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Pay attention not only to the cultivation of knowledge but to the cultivation of qualities of the heart, so that at the end of education, not only will you be knowledgeable, but also you will be a warm-hearted and compassionate person.

~ HH the 14th Dalai Lama


Taboo: The answers

  1. Your grandma makes it--it's warm. You sleep with it.
      Answer: a quilt

  2. This is a really old famous writer.
      Answer: William Shakespeare

  3. It's Friday! It's a candybar!
      Answer: Payday

  4. It's coming out of your nose.
    • "Boogers! Snot!"
    • Yes--another word for what's happening....
        Answer: Drip

  5. (hilarious laughter) Just skip it!
      Answer: Armpit

  6. Thing in the sky. When you're little, you make fun of it.
      Answer: Uranus

  7. People who can't have regular bikes use this.
      Answer: Tricycle

  8. Uh..... no.
      Answer: Pierce Brosnon / Judge Judy

  9. When a little kid wets himself, he had a....
      Answer: Accident

  10. When you get owned, you get....
      Answer: Pawn (Internet geeks will love this)

  11. You're an animal in the jungle, and you have an abnormally large butt.
      Answer: Baboon

  12. They're white. They're really annoying.
      Answer: Seagull

Also, most disturbing outburst, followed by most awkward silence, followed by funniest/most appropriate pass on a card:

A student turned over the word "Kiss" and shouted, "Oh, this is what you do with your girlfriend!"

His partner shouted, "Fight!"

The reader said, "No, the other thing!"

Everyone went silent and looked around at each other.

The reader said, "Come on, man!"

His partner gave a nervous laugh and said, "Uh, what do you want me to say here?"

The reader waved his hand and said, "No, not that! Before that!"

His partner said, "Oh! Kiss!"

The next card they turned up was "Sexism." They skipped it.



This week I have my students playing Taboo. The exercise serves a number of functions, actually: 1) It helps them form bonds within their newly-created workshop groups; 2) it allows them to practice description by finding alternate ways of describing things or ideas, since they have to avoid the obvious descriptive terms on the cards; 3) it teaches them tactics of audience analysis, since they have to make sure their teammates can understand their alternate descriptions; 4) it gives them bonus points on their workshop grades; and 5) it's fun.

But the best part of today is that I get to walk around the room and hear some fascinating descriptions, sometimes depressing ("This is what you do on Friday nights"--"Get drunk!"; "When you've been drinking, you're eyes look..."--"Bloodshot!"), but sometimes hilarious. In fact, some of the things I overhear, whether in context or out of context, struck me as so funny I've started keeping track, and I'll share them here (watch for updates throughout the day).

For fun, I'm going to number these and leave the item being described blank. Anyone reading this, feel free to guess what my students are after here [NEW CLUES--6-8] [and EVEN MORE new clues--9-12]:

1. Your grandma makes it--it's warm. You sleep with it.
2. This is a really old famous writer.
3. It's Friday! It's a candybar!
  • 4. It's coming out of your nose.
  • "Boogers! Snot!"
  • Yes--another word for what's happening....
5. (hilarious laughter) Just skip it!
6. Thing in the sky. When you're little, you make fun of it.
7. People who can't have regular bikes use this.
8. Uh..... no.
9. When a little kid wets himself, he had a....
10. When you get owned, you get....
11. You're an animal in the jungle, and you have an abnormally large butt.
12. They're white. They're really annoying.

The most-sexist-clue award: "It's a chick who's at a game." Answer: Cheerleader.

And, strangest outburst: "You are a..." Answer (immediate--not even a pause): "Badger!" They were going for "teenager," but we are in Wisconsin, the Badger State.


I'm watching The Watchmen, that's who!

Thanks to a generous loan from a former student/current fraternity advisee, I'm reading The Watchmen. I'd long heard of the book, but back in the apex of my high-school comic nerdism, my tastes tended more toward the X-Men, a healthy dose of Spidey and the Punisher, and a handful of mainstream DarkHorse titles (if there was such a thing back then). I wasn't terribly picky in what I read, but my one fast rule back then was that if DC published it, I wasn't interested. (Alas--I had learned from bad childhood experiences to equate DC with cheap Superman and Batman runs in which the heros pontificated in long strings of spoken exposition, which even then felt horribly false to me.) Consequently, I missed out on the genius of Alan Moore (and Frank Miller, for that matter), and I am reading The Watchmen now for the first time.

