Saturday, October 13, 2012

Kind of a Big Day

I started my Friday tucked in the corner of my French café with J.K. Rowling, listening and laughing as her interview from last week played on my laptop.  She told a story in passing about the first book she’d ever made, when she was six, about a rabbit.  But before the conversation moved on, she said in retrospect what was important about that book was that she’d finished it.  That finishing a story was the mark of someone who truly wanted to write.  A renewed commitment to Dark Room flooded me.  It was close, but it wasn’t finished.  Not yet.  Not really.
Later in the day, after teaching, I sat again with my laptop this time watching my daughter in gymnastics class.  Next weekend, I am taking a class taught by Laurie Halse Anderson.  Each of the twelve students is assigned to a critique group of four led by an assistant teacher.  I’d received my critique letters from the rest of my group.  The critique letter from the assistant teacher arrived during gymnastics class.
What is beautiful about this letter is that it started to make sense of these other scraps of feedback I’d gotten along the way, feedback that had nagged at me because I’d had the same worries myself, really.  You know the worries I mean.  You know something is bothering you, you hope you’ve addressed it, but you’re not sure.  Then you get feedback and, even if it doesn’t offer suggestions you feel would help, it points directly at your nagging concerns.  So I’d come to the point where I knew certain things had to be addressed.  What set this letter apart was that it offered alternative approaches to the issues in my story.  It didn’t just say, “This isn’t working here,” but went beyond to say, “Try this, this, and this.”  Suddenly scraps of feedback I’d pushed to the back of my mind shifted and began to fit together like a puzzle; scenes of my story began to shift opening doors in places I didn’t know existed.  I only have to open them.  This is exactly why Jacqueline Woodson said, “Take classes in which the teachers and students are authors you admire.”  Just like when I went to the Highlights Founder’s workshop, Starting Your Novel, with Patti Lee Gauch and began to learn the mechanics of story building, I have a feeling I am going to learn exactly what I have been trying to figure out about pacing and threads.
There are voices though.  Voices that have said out loud through my own lips, “This novel is ready to go out.  I’ll work on it mid-October through December 31st, and then the agent queries are going out.  It’s time.”  These are the voices who know the need for recognition, the need for others to affirm what you’ve been doing is valuable, the need to see something on the shelf, a reward for these ten years of work that are supposed to lead to expertise, the need to start on the next story idea.  But these are dangerous voices and artificial deadlines that have nothing to do with art.  “How do you ever know if you’re done?” my husband asks.  I think is has less to do with the product than with your growth as an artist.  If a piece is teaching you ways to grow as an artist, presenting doors to you, you have to go through them.  I have to go through them.  Do I wish I could predict a query mailing January 1st?  You bet I do.  Do I wish Laurie Halse Anderson would say, “Why are you even here?  Let me call my agent.”  Of course.  But the fact of the matter is I’m landing exactly where I need to next weekend in Vermont.  In the hands of those I most admire, in the hands of teachers who will propel me onward.
I wish when I got back I had eight-hour days to gallop through the next phase of revision.  But I don’t.  I have two hours every morning, and then I have to go to teach.  Teaching has stopped me from writing before, but I can’t let that happen now, not this close, not with J.K. Rowling’s voice in my head saying, “What’s important is that I finished.  You see, I think that is the mark of someone who truly wants to write.”  I have to worry about art now.  I have to grow, even if more slowly than I want.  I have to finish.

Monday, October 8, 2012

New Writing Places, New Challenges

I have arrived in October with some new places to write and some new challenges.  Let me catch you up.
            I think I threw a tantrum or two in June because I was caught between plans for a new draft and a house full of people home from school.  As far as the new draft went, I had never gone that far before, the revisions I was attempting were a whole new type of work, and they required the utmost concentration.  As far as my house went, the people descending on it for summer only including one husband and one seven-year-old daughter, but gone were my mornings on the couch with laptop and a sleeping dog on either side of me –dogs, if you haven’t tried them, are wonderful writing partners because while they provide company and warmth, they don’t break your concentration unless the mail carrier stops by.
            So the first thing I did was start trying a bunch of new places to write.  Starbucks wasn’t bad, though the music was a bit loud and apparently the volume is corporately controlled.  Our library just installed new desks with outlets along a wall of sunny windows, and the chairs are pretty comfortable, though if someone with an ipod sits next to you intent on ruining their ears, it can ruin an afternoon of work.  It didn’t take long to find my new favorite place.  La Chatelaine on Lane Avenue.  If you arrive right at 7:00AM you can get in four good hours of work before the lunch crowd hits.  The music is all in French so it didn’t break my creative trance at all.  And the friendly wait staff got to know my usual –a chocolate croissant and a cup of coffee after, after only a few days.  Just look at my favorite little corner:

