people reluctant to kill for an abstraction” (the most troubling of the new ideological cultures Saunders sees emerging as national borders become more malleable) and fictional proclamations from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. When Saunders writes as a persona, the effect is rarely as engaging as his authentic voice.
The literary essays and travel pieces, though, were first rate. The literary essays, in addition to being worthwhile explications, often emphasize what a particular piece/writer contributed to Saunders’ development as a writer/person, which gives them resonance. They are not dry analyses, but rather explorations about what writing can mean or do, when conditions are right. The real pearls, however, are in the travel writing. “The New Mecca” describes a trip to Dubai, Arab Emirates, and is one of the best essays I’ve read in quite some time—a heady mix of thought-provoking, touching, and funny. “The Great Divider,” which focuses on human dilemmas along the Mexican/American border, is similarly dense, an intricate, subtle portrait. A handful of essays defy these classifications, but these outliers struck me as weaker, with the worst being a dreadful essay from the POV of a dog who asks his master to stop humping on the kitchen table. It’s only a few pages, but I’d just skip it. I wouldn’t skip The Braindead Megaphone, however—particularly if you enjoy the rest of Saunders’ work. Most essays are entertaining and often moving, and the revealing glimpses of what Saunders values in and life in literature add a pleasant texture to the rest of his writing.
Like many of you, I imagine, I was very saddened by today’s announcement of Michael Crichton’s passing away of cancer at age 66. I first encountered Crichton’s books when I was in junior high, and my English teacher told me about Jurassic Park (this would have been in 1993, well before the movie). I found a copy of the book later that evening on my Dad’s bookshelf, which was itself enough to make me intrigued—he wasn’t the biggest reader, at least not of fiction. So I started reading before bed that night, and by three a.m. that morning, I was hooked…and not just for the night.
I’d always been a recreational reader, but that experience—at about twelve-years old—was the first time my heart actually pounded as a result of reading a book. I was amazed at the imagination, the tension, and the clarity. The science was fascinating, but not as much as the sense that an entirely new and vivid world had been created, yet was still akin to our own. Over the next six months, I read Sphere, The Andromeda Strain, The Terminal Man, Travels, The Great Train Robbery, and Five Patients. My first major writing project—a full length play adaptation of The Terminal Man that was probably 80% plagiarized dialog from the book—was completed about a year later, and although I literally never showed it to anyone but my mom I remember being too excited to eat dinner one night because I just so close to being finished. Over the course of that year, I discovered the joy not only of reading but of writing.
As often happens, one writer gave way to another. Crichton begat Stephen King, who begat Dean Koontz, and these gave way to English class love affairs with John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, Ernest Hemingway, and Kurt Vonnegut. Six years after that first secretive three a.m. reading binge (the first of many, over the years) I enrolled as a Writing major my freshman year of college, and followed that all the way to graduate school and my current job as a college instructor. I haven’t read Crichton’s most recent books (I stopped after The Lost World) but I’m still understandably sentimental about those early, exciting times. In fact, though my areas of study and my material as a writer have come a long way in the intervening fifteen years, you can still trace the trajectory of my life as a writer directly back to that initial experience.
On my shelf at home, near Harry Crews and Anton Chekov, is that old copy of Jurassic Park I pilfered from my Dad’s library. It’s missing its cover, its pages have yellowed, and there are more creases on its spine than on any other book I own, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to get rid of it. And I’m very glad for that… because it just got a lot more precious to me.
My condolences to Crichton’s family. May he rest in peace.