It’s been a long time. TOO long. But here I am. Writing these words is a declaration. They pull up memories of catastrophic illness, near death, recovery, rehabilitation and triumph. I thank God for every moment, for every breath. Each experience paves the way for the next. Gratitude!
OFF. Yep, I said that. Sometimes we can work so diligently on a project that we lose sight of the larger picture. We’ve heard it again and again; and I’ve caught myself repeating it ad nauseum to my students. All writing is rewriting. “You have to edit and revise; and never fall in love with your first draft,” as I hand back that story with more misspellings than I can stand on the first page, no less. But you also have to know when to back away from your work and give that play, poem or essay a little breathing room. We also have to learn when a work is finished.
It’s a delicate balance to be sure. Let me be quick to point out that first, we must give our work the time and attention it needs to develop before we back away. No one can fully know when that moment occurs until we’ve developed those skills through trail and error. That’s what devotion to our craft brings. With time, we become intimate with how we create, hopefully while learning how to remain open and flexible enough to savor those serendipitous moments when everything flows effortlessly. Right?!
Not even close most of the time! But when it does flow, we have to ride it like it’s the last time it will happen. But, that’s what neophytes think isn’t it? That we spit out fully formed sentences, ideas, essays and plays; or that the serendipity is an “anointing” that we writers have? We’ve all been there at that point when we think our work hits the mark. More than likely, if you’re worth your pronouns and participles, you’re worrying after mailing off that manuscript or hitting the send button when you turn in that assignment, “I could have given it one more edit!” That’s part of the writers’ life, isn’t it?
We’ve got to learn the same balance that we did when we learned to ride our bikes without training wheels. We figure it out by falling off a couple of times and hopefully we’ve survived with little more than a few skinned knees, elbows and egos. Sometimes not. But that’s the way it goes. We can only figure it out while we’re doing it. Sometimes we’ve had to get off that bike and take a different approach while rebuilding our confidence and assessing our skills.
There are often no short cuts to the learning process. It happens how and when it must , but only when we’re open to it. So, I write this to remind myself. Let me give my writing all I’ve got. Let me be open to change and be flexible enough to capture those serendipitous moments. Let me back away to get a fresh perspective while I’m creating. Let me know when the darn thing is finished.
Can it be? Have I not blogged since February? Yep, looks that way. But, I’ve written…and oh how I’ve written. I finally finished the play, The C. A. Lyons Project, edited the novel, Moon Over Miami and edited a short story, One Night. I’ve just not blogged. But doesn’t a blogger blog? Isn’t this part of the blogging process, to be disciplined enough to blog regularly? Have I failed by not blogging regularly?
That’s a matter of opinion, isn’t it? Part of what writers – okay some writers – do is to beat ourselves up about what we don’t write, about what we didn’t complete. I thought about this when I hadn’t made what I thought was enough progress on my play.
It was a harrowing time. Personal challenges notwithstanding, I taught three high school classes, 35 miles away two days a week – a total of 140 miles; matriculated as a full time graduate student while freaking out because my PC crashed before I’d transferred all the files to the MAC. Did I mention I was in the throes of grief after having lost one of my dearest friends to cancer? Yet, there I sat remorseful because I hadn’t written enough. Imagine that!
No! I’m not looking for the sympathy card here. Rather, I’m laughing at myself. The wisdom of Beau O’Reilly, my graduate advisor echoes. He sat there as patient as Buddha as I apologized for not having made enough progress on my manuscript. That brilliant man simply ignored me.
“How are things going?”
I ticked off the items on my list.
“And you’re teaching still?”
“How many classes?”
“And you’re not doing enough?”
Catholic guilt is a monster. I’d accomplished so much, but all I could look at was what I hadn’t completed, at what I hadn’t accomplished. Gass half empty VS half full? All I could do was laugh because I lost sight of what’s important. It helps to have someone to remind us to focus on the larger picture.
When the boat is rocking on the waves and struggling to make it to shore, a beacon of light sure does help. Thanks Beau!
CODA: As I completed the edit of this blog, I looked up to see a full rainbow!
