Revisionings

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
    Here are some of those notes I was talking about in all of their cryptic glory.

    Here are some of those notes I was talking about in all of their cryptic glory.

    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.

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Are There Things That Are Important Beyond All This Fiddle? Or NaPoWriMo and You

People, here’s the thing: it’s April.  That means it’s National Poetry Month.  That means it’s National Poetry Writing Month.  That means I’m writing a poem a day.  That means I’m participating in a poem-a-day writing challenge.

NaPoWriMo FTW!

NaPoWriMo FTW!

And that means I’m writing a poem a day along with my fellow writers on campus.

Publicly.

As in, where everyone can see.

Yes, those were the sounds of panic you just heard.

Here’s the thing: sometimes, you hear people say that those who can’t do, teach.  Here’s the other thing: that’s totally wrong.  I mean, sure, maybe some people who can’t do teach, but I think there’s a qualifier there: they may teach, but they probably don’t teach well.  And I’m not saying that as a teacher, really — I’m saying that as a student.  I’m saying that as someone who learns, which I will, God willing, always be, teaching or no teaching.

Here, I guess, is the thing I really mean: I learned how to teach from those who taught me, and I praise everything out there that those who taught me taught very, very well.  They taught very, very well because, well, they did.  And they weren’t afraid to let me watch them doing.  My writing teachers wrote with us: if they gave us an exercise in class, their pens were always moving, and they read their drafts when we read our drafts, no matter how terrible or wonderful any of our drafts were.  They read poems and puzzled through poems and thought through problems and they did it all out loud, in front of me.  And from their thinking, I learned how to think.  From their writing, I learned how to write.  And I learned, about writing, about everything, the most important thing: keep doing.  Do and do and do.  Yoda was right: there is no try, there is only do — because trying is its own form of doing.

If there’s one thing I have learned as a teacher, though, it’s that that?  That’s not easy.  Writing along with my students means that I could write something that’s terrible, and reading along with them means letting them know I wrote something terrible, right then and there, before their very eyes.  Sometimes, it’s easier to hide behind the screen, like Oz trapped in a cinderblock room.  Sometimes, it’s easier to pretend like I’m the expert, the all-knowing, and they should listen to me just because I’m in the front of the room.

Easier doesn’t mean better when it comes to most things, teaching included.  When I first started teaching, I was so terrified of doing and failing that I came into class every day with a full script, sometimes one that I’d rehearsed in the bathroom mirror beforehand.  I even wrote out jokes, which, of course, failed, as the classes themselves tended to fail.  I told myself that perhaps my humor was just too awesome for my students to get, but eventually, I had to realize that they just weren’t funny.  They weren’t spontaneous.  They were fake, and rehearsed, as was everything that happened on my end of the classroom — I wasn’t doing anything except reading lines, and when unexpected things (like, say, questions) came from the other

This is how I know my writing's going well.

This is how I know my writing’s going well.

side of the room, I hadn’t rehearsed a response.  I didn’t know what to do.

All right, I’ll say it: my classes sucked.

And I wasn’t the only one who thought so.  Within three weeks of my first semester teaching, my name popped up on The Website That Shall Not Be Named, and there was a nauseously green frowny face next to it.  One student wrote that she would rather jump out of a building than be in the same room with me.  I drove to the gas station up the street, bought a bottle of cheap red wine, and sat on my couch and cried.

Looking back, that comment still has its sting, but most of the sting comes from the fact that I don’t blame her.  I wouldn’t want to be in a room with me either, especially a classroom.  Not long after that, I realized that I couldn’t keep up being a robot in class, even if being a robot was far more comfortable.  I realized that in order to teach, I had to do.  I had to show my students how I think, how I work, how I write.  I had to get comfortable with acting out that process instead of some lame script, and I had to get comfortable with the fact that sometimes, I would falter.  I’d be wrong.  I’d fail.  And I’d recover.  I had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable — because what else would I ever want to teach?

Now, I’ve reached the final frontier of discomfort: writing a poem every day and posting it for my students and colleagues — and, well, the Interwebs — to see.  Sometimes, I will falter.  The poems will go wrong.  They’ll fail.  I’ll recover.  And in doing, I’ll do the most important thing: I’ll learn myself and let the language teach me, which is, after all, all I could ever want to teach.

Things 20/20 Has Made Me Fear

(An Incomplete List)

  • Automatic door locks
  • Rivers

    This is the most accurate depiction of John Stossel's view of the world that I could imagine.

    This is the most accurate depiction of John Stossel’s view of the world that I could imagine.

  • Bridges
  • Automatic windows
  • The human jaw
  • Social Security
  • People who try to scam old people
  • Old people who try to scam people
  • People who smile too much
  • People who don’t smile enough
  • People who wear too many sweaters
  • Bees
  • Bee stings
  • Bee pollen as a nutritional supplement
  • Nutritional supplements
  • National parks
  • The outdoors
  • Automatic garage openers
  • Cars with computers in them
  • Planes with computers in them
  • Computers
  • Exorcisms
  • Weather radios
  • Movie theaters
  • Move theater popcorn
  • Movie theater patrons
  • Gorillas
  • Movies about gorillas
  • Cats
  • John Stossel

When Life Throws Lemons At Your Face, Smash Those Bastards Up And Make A Cocktail

This is a photograph of the massive mess I made in my home office.

