Posts Tagged ‘lessons’

I am a bad blogger.

Granted, I can use the but-I’m-teaching-a-summer-course excuse, and that is a good reason to have huge gaps on your blog. But I am also a horrible procrastinator, so when I’m online I spend my time reading design*sponge and watching “Lost in Austen” on Netflix. (I thought the concept for this miniseries had the potential to be fun: a modern day Jane Austen fan switches places with Elizabeth Bennet, thus causing havoc in the world of Pride and Prejudice. But I stopped watching it about an hour in because I didn’t like it.)

Perhaps the habit of blogging isn’t so important, but I believe I need to cultivate more habits of discipline in my life. I’ve heard and read many times–mostly in spiritual contexts–that discipline is liberating. The more I live with myself as an adult, the more this makes sense. Like how I tell my students, now and again, that rules are what allow creativity and originality to blossom.

I tell them things like that, usually because something I’ve said (or they’ve said) sets me off on a ramble on one of my pet subjects. I used to worry about these diversions, but not any more. I think one of the most basic truths about teaching is that you have to be yourself; and this is doubly true of teaching writing. Even if that means going off on the occasional tangent or simply being a little weird. (I have also reached the point where I simply don’t get embarrassed in class. Ever. I need to learn how to do that as a student.)

Today was my fourth 3-hour-long class (of twelve). I am surprised, every day, at how quickly these three hours pass. At the fact that they are full, and that hardly anyone ever looks like they’re about to fall asleep. To a large extent this is because I’ve been blessed with good students; they have a lot to say, they are perceptive readers, and they are serious about writing. Thank goodness.

I told them on the first day that while I would try for variety, I was only going to teach from stories that I loved. That is all I can do, really: share with them from my store of treasures that nourish me as a writer, and hope it also speaks to them. I can usually judge who connects with what by their faces, by their level of participation–and no, not everyone loves what I do. That is okay.

We have talked about dialogue, characterization, point of view. Today the topic was Plot, and I don’t think it was a coincidence that eyes wandered to windows and empty corners of the classroom. Now and then I would catch one of those deep, involuntary sighs coming from a desk outside my range of vision. Time still passed quickly enough; but I set all of us free early. Plot is not my favorite subject. I don’t know how to talk about it. So I borrowed words that didn’t move me, words that I didn’t care too much about when I was an undergrad. Maybe I could have found some excitement in Plot; maybe I would have tried harder if I knew my own lack of enthusiasm would affect the classroom so much. But part of the problem was that it was reciprocal:

I say words that aren’t mine because I don’t have many of my own to say;

I am faced with eyes that are glazed over or squinting skeptically;

I catch the same itch to get things over with as quickly and painlessly as possible, so I barrel on through.

Perhaps this situation falls under the first soundbite I stole for this class: 1 character (complete with personality, desire, etc etc) + situation (say, a classroom) = plot (things happen, which causes the character to act, which causes more things to happen).

The latter half of the class was devoted to structure, which does interest me; the way relationships other than strict cause-and-effect can be implied, the way a story changes when you fiddle with how it’s put together. But by then we’d been in class an hour and a half already and lost steam.

But I feel pretty good about the other three classes, and hopeful about the next (Setting and Detail).


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I am, for the first time, writing about people who I have known in my life.

It’s kind of funny. People have often assumed, when they find out I am a writer (“Do you mean journalism?” “No, I write fiction.” “What do you want to write? Books?” “Hopefully.” “Books about what?”) that I will write about them, about my own life. Coworkers at workplaces teased me about finding themselves in my future books. Friends ask where I get my characters–if I model them on real people. My uncle jokes that I don’t have enough experience to write yet.

It is this mixture of curiosity, laughter, and sometimes skepticism. But part of it is often serious.

I’ve always said no. You will not be in my books. None of my workplaces, none of my friends. I’ve never had the desire to write about real people. The effort to capture someone on the page–especially someone you know well–to be faithful to them and follow them, is too much stress, to much responsibility. I have always felt it would mean surrendering the freedom of creation. To try and know what a person you really know would do and say and think–it is too much, it is not the same as the exhilaration of letting a character define himself as you define him. The limit of my “real life” characters was when I planned on killing off a teacher in a NaNoWriMo novel.

(I should clarify this. First of all, I never reached that point in the novel, so the character never died. Second of all, I have no personal grudge against this teacher–I got an A in the class–but the personality was too perfectly suited to this character’s role to pass up. Thirdly, it would have been an awesome and mysterious death, and very important to the novel.)