The novelist J. K. Rowling indicated that failure is responsible for the mega-writer that she is today. Last week, I came up short. I failed. It doesn’t matter what personal challenges I had or whatever else I had on board, but I hadn’t fully completed an assignment. I had read the article, but I hadn’t completed my response. I had done 80%, but that doesn’t cut it. It was humbling to accept this, but it also put more fire in my belly! If this means I’ve got to put more time, effort into my work, then so be it. And you gotta believe that it didn’t matter if I got 2.5 or zero hours of sleep, but my next assignment was done.
Intention is one thing, but as an AWAI blog indicated, it doesn’t replace efficacy. I can hear my mother’s voice: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” So, it doesn’t matter if I intended to be successful. What matters is whether or not I had accomplished my academic goals and tasks effectively.
I was reminded of this as I stood on the platform without a train ticket the first week of class. The ticket machine was down; it’s broken as often as the elevator. Get it together METRA and while you’re at it, how about a discount for college students who are forced to ride your train because they have no other alternatives? Those who live off the main transportation routes know what I mean. Already strapped with expanding educational costs, we struggle to make it to class. I digress…so there I was forced to pay a surcharge because their machine didn’t work. That surcharge ate up my lunch money. The operator instructed me to go to the teller for redress. However, that would have made me late for my first class, which was unacceptable! First impressions are everything and more importantly, I didn’t want to miss a thing.
So, I sucked it up and went to class – a 9 AM – 4 PM daylong workshop, by the way. As my stomach churned I was reminded of what’s important. So what if it means that I have to manage hunger or deal with lack of sleep. My job right now is to put extraordinary effort, – make that effective effort into successfully accomplishing my tasks.
I survived my first semester in graduate school! I wrote far less than I wanted, yet more than I’d expected. I met incredibly talented writers who cared as much about their own work as that of their peers. I was fortunate enough to have two advisors for my independent projects who not only got my work, but they got me: a quirky writer – OK, all writers are quirky, I’ll give you that. They provided insight and constructive critique that nudged me on when I got stuck; and they encouraged me to keep flying when I found my writers’ wings. I was also blessed to have some professors whose work and teaching inspired me. I rediscovered the works of short story writers I hadn’t read in eons and discovered new ones. I made headway on a play about dancers that sat on the back burner for longer than I’m willing to admit. I greatly benefitted from group critique from students in the Photography, Visual and Critical Studies and the Writing Departments.
With the year’s end, I’m taking everything into account as I move forward. I believe that I’m becoming a better teacher and a better student, although there is major room for improvement. Seriously? I’ve not yet hit any stride that I can celebrate – what writer does?! We are duty bound, it seems, to live, sit and stay in the land of critique. It’s a force of habit and I’m just not able to turn the critic off for too long!
I critiqued my teachers as I critiqued my own teaching. I learned how to pay greater attention to issues of inclusion, bringing some students out without shining an unwanted spotlight on those who felt uncomfortable under such a glare. With others, I failed miserably. I learned to forgive those mistakes and use them to expand my pedagogy. I learned to continue to push for all students to be heard and to encourage fledgling efforts in an equitable manner, leaving no student feeling as if their work had been slighted. There is nothing worse than the look of disappointment on the face of a writer whose work is glossed over in cursory critique, while another’s is given fully more than his/her share of class time.
I critiqued my role as a student. I was disappointed when I was just too spent to write another word, feeling as if I had “left it all on the floor” and hadn’t! I chided myself when I fell in love/lust with my first draft…my #1 TEACHING NO NO, along with failure to adequately revise and edit! I watched my reaction when I didn’t get the type of feedback that I anticipated. I accepted that I was there to improve my writing and I pushed back when my work was misunderstood or misrepresented. I reminded myself who I was and was becoming as a writer; and why I wrote: to be an effective communicator of ideas and NOT for any particular person‘s approval. Finally, I reminded myself that if I am to become a more effective writer that my primary purpose is to become fully invested in the learning process among a community of talented, dedicated wordsmiths.
I want to think that I engaged in enough self-examination to check my biases at the door or at least to confront them. Hopefully I demonstrated a measure of grace when I heard an ignorant, racist or ageist statement, or when something I wrote was exoticized, based on ideas about the author and her culture. Maybe I found a way to confront that type of ignorance in a strong but non-confrontational way (Impossible?!) while not demonizing the “offender”. I hope I learned to be a better listener, more tolerant of work that I did not particularly like but somehow learned to find something of value in it anyway.