Initially, I'd planned to pick it up only because the movie is due in theaters this coming spring, and I like to read the books ahead of the movies when I can (which is the main reason I subjected myself to the Twilight series this summer). But since deciding I needed to read The Watchmen, I've begun studying graphic narrative and reading more graphic novels (I finished the initial ten volumes of Neil Gaiman's Sandman this summer as well) in an effort to learn more about the medium and the genre--because I suspect it is both, and more--as I set out to write my own graphic novel. In my studies, I've seen Alan Moore's name come up repeatedly, and though I was already familiar with his stature thanks to works like V for Vendetta, From Hell, and his important additions to the Batman mythos, the book most people talk about is The Watchmen. Except they never actually talk about it--they mention Moore himself off-handedly, almost as a given, the way we might mention Shakespeare or Austen, yet they always write The Watchmen in a whisper, as though they're all afraid to inadvertantly disrespect scripture. And that seems to be the way most serious comics writers and scholars and critics approach The Watchmen, as the Bible of graphic novels. (Or, perhaps, the "New Testament" to the power of the comics medium, the "Old Testament" being Will Eisner's The Spirit, a film version of which is also due in theaters soon, this time directed by comics legend Frank Miller.)

I am barely a fourth of the way into the novel, but already I see why it is so revered. I cannot yet comment on the intricacies of the story--of the plotting and the structure as a whole--though I am already picking up on subtlties of visual structure that astound me. But even only this short distance into the story, I am amazed--awed is not too strong a word, I think--at the sheer scope of Moore's storytelling prowess, particularly as regards his understanding of character and of symbolism--which, in the comics medium, is somehow textual and visual simultaneously. Moore is famous for his angry disavowal of any film versions of his work: he insists that the comics medium is unique to the degree that no other medium, even film, can possibly accomplish what he can do in a graphic novel. I have long been prepared to disagree with him, and I am still looking forward to the film adaptation of The Watchmen, but reading this novel now, I'm beginning to see his point. And I am beginning to understand for the first time the full possibilities of the comics form, which excites me for my own writing so much that I'm hoping to assign comics to my own creative writing students, not because I can teach the form but because I am so thrilled at the potential for it and want desperately to see what students would do with it.


Passive voice

I don't lecture on passive voice with the same frequency or fervor as I did back when I taught technical/professional writing, but it's still a sticking point for me, and I like to point it out when I see it. My favorite example remains the Reagan line during the Iran Contras of the `80s: "Mistakes were made." By whom were those mistakes made, Ronnie? What a "clever" way to deflect blame! Why Bill Clinton didn't use the passive voice is beyond me--how much news coverage might we have been spared (yep--passive voice deflecting blame here, too) had he simply told us, "Sex was not had with that woman." Still, I have discovered a resurgence of the line in recent politics: Three years ago, expressing his frustration with the Bush administration's non-response to the Katrina disaster, Sen. Trent Lott told the press that "mistakes are being made" (Lott is a Republican and, angry as he was over the tragedies unfolding in his home state--his own house was destroyed by the hurricane--he was understandably reluctant to openly blame his fellow Republicans for the fiasco). And more recently, in an interview with Charlie Gibson, vice-presidential hopeful Gov. Sarah Palin explained away the military mess in Iraq and Afghanistan with the old line, "Mistakes were made."

Today, I was reading an article about hiring Amish contractors, and I discovered a convenient example of the kinds of misinformation and obscurity passive voice can create. In the article, the author extols the benefits of Amish craftsmanship and the Amish work ethic, but she follows this with a caution about the "special challenges" associated with Amish contracting:

"Imagine trying to keep in touch with a contractor who doesn't own a phone--most are forbidden to have one at home. They also aren't allowed to drive, so they need a driver or other means to get to the job site."

Most Amish "are forbidden" by whom to own a phone? The Amish "aren't allowed to drive" according to what? My problem with the passive voice here is that it implies a kind of authoritarian moral structure in which individuals or even religious texts are dictating the lifestyles of the Amish. And this simply is not true.