But lately I have been writing–or trying to write–a story about a family I knew growing up.

They are definitely the same people. The same wife and husband are married to each other, with the same children–although one of them is male and dead rather than female and alive, and they are younger than when I knew them. The father has the same hobbies. The mother has the same creativity. Various members have their various medical issues. Although the central event of the story is made up, it is based on two things that actually happened to this particular family. And I know that, outside of the story’s scope, this family will suffer the same losses.

But they are not the family I knew.

In fact, I find myself needing to completely forget, as far as possible, that these real people existed. To make the story even possible, I need to take it from them and give it to these other people: my characters, who must be free to think their own thoughts and live their own lives. I may even need to give the wife a different face, because she is stuck: stuck trying to be true to the real woman that, after all, I knew very little about.

The past few days I have been freewriting about this story, discovering things about these people–the characters, rather than the people whose street I remember, who are so richly complicated that I could not possibly capture them. (And that is one of the dangers: I want to put in everything I know about this family. Everything I remember. But I can’t. I can’t possibly.)

And I’m realizing, now, there are all sorts of ways I can write about the people I know, the things in my own life. To have a girl, somewhere, sometime, who is afraid and goes down steps one at a time; to have someone who feeds Oreos every evening to skunks in the back yard; to have the mother in charge of the children painting the set for the Wizard of Oz following the little boy who is painting v after v–“eagle” after “eagle”–in the sky and painting over them; to have a rented house with white carpet in the kitchen that the landlady always examines closely every time she visits … these are gifts to me as a writer. Facts that can be borrowed, rearranged, rewritten in the search for truth.

These people have given me their story, and perhaps part of my respect for them should be to make sure it is not them I am writing about.


I have just written the first rendered scene of this draft. First as in “first one I’ve written,” not “first in the narrative.” I would like also to write the beginning today. We’ll see.


And shoot, now I want to write that death. I do need to write that novel someday.

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My Seminar in Composition class has a regular cycle throughout the semester. We read and discuss an essay (most recently “Deep Play” Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” by Clifford Geertz), along with all the attendant discussion board posts and in-class writing exercises; the students write an essay related to that reading; we workshop certain essays and move on.

The workshop phase is meant to use student writing to learn about writing, to provide the class with something concrete they can work with and hopefully apply to their own writing.

Generally there are patterns in each batch of essays that need to be addressed. For example, in these Geertz essays, the students were very adept at describing the symbolism in various cultural “texts,” from Confirmation to boxing to prom, much as Geertz explains the symbolism of cocks in Balinese society. But unlike Geertz, most of them didn’t go much farther. Geertz treats the cockfight as a text that is saying something about something. Most of my students were able to show what their “texts” were speaking about (the second “something”), but not what was being said (the first “something”), or to whom.

So yesterday I brought an essay in where the first “something” was implicit, but not brought out, not pushed, perhaps not even seen by the student author. The themes of the “text” of confirmation–religious identity, responsibility, maturity–were aptly described, but not interpreted. So we talked about questions the author could ask to push the essay into interpretation: what does confirmation say about these things?

However, as I read the questions I had them ask of their own essays at the end of the workshop, I am realizing something didn’t quite click. I’m also realizing that it’s my fault. I assumed (as I do sometimes) that the connections I see between the things I have them do in the classroom–finding instances of certain language, pulling out themes, asking questions–are obvious. They are in my head. They are not to my students. I was not explicit enough.

The hard thing is that when you don’t make the connections then, you can’t really come back to it again. I mean, I could have them do the exact same things tomorrow and then be explicit. Or say, “hey, remember yesterday?” Both of which would annoy and bore my students.

This is a lesson I keep on learning and relearning, and I guess it’s one that only sticks with experience. My hope is that, in addition to learning better how to lead a classroom, my mistakes can help me read my students’ writing, to see the connections that are not made and help them see how to make them.

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I have spent the past hour revising, more or less. (Actually, I’ve had the document open for an hour and forty-five minutes; but there is twitter, and gmail, and other things that unfortunately reside on the same computer as my stories.)

Revising is a big deal in the class I teach. What I tell my students around midterm, when their first major revision is due, is that revision, in the case of our Seminar in Composition course, does not mean editing. It doesn’t mean tinkering with punctuation and fixing grammatical errors, polishing up an already finished product. It means to re-see their essays, to treat them like a stage in a process which they are now continuing.

