I’m at this weird moment with my writing. I am, on one hand, working on very very very (to borrow Anne Lamott’s absolutely perfect term) sh*tty rough drafts. They’re the kind of drafts that are necessary for the kind of work I’m doing, which is very difficult and very personal and therefore means that I need to write faster than my brain can run, because my brain will just be like, stop stop STOPSTOPSTOP, and nothing will ever get done. On the other hand, I’m working on almost-to-the-very-end-of-revising-and-beginning-of-submitting revisions. In other words:
- I’m cutting large parts of poems out and yelling things like stop trying to make fetch happen at them and then re-writing from the few lines that remain.
- I’m spending most of a day (well, okay, a week) working on a poem, trying to coax it out of the form I at first forced it into (because it
seemed like it wanted to be a pantoum, it really did) and into the form in which (hopefully) it’ll do something close to working.
- I’m taking three hours to get two lines right.
- I’m taking out all of the commas and capital letters and then replacing all of the commas and capital letters.
- I’m changing “the Alabama Shakes’ Boys and Girls” to “that Alabama Shakes album” and realizing that that tiny change revealed exactly what the essay meant all along, and what I needed to do to make it mean that.
- I’m trying to translate and expand cryptic notes I leave myself on my phone, on my laptop, on my Kindle, on my Post-Its, on the skin beneath my thumb, on a receipt for a McDonald’s smoothie.
- I’m remembering what I meant by FUNERAL WHAT’S SAID STOPPED WRITING ESP ABOUT BC ALSO THIS ISN’T THE CLIMAX END TO TENSION THAT CHANGES THINGS CATS.
- I’m taking out all of the commas and capital letters and then replacing all of the commas and capital letters — except for two commas and one capital letter, which finally, finally makes the poem work.
It’s an interesting in-between place. It’s a good place to be — bringing work into the world, preparing to send work out of the world — but it’s also an uncomfortable place. And it’s that, that discomfort, exactly, that makes it such a good place. When the writing gets too comfortable, I start worrying. I start thinking, this is not good. Because writing — good writing — requires risk, and that’s far from comfortable.
This has also made me think a lot about my students, who are all in a very similar place. I’ve often thought that learning how to write is a kind of apprenticeship: you learn the craft from reading and watching someone work, from listening to them talk about how they approach their work, and you learn the art from practicing the craft, from being willing to take risks and sharpen your skills and to work and work and work. Sometimes, I’ll think of the writing teacher as the leader of the apprenticeship, but more and more, I feel like that isn’t true. I feel like it can’t be true, because no one can really be a master. I feel like perhaps the real apprenticeship is to the art itself, to all of its mysteries and wonders, all of its moments of despair and whimsy and confusion. We’re all in the same boat, in a creative writing classroom, wherever we sit, and I often think that the teacher’s job is to start conversations, to nudge students towards risk, to give them a vocabulary to talk about their work and a way to apply those terms and techniques to their own pieces. I think it’s also a teacher’s job to learn — both through one’s own work and reading and from one’s teachers.
Every day, I walk to my office with my folder and grade-book and Diet Coke and Altoids and I feel — excited. Thrilled. Nervous. Lucky. Most of all, lucky. I’d say that this has been an exceptional semester in which I’ve been lucky enough to teach some exceptional students, but really, there’s nothing exceptional about it. Instead, it’s been the rule. I’m continuously grateful to be surrounded by such minds and such energy, such unfailing appetites for learning. I’m grateful to my students for being willing to talk through the routes they’re taking in this strange landscape language makes for us — and I’m grateful to them for the daily reminder that though we are all making our own way in this landscape, we are, none of us, ever truly alone.