The answer to these questions is that those Amish who refuse phones or cars forbid themselves (or, I suppose, each other) these technological luxuries. And even this is dependent not on religious law or even widespread custom, but on individual communities. Each Amish community revolves around the Ordnung, a word referring both to the community itself and to the system of ethics and rules governing that community. Each Amish community gathers in regular meetings, presided over by community elders, and decide in an essentially democratic process what sorts of ethical and moral guidelines they would collectively like to hold each other responsible for. And most Amish elect to forgo technological luxuries because they view such luxuries as distractions from a simple, contemplative religious life. I like to refer to the Amish as secular monks, communities who choose to live highly spiritual lives focused almost exclusively on their faith and their God. For the Amish, tilling the fields and washing the linen and eating dinner all become a part of their regular religious experience; mentally, they are always "in church."

The use of the passive voice in the article confuses this important feature of Amish life. The author has made it sound like the Amish live restrictive, oppressive lives dominated by antiquated laws that originated and continue to exist outside the group or the individual. In fact, the opposite is true: the Amish choose to live their lives within the spiritual liberty of work and family, free from the distractions of our modern "English" lifestyles. The passive voice takes that away from them; I am writing this in an effort to let them have their freedom--and to correct the mistakes that were made in the article.


Dissertation vs. Novel

Today (yes, it took that long--it's been nearly a year), the bound copies of my dissertation arrived in the mail. It's an odd thing to see, this document long finished here anew in my hands, in a solid form suggesting something like legitimacy. In some ways, I dread looking through it--over the past year, while revising portions of the novel and revisiting sections of the scholarly preface, I have found many dozens of typos and whole paragraphs, even chapters I'd like to significantly rework--and since this new printed form has such an air of finality about it, it makes that dread all the worse. Still, I've been browsing the print version of the preface just now, and it turns out this isn't half so bad as I thought it was. Maybe it's simply because it is in print and appears authoritative for that: Also a year ago, around the time I was finishing this dissertation, I quoted in this blog a line from Dylan Thomas: "I always think typescript lends some sort of certainty: at least, if the things are bad then, they appear bad with conviction."

Which might explain the joy I get from the second document to arrive today. In placing my order for bound dissertations, I selected several copies in the traditional large, hardbound versions, as this is what those family members who'll receive them requested. My wife, too, demanded a large hardback version for our shelves, and of course she's right--it will look quite nice sitting next to our masters theses and her undergraduate thesis. But on a whim, I also ordered a single copy in paper, run in reduction on smaller pages so it looks like a trade paperback. That's the only difference really, but when I took to flipping through it this afternoon, I discovered it does indeed look quite like a published novel, and seeing it in that form has allowed me (rather giddily) to excuse all sorts of flaws and faults in the writing and start imagining it as a novel again.

I'm in the middle of adapting that story into a graphic novel, which has been an education in economy, in plot development, and in visual imagery (to say nothing of visual narrative and the totally new possibilities available in so different a format), but I'm beginning to wonder if I can take what revisions I've made and re-adapt them to the old novel format. (One of my earliest writing mentors used to compress his novels by rewriting them as screenplays and to develop his film characters by writing them into novels; I find myself in a similar process with this novel-to-comics endeavor.) I'm starting to think this novel might not be as hackneyed as I'd first considered it. And I might just shop this thing around in both forms.


Lost won; Fringe is frayed: a study of character vs. plot

Okay, lame title for a comparison of JJ Abrams series.

For the past several weeks I've been embroiled in an on-and-off argument with a friend of mine. It relates to how we define quality writing and how we use the terms "literary" and "genre," among other things. (I use "literary" in a positive way and until recently had been using "genre" derogatorily; she extols the virtues of "genre" and uses "literary" derogatorily, though she also considers "literary" as a kind of genre itself. This latter point I cannot disagree with and I've come to shift terms, describing the schlock I once called "genre" as "Wal-Mart fiction" or "airport novels.")

One of the issues we've hit on in our debate is the importance of plot versus the importance of character. And last night, I stumbled across an interesting comparison of the two approaches: I watched the pilot episode of Fringe, the new JJ Abrams series on Fox, and found myself comparing it to Abrams's creation Lost on ABC. Fringe, I would argue, is a plot-driven series (or, at least, the pilot was, and from what I saw of the series teaser and from what I've read in reviews, the rest of the series follows that formula). Lost, my friend and I have often agreed, is character-driven.