Finally, I hope that I was able to quell some of my fear of ageism in the academy, both others and my own. Some of it was unfounded. Sadly, some of it was not! I was surprised when I chalked up some of what I heard and read to youthful naivete and some to the core development of voice, style and content in a writer’s work. I pray that I remained open to other perspectives and didn’t patronize writers’ work, while I brought some of the wisdom of lived experience to my comments and critiques.
Despite the tragedy of losing my brother at the start of the semester and dealing with a dear friend facing terminal illnesses, I am thankful that I was able to remain focused on my work and the incredible opportunity to pursue my MFA. All and all, this was a good year.
December 21, 2011
Settling into a routine after the first dizzying weeks of graduate school, I had come to enjoy the solitude of my nearly mile long walk to the train. The weather was perfect in that crisp Midwestern way. Shades of green tilted yellow not quite slipping into russet.
Criss-crossing the street where one sidewalk ends and another begins, I thought about the journey that my education had taken. I recalled walking to grammar school with my big brother. That half mile trek seemed more like ten to my six year old legs. I recounted walking nearly three miles each way to and from high school, mostly because the bus schedule was inconvenient. I soon came to relish that walk.
When I reviewed the college years, the series of starts and stops that my college education had taken can to mind. I didn’t consider myself an unconventional student when I returned to finish undergrad as a 36 year old mother with a new baby and an adorable eight year old daughter. I did my homework along with her and read Vygotsky, Luria and Piaget while I nursed my son. Learning became integrated into every facet of our lives. We learned math while we cooked; fluid dynamics during bath time; and debate when it came time for bed.
I wanted to make learning a seamless fun experience in contrast to my own schooling. God bless the nuns who ran our school with an iron paddle, and God bless bibliophile parents who had me reading by four. My own educator mother having completed her k-12 education as a day student in a strict Catholic all girls boarding school, was a no-nonsense educator, as in dinner, homework, bath and bed. She was definitely all business when it came to school and educating her brood. None of this was fun, it was all work.
I’ve got this thing…it has to do with meaning. My life and my actions have to mean something. If I couldn’t figure out why I was learning something, or if I couldn’t find a practical use for it, then learning it made no sense to me. If I had a cognitive hiccup along the way with something like “new” math, and couldn’t figure it out, it was like my brain quit. Frustrated by my own visual/kinetic learning styles, and the sit-still-be-quiet-pay-attention routine favored by educators then – okay, it still happens today – I came to hate school.
By the time I made my way back to the classroom to get that undergraduate degree, I’d made peace with my own learning styles; and mercifully I had begun to understand the politics of the classroom. I discovered that not only did I love learning but I found the motivation to accomplish those educational goals.
The image of the Sankofa, an Adinkra symbol from Ghana came to mind as I walked to the train station that fall day. More than any other, its image of the bird moving forward while looking back perhaps best symbolized my journey. I was moving forward, but with the wisdom learned from the past.
I moved forward with confidence as I neared the station entry with ten minutes to spare. That train got me to school an hour earlier than class, which was my routine. Just then, I noticed that my favorite linen jacket was no longer on my arm. It sat in the middle of the sidewalk, at least two blocks back, its crumpled green heap just visible at a rise in the concrete . My leisurely walk turned into a mad sprint as I ran back to fetch my jacket and returned just in time to catch my train.
About a week before I started my MFA program, my eldest brother Jesse died. We were saddened and both relieved because he’d been in hospice with terminal cancer for nearly two years. Not only had the cancer destroyed his brain, but my brother, an adult man of color living with schizophrenia had experienced tragedy and health troubles throughout his entire life.
Jesse had hyper-graphia and only wrote in red ink. The growing mountain of tablets did not sate his need to write. He wrote non-stop. So did I. He heard voices. I channeled mine through characters and their dialogue. He became a social outcast as do many people with mental illness. I became a writer. His behavior institutionalized him. Mine earned me publication, audiences, stagings and productions of my work.
Perhaps, I found voice and writing because of the things that he could write, but never say. Jesse, may you rest in peace, brother.