Despite this often repeated reminder, last semester I got a few essays that I couldn’t distinguish from the originals except by holding them side by side and comparing them line by line. I imagine the same thing will happen this semester. As a teacher, it is pretty frustrating. As a writer, I understand where they’re coming from.

The fact is, I’m not sure I even know how to revise. I’m pretty good at editing, and always have been–making prose clearer, more concise or more developed, fixing the sound of sentences.

But the past few days I’ve been working on a short story I wrote in the fall, and it’s been slow going. Yes, I have been revising for (more or less) the past hour and a half. But what is the fruit of that hour and a half? Well, first there’s the italicized three paragraphs I added two days ago. There I did some editing on the sentence level; one line added; the last two paragraphs deleted (and saved in a separate word document, because I’m not sure I want to get rid of them yet). Three lines added elsewhere; a very clunky line added with a bold note to self it needs to be fixed.

All of this is struggling towards developing the layers this story possesses, but in an underdeveloped way. My attempts at fleshing them out feel less than subtle. It does not feel like I’ve done an hour’s worth of writing; and it is a bit frustrating that half of that writing was the deletion of what I wrote last time.

I suppose that’s the nature of the craft, and the only way to learn is by doing. I find I can’t go at it day after day; in order to (re)see clearly, I need to set the story aside long enough to come back and find it fresh–but not so long that it slips away from me and we need to get reacquainted. Right now it is something of an ungraceful dance.

When I draft, I follow my nose. When I revise, I try to see what I’ve done and make it better. What I need to learn is how to see clearly.

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As I prepare for the semester to start tomorrow–for my own classes, and the nineteen freshmen faces that will look at me with expectation that I will Know Things and be able to teach them–I am once again lamenting how short break is. Two weeks is not long enough.

It also strikes me as crazy that I am entering another semester of grad school. I am firmly lodged in this phase of life now. It almost feels like home. And that is what I love about academia–the familiarity of it, even while it is ever new.

A couple of days ago, I phoned a friend I hadn’t seen or talked to in more than a year. We last saw each other in the summer of 2008, back when I still had long hair, wanted to be a missionary with FOCUS, and was still aching from the events of the previous spring.

So we had a lot to catch up on–not little stories to tell, but the big picture. Which was pretty big, considering that I graduated from college, moved to the city, and started grad school–none of which were even on my mind last year. What I told her on the phone boiled down to a summary of 2009, and she was amazed (as I continually am) at the unity of it, how everything that has happened came together like threads in a story. That doesn’t happen very often.

Another friend of mine asked me what lesson learned stuck most in my mind from the past year. The answer is the thread that binds my stories together: I have learned about Trust.

As I neared graduation, I felt pretty ambivalent about my future. I was applying to grad school–one grad school–and to be a missionary with an organization called FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students). But I wasn’t all that enthusiastic about either of them. Mostly, I was scared I wouldn’t get accepted anywhere, and would be stuck working at the grocery store with a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing. Or, that I would get accepted to both places, and would make the wrong decision.

It was the latter fear that ruled me when I got accepted to the University of Pittsburgh with full funding. That day I went to the chapel and cried, asking God: “You aren’t going to make this easy, are you?”

But I learned a very important lesson: that you need not fear when making a choice between Good Things. That who you are matters more than what you do, and that life is a collaborative effort between you and God; and He can shape all things into something beautiful, if you live with an open heart.

Trust, in this case, was not waiting for a sign. Rather, it was discerning where my heart was leading me and believing that God would bless my decision, whatever it was.

I have learned, too, how to trust and live in the present moment. Or at least, I am learning this. To accept the gifts of the present–a relationship, for example–without the fear of losing them; to accept something as holy and blessed and beautiful in itself that will be brought to its proper fulfillment in the right time. Here, perhaps, trust sounds passive. Not at all! Patience and waiting are anything but passive, even if they are at times still. Trust is a dance, not a homogeneous and unchanging state of mind.

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned about trust is that it is not felt, but lived. (Oh, there are so many things that are like this! Love, faith, patience … all the virtues, even at their most human and least spiritual levels; but it is trust that makes the living possible without the feeling.)

I have, sadly, learned also of the places where trust doesn’t fit. The relationships it no longer belongs in, or the varying levels it operates at–where it opens doors and where it must close them. Whether it is appropriate for forgiveness to renew trust, or leave it in the past. In human relationships where trust is absent, where it must withdraw and close the door, the trust must rush upward. When there is nothing more to be done, it must be given over. And that letting go–that leaving people at God’s feet, or inside the tabernacle with the Eucharist–that is trust.

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