But, to return for a moment to the argument of craft and writing: My friend (who is finishing a PhD in creative writing from the same program I earned my degree from) has observed that most writing teachers avoid teaching or even refuse to teach plot. She contends that some people choose not to teach plot because they fail to understand plot beyond its basic elements. But I have to wonder if no one teaches more than the basics of plot because there is no more beyond the basics. Plot, in my experience, is a basic element, quickly understood and mimicked. I suppose one might look for ways to go about constructing complexity in plots, strategies for creating intricate patterns of action (I do--it's an area I continue to work on, usually without much success), but then we'd be teaching formula, which is a very different sort of writing, and it can be found more easily and more appropriately in books on the subject than it could in a classroom.

I was glad to stumble across a similar idea in the comments of Robin McKinley, a sometimes-YA author whom many would probably label a "genre" writer, though I want to argue she manages to transcend the trappings of genre and write with a literary attention to art. I've only read the one book so far, her fascinating vampire/sci-fi novel Sunshine, but the writing was good enough that I plan to read more. I also looked her up to see what she has to say about the craft, and I discovered a handful of comments in her FAQs online.

McKinley professes to be an inspiration writer, claiming her stories "come to her" or "happen to her" as though through a muse; she barely claims ownership of her own work. But that doesn't prevent her from being aware of her process and the influence she has over the stories that happen to her. She does acknowledge what my friend is seeking--the need for instruction in how to construct plots: "One of the trickiest bits about writing a story is getting the connections to look inevitable," she writes in one section of her FAQ. "When I've managed to put a scene in the wrong place, it's not merely a question of putting it in the right place; I have to rewrite all the connections too — including checking all other scenes in the vicinity to make sure there aren't references to the newly-moved scene in its old location." But she claims to have learned how to accomplish this from exactly the sources I'd have expected: not in a classroom but in books.
You can also learn a lot by sheer plagiarism, so long as you recognise that that is what it is and that it's only a writing exercise. I wrote an awful lot of very bad Tolkien pastiche when I was younger — I didn't realise what I was doing at first, but even when I began to, later on, I could see that I was learning a lot about characterisation and plot development, how you get people from one place to another, how much background you need, how to slip in information your story is going to need later, how to lay a good ambush for the innocent reader — and so I kept on with it, when I couldn't think of any stories of my own.
I love McKinley's comments because (and I suspect this is true for most writers) they sound familiar to me. I was writing great plots when I was 14 years old. Really fascinating, action-packed narratives, stories about drug dealers and alien races and genetic experiments gone wrong. But they were cartoony, with broad outlines and only four colors. I needed the attention to detail and the nuances of a nearly psychological focus on character to make my fiction live, to make it real. I'll grant you, I'd have liked more concrete suggestions on how to go back and recombine those things, but then, I don't believe it's always necessary. John Irving does--he says fiction begins and ends with plot, and to hell with anyone who says otherwise. But I disagree. I can pick up a textbook on natural science and read about the formation of the planet, and it'll be rife with plot--the world is full of conflict and action and resolution and even narrative arcs, and we don't need people to create those. But it's not story--it's science.

Alternatively, you can drop a character in an empty white room and take away all the doors and windows, and you can still have a compelling and fascinating story. There is no plot at all--nothing to accomplish, no physical action--but there's plenty of character, and I say that's where fiction begins and ends. I'm oversimplifying, I know--to simply drop in a character and describe their situation and environment is, at best, a sketch, so if the fiction is to be successful, the plot will develop from the character, and our lonely soul in the white room will slowly go mad trying to escape or else become enlightened in the acceptance of their fate, and this would be the plot. (The film Johnny Got His Gun--source text for Metallica's epic "One"--deals with an even better scenario, in which a man is hit by a mortar shell and winds up with both arms and both legs amputated, blinded by the flash and deafened by the roar of impact, and his spine severed in such a way that he's lost all sense of touch or taste or smell. He is literally left as only a mind, alone in the dark, deprived of everything--including "plot." And yet, from this, we receive narrative.) But my point is, if we write a plot and then try to place characters into it, we have a terribly difficult time making those characters believable or interesting, whereas if we write a character and then see what happens to them, the sky's the limit plotwise and we might also stumble upon art. This, I would argue, is the mode of probably 85%, maybe 90% of all contemporary literary art.

