On Another School Year Starting

Though the locations have shifted (Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, South Dakota, Ohio, and Texas) over my years as a student and teacher, what has not changed is my excitement and joy at the start of a new school year. I am beginning my 13th year teaching college, my fourth year at my current institution. Even when I was a student through my 25 years of formal education, I had this energy building up as the middle of August approached.

Part of what (among many things I could list) I love about the college teaching experience is a new start each semester. There’s so much possibility. A different slate of classes. Different sets of students. A certain combination of freshness and the predictable. Even when I use the exact same texts in a class (as I am in one course this fall), the student population is obviously different, and that’s what I find so enjoyable. And there’s the spontaneity factor–I can never know with any degree of certainty how a class session will go, what direction(s) it will take.

While I am often excited for Spring Semester to start (especially when I lived in colder climates because that meant warmer weather would–eventually–be on the way), it would not be the same degree of excitement. When fall semester arrives, I’ve been refreshed by the summer break, nervous to meet my new students, eager to try varied approaches. With the length of the summer break, I’ve had time and space to reflect on what I did in the prior iteration(s) of courses, considering ways I could make them better, even more meaningful for the students, as well as for me.

It sounds cliche to say it, but I’m always learning from my students in so many ways. They come up with those unexpected insights, those off-the-wall topics that keep me fresh and interested as a professor. In my fall Creative Writing course, I find myself excited about the stories my students will tell (both in short fiction and in creative nonfiction), and eager to help them take those initial drafts through various stages of development, offering words and ideas to nudge them along as they try to tell those stories as artfully, as well as they can.

Over these years, I still remember the names and faces of some students from all of those classes in all those places. I still remember some names and faces from my very first class as an MFA teaching assistant in fall 2002, my 7:30 MWF section in the basement of Weld Hall, the floor covered with ’80s-era orange carpet. I even remember topics of papers over the years. (Joey wrote an argument essay about __________. Kayla wrote a short story about ___________.) I occasionally find myself wondering about a former student, wondering about the direction the student eventually ventured.

I haven’t counted the number of students I’ve taught over a dozen years, and I certainly haven’t attempted to count the total words of student writing I’ve read. And as each fall begins, I try not to think hard about what year the current freshman population was (on average) born in. (Doing so would produce all kinds of emotions.) School is in my DNA, and the school calendar is also.

On Editing (#2)

2 months ago I wrote about my experiences as a guest fiction editor for a newer journal, Driftwood Press. At the end of that post, I referred to other kinds of editing I’ve done, adding that I would write at a later date about some of those experiences. Today, I thought I’d share about a wonderful editorial experience I had two summers ago.

One of my pastors, Austin Fischer, approached me about offering a critique of his manuscript. Even though it was already accepted for publication, he wanted someone to read it from a literary angle, to read it at the sentence level. Having the summer open in front of me, and interested in his project, I said yes.

For a few weeks I spent time in the world of his book, Young, Restless, and No Longer Reformed: Black Holes, Love, and a Journey In and Out of Calvinism. The first pass involved reading the book from beginning to end, leaving aside my Pilot G2 .07 black pen. As I read, I was absorbed in his story. It sure makes editing more meaningful when you’re genuinely interested in the writer’s work.

The second pass I read with my standard pen in hand, looking for ways in which the language might be improved, stylistic glitches might be remedied. Where might sentences be combined? Where might sentence patterns be varied? Where might there be crisper verbs, sharper nouns? How could I help Austin’s message be more clear?

I gave Austin my marked-up copy one Sunday after church, and we made plans to meet later that week after he read through my line edits. I recall a sunny morning where we sat outside at Starbucks. I was drinking black coffee. I shared some further observations about the book, and there was the pleasure as he offered me words of affirmation in what I provided. I knew my work was not only appreciated and valued; my suggestions moved something already good toward the great.

And in those ways, I felt less like a line editor and more like a writing coach. I believed in his book from my first read, and even after “marking it up,” I had a more profound admiration of what he was sharing in his story. I’ve told him that I’m ready for the next book, whenever he’s ready to write it.

Note: if you’re interested in what editing services I can provide, please feel free to send an email to plainswriter.nlh@gmail.com or contact me via the Contact menu tab.

Music Appreciation #3: Joe Satriani

Guitarist extraordinaire Joe Satriani just released his newest album, Shockwave Supernova, and since the album arrived at my house on Friday, July 24, it has been receiving substantial airplay. My son and daughter are already well familiar with several songs, my son singing along with the melodies.

The other night my son and I were playing a game of Dominion (one of our favorites), and at one point he stopped in the middle of his turn and said, “Dad, aren’t you forgetting something?” At first I thought I had violated one of the game’s rules. “What?” I asked. “Joe Satriani,” he answered. (Meaning, play the new album already, Dad.) That was a special moment for me as a dad and as a long-time Joe Satriani fan.

My history with Joe Satriani’s music goes back decades to my sophomore year of high school, when in that glorious Minnesota autumn I purchased The Extremist. The album quickly became my go-to for background music when doing homework since there were no vocals to distract me. It was also the album my band and I learned to play. Or to put it more accurately, the album that turned our guitar player, Matt, into a serious guitar player.

I’ve seen Joe Satriani live three times, the first time when he was touring in support of his self-titled album (in Spring 1996). I saw him a second time on the G3 tour in 1997 with Steve Vai and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. The last time I saw him was on the Engines of Creation tour in Spring 2000. It was during that third show when he played one of my favorite songs: “Love Thing.” This was also a time when I was pursuing a girl who would eventually become my wife, and this song became one we wanted played at our wedding dance two years later.

His music has served as the backdrop to the grading and the teaching prep I’ve done over 12 years teaching college English courses. His music has served as the backdrop for my countless hours of writing. His music has been the backdrop to countless drives, from the short jaunts to the multi-state excursions. His music has been some of the earliest music both of my children heard, and it has become some of their favorite music.

With each successive listen of Shockwave Supernova, I gain a deeper appreciation for the man whose music has been part of my life’s soundtrack for so many years.