            I sat my butt right there for six straight weeks every morning Monday through Friday and polished up my draft to take to a class taught by your hero and mine –Laurie Halse Anderson, in October.  I thought after that I would rest up, go to my brother’s wedding in New York, and celebrate the beginning of school and the dawn of a new era of creative rejuvenation.  Then life happened.
            While away in New York our local school district came across the application I dutifully submit every year, and they called to offer me a full-time teaching job.  I counter-offered saying I would take half-time teaching Integrated Studies to 2-5th graders and acting as the Gifted Ed. Teacher Leader, if they could find someone to teach the math in the mornings (Math makes me cry.).  I did not think they’d call back.  They did.  It couldn’t be turned down –half-time, in the afternoon, I could still take care of my own second-grader in the mornings and afternoons, no grading to speak of, and a lot of money.  I’d have my mornings to write.
            Starting only a few days before school opened, we all knew it would take a good six weeks to learn the new job and get things off the ground and running.  I spent two weeks of my mornings going in to work on curriculum.  I spent the next four weeks of mornings being exhausted and reading for my October class.  Now here I am in October, and the biggest challenge I face is myself.
            It is very easy to let a part-time teaching job grow into a full-time one, very easy to spend a morning checking email so you can get a running start when you go in at 11:00AM.  But that’s not the hardest part for me.  That just takes discipline and practice –when it’s 2:30PM that’s got to be it until you get back in the next day at 11:00AM.  I can do that.  What’s hard is maintaining my creative mindset.  Thoughts creep in like:

1)    What am I going to do about that fifth grade kid who should be taking chemistry at the high school and resent discussing the book we’re reading in my class?
2)    Are the parents pleased?
3)    Did I forget something?
4)    Did I #$@*% up something?
5)    Should I make tomorrow’s dinner ahead of time because tomorrow I will be exhausted when I get home?

Teaching is a very to-do list kind of a job sometimes, except the to-do list never goes away.  And I grew up one of those people who learned to get their to-do list done before she played (aka writing).  Teaching is very analytical –thinking through objectives, correlating lesson plans with progress reports, keeping records, contacting parents, planning, planning, planning everything into little boxes.  Honestly, I have been feeling cramped into my own two-hour little box every morning…just when I was about to really spread my wings.
            It’s very challenging for me to be in the present moment, here, now with my tea and toast and my laptop and dogs, when I glance at the time and calculate I have an hour and a half until I have to go in.
            Maybe even more challenging is feeling a sense of control over my identity.  I liked the freedom a day gave me to be who I wanted to be –listening to my NPR stories, taking the dog for a walk when I got stuck on a scene, making a literary life out of drafts, writing groups, blog networking, and publishing research.  Now that I’ve had a taste of that, teaching cramps my style some.  Who am I?  The teacher?  I don’t feel like a teacher, and when I do, I’m not sure I love it.  Teacher feels like years of marching through the step-scale of the salary table, micro-worrying over meetings that won’t mean a thing in two weeks, and still there is that hard nut to crack, that kid who just wants to explode things with a chemistry kit, what to do about him?
            Maybe you’re misunderstood when you’re a writer.  Maybe people don’t give you credit for doing anything real until your book is on the shelf.  Maybe they keep asking that annoying question –so what are you writing about?  But the freedom.         The     free     dom    to shape a creative life, to run on that high all day when you’re making something.  To fly in the face of what you’re supposed to do.  To write the underbelly of school and student’s lives instead of analyzing them into little boxes.  To give yourself permission to see it as you see it, even if no one else dares look under there.  That.  Felt.  Good.  That’s hard to slip in and out of on one five-minute ride to school.
            So my new challenge is to take less of my teaching self into my writing time, and more of my writing self into my teaching time.
            Meanwhile, my daughter is taking a Saturday morning art class, and tired as I am, I spring out of bed at 7AM these crisp Saturday mornings to drop her off and land here:

My new favorite place to write –The North Market.  I wander through the farmer’s market outside, decide on Mediterranean or Vietnamese to take home for lunch, grab my chai latte, and head upstairs to write, looking down on the lush produce and flowers, the fragrance of vanilla waffles and foreign spices drifting my way.  In this place, it’s easy to be Entirely Present.