Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to be a guest in classes taught by a colleague. As a part of her Religion & Literature courses, she assigned my poetry collection, Your Twenty-First Century Prayer Life. I visited both of her sections twice, with the one class session focused on the first half of the book and the other session focused on the second half.
It was 100 degrees on Friday afternoon when I was discussing with a colleague one of my favorite books: Silence in the Snow Fields, by the Minnesota poet Robert Bly.
He and I had recently agreed to start a mini reading group, as in the two of us. We wanted to pick things that one of us enjoyed and wanted to share with the other. I thought of Bly’s 1962 book, and I excitedly texted my friend.
The start of another school year always invites and compels me to reflect on my career. Today, for example, I begin my 16th year of teaching college English, my 7th as a professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. Yet as a freshman in September 1995, I did not dream of being an English professor; rather, I wanted to be a professional rock musician. (No lie.)
I’ve reflected before on periods when I wrote very little before regaining traction in my writing. In an August 2016 post, I shared how I regained writing momentum after teaching two classes in the same summer term.
But last spring, during perhaps the busiest semester of my teaching career, I basically stopped writing. (It feels shameful to see the last four words of the previous sentence. I am a writer, and I teach writing as my full-time job.)
It seemed as though every time I even thought about writing–even a brief poem–, it felt like too much work, work without any possibility of joy. And in the stands beyond those tall hurdles, an announcer droned on about all the grading and class prep. Granted, there were some moments of writing, but they were like the occasional Styrofoam food containers littering the shoulder of a rural highway.
There reached a point where I began to think that I didn’t want to write anymore. That I didn’t have any mental space left for it, and even if I did, that I had nothing to add. I entertained the (absurd) thought that I had lost the ability to write.
I knew that if I floated to the shallow lake shore of May, I would survive, although it didn’t seem conceivable at the time. As much as I enjoy teaching, I was surviving, clutching the boat of the semester that had overturned and was drifting to the distant shore. I didn’t realize how badly I needed May, the time off from teaching, the mental space in which to think a thought that wasn’t about composition or literature.
From the end of July through the first third of August, I was “up north” for vacation. During those relaxing days, I wrote a little. I brought along a short story draft, working in a few thirty-minute bursts, and I brought the completed memoir first draft, though I only ended up reading through a couple pages. I read two literary journals cover to cover. I read Stevenson’s Treasure Island, which I enjoyed immensely.
When the meetings resumed on August 14 (three days after I returned), I need to finish three syllabi, as well as the online components for those courses. Also on my mind was the desire to immerse myself back in a more regular writing regimen, to avoid the writing dessert of the previous semester.
Yet so it was that teaching drew me back to writing. I had forgotten how much my teaching is linked to my writing, and how much my writing informs my teaching. The two feed off of each other.
After meeting with my Creative Writing students that first day, I already had an idea for a piece, the first draft of which I discussed in my previous post. Now that I’m six weeks into the semester, I have achieved a reasonable rhythm, completing the second draft of that essay.
I already know what the next writing project is, something that is perhaps one of the highlights of my writing career thus far: preparing the final version of my first full-length collection of poetry. The virtual ink has dried on the contract, and my deadline is three weeks away. More details soon.
Last week in Creative Writing: Prose, my students and I read and discussed pieces about the writing process, about why we write, and about writing as an act of discovery. Both sessions with these five eager writers were enjoyable. They are steadily gaining confidence and enthusiasm for our work together.
I’m reflecting on that week because of my own writing journey in a creative nonfiction piece about two of the most memorable days of life from 2008, two days that, to an outsider, would appear mostly nondescript. I’ve started exploring why these two days have impressed themselves so firmly in my memory.
Using one of my favorite writing surfaces—a yellow legal pad—I penned six handwritten pages during 15-minute bursts over five or six consecutive days. At the beginning of September, I typed those pages, making only minor corrections: the goal at the stage was merely transcription. I printed a copy and slipped it in the nonfiction folder of the filing cabinet that sits to the left of my writing desk.
On Wednesday of last week, the day between my two sessions of that aforementioned Creative Writing class, I closely reread that typed draft. Afterwards, I wrote a page of notes, preparing myself for commencing a second draft. I circled passages that I thought might be crucial points in the timeline of the weekend; I made a list of all of the weekend’s events, in chronological order.
The next day I met my students, and because we were discussing an essay about writing really awful first drafts, I decided to make myself more vulnerable, more transparent. Before class, I made copies of my piece’s first page. I circulated the handout towards the end of class and told them that I needed those copies back after they examined them. I said they couldn’t take a picture of my first page.
I hoped that they would discover something about me, about themselves, through my meandering opening paragraphs. The room, however, was quiet because of their silent concentration. Here they were, reading something that their professor had not edited. After a while, I spoke to them, telling them that when I reread that first page, I was bored, and that I thought the first sentence was grandiose and pompous.
Later that afternoon, I was sitting in a shaded back patio, that same first draft in front of me, my writing notebook next to it. My son was inside an art studio taking a drawing class, and I had the next 50 minutes to work on this same creative nonfiction piece. I reread my notes, along with portions of the draft, and then began jotting down more ideas, making another full page of notes.
It was in that further exploration, through the meandering in that relaxed state with the hum of a busy road nearby, the rattling of a large AC unit, and the continuity of a dry breeze, that I at last “discovered” a structure for the piece. I realized that in the roughly sketched four-page typed draft I had hinted at a way to tell this story. And then my notes became more energized and furious as I teased out the implications of the particular structure.
So here I am, having begun that second draft with a much clearer sense of where I’m headed, aware that this piece will likely be much longer than I originally thought. But it is through these discoveries and surprises that I find joy as a writer. I never know how something will turn out. I never know the shape it will take. And that is part of what keeps me writing poems, short stories, essays, blog posts. I’m too busy meandering and discovering to ever become bored.