Anne Lamott agrees, I'm happy to say. In her book Bird by Bird--a simple text on writing, famous for its often-anthologized chapter "Shitty First Drafts"--she writes a chapter on "Plot":
Plot grows out of character. If you focus on who the people in your story are, if you sit and write about two people you know and are getting to know better day by day, something is bound to happen.

Characters should not, conversely, serve as pawns for some plot you've dreamed up. Any plot you impose on your characters will be onomatopoetic: PLOT. I say don't worry about plot. Worry about the characters.
Which brings me back to JJ Abrams.

My friend and I are both Lost fans. (I would say "fanatics," but I've read some of the Lostpedia, and I know how obsessive the real fanatics can be, so I won't diminish their devotion to the show by claiming to be one of them.) We both love the show for similar reasons, and when we both first began geeking out over Lost, we mentioned how terrifically character-driven the show is. I've read interviews with Abrams and the other creators expressing exactly this intent: that the show was intended as a study of characters, both of individual characters and of their interactions with each other. Whatever plot developed (and until recently the writers freely admitted that there was no plot--they were just making things up as they went), the story was directly dependent on the nature of the characters. The pilot episode of Lost begins with a close-up on Jack's eye precisely to illustrate that whatever we're about to see is going to be through Jack's experience, from his perspective, focused (if you'll excuse the pun) on Jack's character. And, true to form, most of the first-season episodes begin in the same way--a close-up on a character's eyes to hint at that episode's focus on that character. The show dropped the visual device eventually, but with the exception of a few season-three missteps, it has never abandoned its focus on character. Yet it also boasts some of the most complex plotting in the history of television, and it does this not through any speculative sci-fi formulas but through following the natural developments and possible interactions (a Buddhist would say interdependence) of its characters.

Last night's pilot for Fringe, co-created by Abrams, lost all that magic and settled instead for the coincidences, conveniences, and forced developments of a plot-driven narrative. Like Lost, it begins with a plane crash, and like Lost, it relies on some vast underlying conspiracy and strange, inexplicable events to set up the situations in which the characters exist. But the characters are never characters. They're "Sort of Smart but Really Just Lucky FBI Agent," "FBI Agent's Lover Who Is Also An Agent," "Creepy Boss Who Seems At First to Be A Jerk But Who Really Has a Secret Agenda," "Mad Scientist" (I'm not making this up--it gets that cliche), "Mad Scientist's Brilliant But Edgy Son," and, of course, "The Villain." We're never expected to question these characters or really even care about them--we begin the story with "an incident" on a plane (all shock and horror, but not much substance), which thrusts our agents into the plot without more than a 30-second introduction, and the "action" (if you can call it that) railroads us through the rest of the episode. There is no concern on the part of the writers for who these people are, why they do what they do, what the implications are for them. They are tools in the story.

This is why Fringe failed for me as a show, and it serves as an interesting example of my problem with formulaic, plot-driven narrative as opposed to the introspective, character-driven narrative exemplified by Lost. Even though they're from the same creator.


An assignment for me

My students are busily typing away at an assignment I've given them. Which surprises me. Ordinarily, when I bring my classes to a computer lab, I have to all but beat students away from IM, Facebook, YouTube, or any of the other distractions I, too, would ordinarily have open in side windows. But either they're getting better at hiding their in-class extracurricular activities, or they're genuinely interested in getting some writing done. Better in class than at home, which is why I'm offering them the opportunity in the first place.

But it creates a kind of onus, I think, that I should write alongside them, and so here I am.

Worse, I once joked that I should tackle their assignments in order to set an example, and though I'm reluctant to do so while they're still working on a piece (I wouldn't want anyone to feel even subconsciously beholden to imitate me), I do believe in modeling as an educational tool. The good news: They've already turned in a much shorter version of this same assignment, so I will tackle it.

The assignment: To write a short credo about my views related to community. (I'm basing these assignments on suggestions from curriculum offered by the This I Believe series on NPR, but I've tailored it to my particular classroom project.)

Yesterday, I was writing in my online classroom site about the origins of the word community, because a student had made some guesses about the etymology and the intentions of "the founder of the word community." I promised I'd look into it, because I'm a geek and enjoy such investigations, and I did so that very evening. I discovered (thank you, OED) that the word stems from an early Latin noun communis, an abstraction meaning "fellowship, community of relations or feelings."

