On Regaining my Writing Momentum

During my first semester in the PhD program, I wrote a piece entitled, “Writing and Teaching: Only Together Do They Satisfy.” The next semester, I presented the paper at graduate-student conference, where it was well received. The premise of the paper was that my teaching “fed” my writing and that my writing “fed” my teaching. So far so good.

Throughout my academic career in the 9 years since I drafted that piece, I find that I still agree with much of what I said then; however, I’m confident I could state my points more elegantly now. A good session of writing (even brief) before I teach is beneficial to me emotionally, growing my confidence. A good session of class (whether it’s Creative Writing, Literature, or Composition) compels me to the writing desk.

But this summer, I taught not 1, but 2, classes in the same term. Each class met for 2 1/2 hours a day, four days a week. “Finding” time to write (a doomed pursuit, I know) or even “planning” time to write (a much better approach) were set aside in the corner of my office. For 2 weeks I did not pick up a pen to write or revise anything; I did not type into a keyboard to compose a story’s opening scene, much less tinker with a line of poem.

For 2 weeks I withered inside, so much so that it was visible on the outside. To switch the metaphor, I was trying to keep my head above the waters of the mighty “2-Class River,” and I’ve never taken swimming lessons (literally or figuratively). So 10 days into those summer classes, I made an important decision: I needed to write something everyday, even if it was 10 minutes worth, or 200 words, or 2 stanzas.

At first, I felt as though I were a beginning writer. It was akin to returning to running after a couple weeks off. I didn’t know if I could do it (despite all the past experiences to the contrary). When I had finished writing two pages (two pages!) in a small notebook, the delight was comparable to seeing one of my poems or stories in print. It felt that good, yes.

Right now, I’m trying to build up my stamina again, much like the training I’ve done (and will do) for running races. I’m not ready yet for a 1-hour writing session, as much as I want to do on. Even as I write this, it’s been over 25 minutes, and fatigue is nudging me.

It feels so good to be back.

On the Pleasures & Demands of Poetic Form

I’ve been busy revising poems as a part of a summer research grant from my university. That time so far has been satisfying and productive. Last week, for some reason, I found myself using certain forms in three of the five poems I revised. Two sestinas and a pantoum.

With one of those poems, I observed a pattern of repetition in initial draft–a way of turning over the subject of the poem–and I thought, maybe this could be a sestina. And then I thought, that’s too much work. Over an hour later, however, I had succeeding in creating a sestina. (More on that form in a moment.)

My impulse and attraction to so-called “fixed” forms might be a holdover from my Creative Writing: Poetry course this spring. Students wrote in a variety of poetic forms, including some that use repeating lines: villanelles, pantoums, triolets. There is usually much initial resistance to these particular forms (as was the case this semester), but students eventually came to appreciate (and even enjoy) working in these forms.

A pantoum uses four-line stanzas (quatrains), with the requirement that lines two and four of each stanza become one and three of the following stanza. The poem can be any number of quatrains (but a minimum of 3), and the poem’s first and third lines return as the second and fourth lines of the final stanza, usually inverted. Some pantoums rhyme abab, and some don’t use a rhyme scheme. Poets, as can be expected, vary in their strictness of repetition.

I’ve written a handful of pantoums, but it had been a long time since I had attempted a sestina, a 39-line poem that uses six repeating end words. These six words recur in different orders in sestets (six-line stanzas) throughout the poem, and the poem concludes with a tercet (three-line stanza) that includes two of the end words per line. Part of the fun of the form is figuring meaningful ways to use each end word seven times.

(Side note: I’ve learned that if you start tweeting about how you’re writing in certain poetic forms that someone might challenge you to a duel. A friend saw my tweet and promptly challenged me to a sestina duel, picking three of the six end words, allowing me to pick the other three.)

Writing in a “fixed” form that uses repetition is one of my favorite poetic approaches. The form provides a structure, an architecture. a set of boundaries. After all,  writing–whether poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, a blog post–involves a search for form in conjunction with a search for subject.

Just as any writer, I have subjects and images to which I regularly return, and writing in a form that requires repetition often helps me shape my ideas, my words. I find these forms (and other patterns and forms–sonnet, meter, syllabics) often enable me to explore my ideas more effectively. In these forms’ demands, I (paradoxically) find poetic freedom.

Now to finish up the draft of a new sestina. How am I going to use the word __________ repeatedly to end lines?