This is a photograph of the massive mess I made in my home office.

Needless to say, I haven’t been blogging.

To say that a lot has been going on would be an understatement.  Lately, life has been — well, it’s basically like Life started throwing lemons at me, and then I was like, Awesome!  Lemons!  Hey, thanks, Life, and I made a ton of lemonade, which is delicious and, incidentally, prevents kidney stones.  Two birds, one citrus fruit.  But then Life was like, Oh hell no, and started lobbing grapefruit at me, and I was like, WTF Life? Grapefruit are never delicious, except with mounds of sugar or vodka, both of which would ruin my low-carb diet, and besides, even the OED doesn’t know the plural of the word “grapefruit,” so how I am even supposed to talk about this?  And then Life gave me this creepy Joker-esque grin and lobbed two grapefruit(s) directly at my face.

Thanks a lot, Life.

And so I have turned to what I always turn to in times like these: organizational projects that

This is a photograph of Gertrude Stein in the middle of freaking LOVING the massive mess in my home office, which is probably the first symptom of super-angry cat rabies.

This is a photograph of Gertrude Stein in the middle of freaking LOVING the massive mess in my home office, which is probably the first symptom of super-angry cat rabies.

are so obsessive that they probably show up somewhere in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, so I tend to not talk about them until they’re finished and people will say things like You are so organized! Good for you! instead of Hey, Emma, would you like to go get a cup of coffee and have a conversation, perhaps about how nice it would be to hang out for a while in a calming, white, padded room where someone comes in three times a day with a Dixie cup of pills?  

Now that my projects are nearly finished, I feel better about blogging and talking about them, though I admit that a padded room would probably be a

good idea because let’s face it, I’m really clumsy and walls are hard.  I separated the books I need for teaching from the books I need for home reading (and listen, there are a lot of both.  I’m pretty sure everyone in the world who works for a moving company regularly wakes up screaming after a nightmare about my books) and took them to my office, and organized the rest according to the spectrum (which I’m pretty sure shows up on page 46 of the DSM-IV).*  I built a cabinet for my sewing supplies and filed my fat quarters according to color (DSM-IV, page 72).  I developed a color-coded filing system in a series of binders, complete with plastic sleeves to hold spare items that can’t be hole-punched, like pattern pieces and receipts and all ten thousand of my cats’ rabies shot collars, which I’m pretty sure just gave both of my cats super-angry cases of rabies (for color-coding and plastic

This is an after photograph. Some of my fat quarters are now out of place. This makes me nervous.

This is an after photograph. Some of my fat quarters are now out of place. This makes me nervous.

sleeves, see DSM-IV page 52; for paranoia about super-angry cat rabies, see

page 12).

The organizational projects have helped a lot: not only am I now able to actually find that handout about Dean Young’s lecture on surrealism and quickly locate the perfect red calico to complete my current hexie quilt stripe**, I actually feel like I have some control over at least some part of my life.  Obsessive, hole-punched, color-coded, magnificent control.

As a writer and a teacher, I admit that I look for metaphors in everything, and hole-punching and color-coding is no exception.  It all goes back to the lemons, really.  Here’s the thing about Life: it’s going to lob lemons at your forehead, and grapefruit(s) and ugli fruit(s) and kumquats and tangelos and whatever else Life can find in its produce aisle.  The only thing you can do is put concealer over your bruises, pick up the

This is a photograph of actual lemons I actually made to make actual lemonade, FOR CONTEXT.

This is a photograph of actual lemons I actually made to make actual lemonade, FOR CONTEXT.

citrus fruit(s) fallen and themselves bruised by your feet, and make one helluva citrus punch.  And that’s going to be messy — you’re going to have to roll up your sleeves, get out the knives and the juicer, and pulverize a bunch of lemons.  But when you’re done, you’ll have a beautiful pitcher of a refreshing citrus cocktail — and sometimes, when Life seems unfaceble and no action seems possible, sitting back and sipping on a cool citrus beverage is the best action you can take.

Especially if you add mounds of sugar and vodka.

*NOTE: I have no actual knowledge about the DSM-IV, so if you do and you’re thinking to yourself Hmm, page 46 is actually the page about women who watch too much Dateline and think Britney Spears is a feminist icon, sort of like a contemporary version of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, that’s totally just a coincidence.

** NOTE THE SECOND: I also probably have no actual knowledge about actual quilting or actual quilting terminology, so this might not at all be what this is called.  For information about actual quilting and/or actual quilting terminology, I suggest that you refer to this book, WHICH ACTUALLY EXISTS:

No, seriously. THIS BOOK EXISTS. And you can BUY IT.  NOTE: there are still two days until Valentine's Day.  YOU'RE WELCOME.

No, seriously. THIS BOOK EXISTS. And you can BUY IT. NOTE: there are still two days until Valentine’s Day. YOU’RE WELCOME.