But this word in turn developed from the Latin roots that form our contemporary word "common." There are differing theories about how these roots originally combined, but I prefer the combination of com ("together") and munis ("bound" or "under obligation"), because it reinforces my belief that a community holds certain communal or social obligations, whether the whole is somehow obligated to assist its individual members or each of the members is obligated to assist the whole (why not both?).

And this is what I believe about community: that it is a group of people who, for whatever reason (and these are myriad) come together for mutual support and compassion, who understand each other to the best of their capacity and seek to help each other for the common good.

Or, this is what it should be.


"The Bullet Surprise," courtesy of "beta amphetamine"

My friend Beth Ann Fennelly has a new book of of poetry out, Unmentionables, which I've been salivating for since I finished her nonfiction book Great with Child a year ago. I haven't ordered it yet, but I've been thinking about the book, so to whet my yearning I've picked up an old favorite, her book Tender Hooks, to browse the poems there. If "browse" is possible--it's accidentally apt, her title, because while there's nothing "tender" about her poems (they are sweet, but sweet the way of baker's chocolate, sharp and honest and un-sugared), they do tend to reel me into them, to snare me so I have little choice but to read the next poem, and the next poem, and the next. She's a hell of an angler, Beth Ann.

Anyway, in reading the next poem tonight, I found all over again a section that reminded me that this is my first week back in the classroom, teaching--what else?--freshman comp. It's the second section of her disjointed but delicious poem "A Study of Writing Habits":

2. It's a Doggy-Dog World

for poets who grow up to be comp teachers
because our spelling is recked forever
so are our idioms and old wise tales

a student writes of the novel
that won "the Bullet Surprise"
it drives her "out of my mime"

It's good to keep a sense of humor
if your name sounds like "beta amphetamine"
and you find yourself thinking
when you're supposed to be sleeping
a bullet surprise would be fine


This afternoon, before I indulged in a Beth Ann Fennelly fix, I finished reading Robin McKinley's Sunshine, a fascinating and well-written sci-fi/vampire novel. I liked her prose and her imagination enough to look her up online (my wife's a HUGE fan, but I'm new to McKinley), and as I was browsing her FAQs, I found a neat little paragraph about what Anne Lamott famously calls "shitty first drafts":

And you don't have to think you've got it all right and perfect to be proud of what you've done. If you come to the end of a story or any piece of writing you've sweated and bled over, and you can look at it and say, I've done the best I know how to do, and really, it's not at all bad — then you've done very well indeed. Give yourself a pat on the back — and then get on with the next story, the next thing.
If any of my students are reading this right now--this is what I mean by permission to screw up, permission to revise, and permission to move on.


New journey, no map

I've been neglecting this blog nearly all summer. That doesn't mean I've been neglecting my writing, of course: I've written reviews of the books I've read, I've typed up my journals from my trip to Scotland (and written a 20,000-word photodocumentary of the trip for friends and family), I've worked on stories and even started adapting my novel into a graphic novel. And since this blog is, presumably, for my students, I suppose I can excuse myself for writing elsewhere these past few months. But then, when I started this last September, I claimed I wanted to demonstrate writing practice, and when I end each academic year in the spring, I send my students away with the reminder that writing doesn't adhere to a calendar, so I also suppose, if I'm being honest, that I ought to extend this visible means of writing practice into the summer months myself. But I chose to write elsewhere.

So be it.

I'm back now, is all I know--here to begin anew, to rediscover Natalie Goldberg's "beginner's mind," to remember that "each time [I sit down to write] is a new journey with no maps." After a long and meandering hiatus, here I've wandered into this blog again. So I write on.

Mapless or not, I've been thinking of setting myself certain goals this semester, at least related to this blog. So, for myself, here's what I hope to do:
  • I'll try to post at least once a week.
  • I'll try to keep tabs on the writing I'm doing, even if I'm not doing that writing here.
  • I'll occasionally comment on the teaching craft, perhaps as a means of developing an idea I've had for a book on teaching.
  • And, because I enjoy the stupid things, I'll keep tossing in any meme I find related to reading or writing or creativity in general, because, well, why not.
At least, that's the plan. But now that I've made the map, I'll go ahead and throw it away, because frankly, I often find wandering more fruitful, when I have the time to do so.