What I’m Working On–5.9.16

Grades are done for spring semester, and graduation has passed. I start teaching two summer classes in seven weeks, and once those commence there will be time for little else. In this interim I’ll be preparing for those classes, as well as my fall courses.

But from now until the end of June I’ll be focusing on two major writing projects:

1) Writing an essay for an anthology.

1917 marks the 100-year anniversary of the death of Oswald Chambers, and through a contact in a Facebook group, I learned of an upcoming anthology of essayists writing about a specific passage from his classic work, My Utmost for His Highest. Chambers’s book was foundational to my spiritual growth, and my copy has sentences underlined in almost every entry. I queried the editor and received a spot in the forthcoming book.

The next challenge was finding a passage upon which to write my essay. Over several evenings, I reread the book, starring many passages that might serve as an effective springboard for extended reflection. Finally, I found the passage that fit perfectly with some of the topics I’ve been exploring in my posts over at altarwork.com.

Although the length of the essay (1,500 words) is manageable, I’ve never done something quite like this before. There’s a nervous excitement about this project. We’ll see what happens.

2) Revising and organizing a poetry manuscript.

Just as in 2014, I received a summer research grant from my university to work on a book-length project. Unlike last time when my focus was a short-story collection, this summer’s project involves a manuscript of forty-plus poems, tentatively titled, Your 21st-Century Prayer Life.

I wrote the majority of these poems during Lent 2014 when I decided to draft a poem a day, narrowing my subject matter to prayer and the church. Those poems, along with less than a dozen others, constitute

Each day I’ll be working on a poem or two and also attempting a sequencing of the poems. I have some initial ideas about how the collection might be organized, but I have no dominate ideas. As a result, I’ll be passing on the poems to a writer friend for his suggestions on organizing and further revising them.

*

Beyond these two major projects, I’ll be blogging in this space each Monday, and blogging over at Altarwork.com each Friday. I relish in the challenge of writing something each week, feeling as though I’m some kind of newspaper columnist. The weekly writings help me stay grounded and well-practiced.

I’m grateful for this time of year that affords me the space to pursue these projects. Toward the end of May, I will be gone for six days, spending part of the time with a writing friend and her family and attending a writing retreat where I hope to work on these two projects even more diligently.

It’s going to be a good summer.

2015 in Review

It’s four days into 2016, so I’m due to offer some reflections on 2015. I’m grateful for so many wonderful memories I made over those 365 days. The year was significant for me in several ways, some of which I’ll be sharing here, some of which I’ll be sharing over at altarwork.com (where I’m now blogging every Friday). In the latter venue, I’ve already written about my most important day of the year.

But now, in lieu of a more cohesive post, I’ll share some random “tops” and “favorites” of the year.

Favorite New Album: Shockwave Supernova, by Joe Satriani

Other Favorite New Albums: Hand. Cannot. Erase. by Steven Wilson.

Love, Fear, and the Time Machine, by Riverside.

Helios / Erebus, by God Is An Astronaut.

A Head Full of Dreams, by Coldplay

Most Important Book: Life Without Ed, by Jenni Schaefer

Favorite Book: The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

Other Favorite Books: Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather.

Beyond the Bedroom Wall, by Larry Woiwode.

The Geography of Memory, by Jeanne Murray Walker

Love’s Labors, by Brent Newsom

Favorite Concert: The Choir (playing the full Circle Slide album)

Favorite Movie: The Peanuts Movie

Favorite Weekend Activity: playing keys and singing bgvs at Vista Community Church

Favorite “Athletic” Moments: running a 10k and two 5ks

Favorite Celebrity Meeting: Monty Colvin, bass player/vocalist in Galactic Cowboys, guitarist/vocalist for Crunchy.

IMG_0824

Favorite Interesting Experience: sitting in on a Sunday-school class taught by Oklahoma Poet Laureate, Benjamin Myers @OKPoetLaureate

Favorite Teaching Moment(s): My summer Religion and Literature course (with works by Bret Lott, Tania Runyan, Gina Ochsner, Brent Newsom, Addie Zierman, Larry Woiwode, Jeanne Murray Walker, and Benjamin Myers).

Fun Trip Destinations: Minneapolis, Galveston Island, Kansas City, Lake Michigan, rural Minnesota

Favorite Publication: “The North-Central Iowa Spring Break Blizzard Tour” (published in The Cresset)

Favorite Photo I Took: 

IMG_0880

I’m looking forward to a good 2016, filled with good books and music, lots of writing, good classes to teach, and supportive friends and family.

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.