Twelve Things & #AmWriting

It takes work to shift your focus from the smudges on the windows to the view outside. ~Heather Havrilesky

I’ve shifted my focus a bit on the social media since the start of the year just as an experiment, and so far I’m learning that “Literary Twitter” and “Bike Twitter” can be just as mean and ranty as the other networks and communities I know. The TwitterRobot reminded me to celebrate my anniversary on their platform which I joined–truthfully–begrudgingly to fulfill an EdTech graduate assignment. It made me laugh to remember how my classmates spent SO long talking about creating a “clever handle” to help “brand you in your personal learning network.” Barf me out, I remember thinking and I typed the @, my first name, and my last name, and went back to reading the New York Times. Assignment done.

I’ve made a lot of incredible friends and connections with that platform, but the mood and tone has changed a bit since I’ve started reading and sharing. I won’t quit you, Twitterz, because sometimes people share amazing things that I wouldn’t see elsewhere. The serendipity of the things you can learn and discover keep me coming back. Even if it’s the megaphone of horror and rage most days. I love, for example, this post from Porochista Khakpour: How To Be a Writer and How To Stay A Writer. 

Her blog inspired me to write my own version of her twelve ideas on how to be and stay a writer, so here goes. What follows is not as charming as what she wrote, so be sure to read her post first.

Don’t Hate People

I really laughed at this one. Yes! Recently, as in this Wednesday, I realized that one of the reasons I’m significantly happier these days is because of how little I talk with other people now that my job has changed. I thought about my last jobby job, and how I would take a few phone calls on the first ring to protect a thin-skinned colleague. I was her manager, after all, so when certain names came across the caller ID, I answered quickly even though technically it wasn’t my job. It was easier to face the hot mess on the other line than it was to deal with the hot-mess-after-the-call with an upset direct report. I remember saying to this direct report, “You just have to imagine that this awful person’s dog really hates them. Like she comes home from work and the dog runs in the other direction. When she’s mid-rant, imagine that her cat purposely misses the litterbox because it hates her.” This cracked us up even though it’s totally crude, and I’m not sure I mentored that person out of being overly sensitive, but really, I see now how this reacting to one-hot-mess-to-the-next-hot-mess wears you down. It’s impossible to write on days like that. 

Persistence

If I’ve learned anything this past year, it’s that persisting is exhausting. It helps tune you up for long-term endurance, which is the real test of existence. In fact, writing this post helps me realize that most of what I really enjoy doing is about endurance. Somebody introduced me at a public event for my volunteer work, and they mentioned how I work for a start-up, help manage a non-profit, and I race cyclocross, so, this person said, “she must love suffering.” People laughed. The ability to suffer the longest—to endure–you have to see this as a gift. Persistence is a gift.

Talent

This one is a hard one, and I love Porochista’s response–she is a teacher after all. Since I’m not in the role of making a living teaching writers, I’ll say it. I think some people are naturally talented with some genres more than others. Let’s say, for instance, you have a creative idea that brushes up against the status quo and challenges what everyone is cozy with. If you can persist and endure to create that new idea, then you have talent. Some writers can make a forty word sentence feel like a haiku. Some writers just stop you cold with their sentences. Few people have it, and that’s okay. There’s a difference between those who really have to try and those who are naturally blessed, gifted, talented–however you want to see it. Same goes with writing.

Luck

This is fucking everything and I’ll die on this hill no matter what you tell me. You can sell me all the platitudes of being able to “build your personal brand” and “beefing up your CV” or my personal favorite seeing yourself being worthy of success and I know in my heart and soul you’re a liar. And truthfully, maybe this naiveté makes you a happier person, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it doesn’t. Luck is everything. Who you know. Who sees you. Who helps you. Which side of the tracks of you were born on. All of that magic that we lazily sometimes call “privilege” is a complex menu of circumstance and luck. My grandmother used to say that if “you didn’t have bad luck, you wouldn’t have any luck at all.” Preach! When you do have luck, I believe, then it’s up to you to help others who do not have as much as you. If you don’t, you’re a selfish asshole. There is luck that you can create for others. Let’s face it. Any word that is a noun and a verb is complicated.

Hard Work

Now this makes sense to me. Khakpour describes people who write everyday and those that do not. Some people believe that you have to write everyday to BE a writer, but it doesn’t always work out that way for me. Like today. I had every intention of writing the entire morning, and I got completely sucked into the novel An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. The structure of the book is so great the way she weaves three perspectives together and part of the story takes place in Atlanta, a city where I lived for nine years. Two characters bonded over a misunderstood line of my favorite Prince song, and I laughed so hard. Totally hooked to read the whole damn thing. One of the characters brought up how, when they were kids, they thought the Prince line was “I want to be the only one you cook for.” Brilliant, that whole scene.

I believe in hard work. If luck is an intangible thing that you can’t control, then hard work is The Thing that you can trust. It’s The Thing that makes you tired at the end of the day. The engine that helps you stay motivated. The Thing that keeps you getting after it. (If you are unfamiliar with that Prince song, you should listen to it. Pure soul funk on that guitar. May he rest in peace.)

attribution

Vision

I can see it. I can smell it. I can feel the book in my hand. Seeing the book in my mind and in my imagination is easy. Getting the thing done has proven to be the challenge. I just completed another 10,000 this month (woot!), so I’m feeling like I’m at a good place to stop and spend some serious time revising. I have one more chapter to write, and then I’m going through the whole thing page by page. Bird by fucking bird. I made it to 40,000 words this morning despite Jones’ novel, and my hour-long discussion of that Prince song with my Mister. He had never heard it. Wut! He’s not much of a fan, and I’m sure if he was shocked that I knew all the words. We have these momenets, where he’s like “How the hell do you know all of the words to this song?” and I’m like, “Where were you in the [enter year/decade here].” I sometimes marvel how we grew up in two very different parts of America.

Writer Friends

I have a lot of friends who read and journal and write, but I’ve struggled in this department–keeping up with my actual we-care-to-publish-our-work writer friends. Keeping up with a lot of my friends, really, is sometimes a challenge. Tryna be better in 2020.  

Make Up Your Own Rules

This has been one of the most liberating things for me, and I’ve written so much about this that I should prolly create a tag on this blog. Over the last ten years, I’ve stopped caring about the grammars, the semantics, the rules, whether I sound smart or not, and if my sentences make sense. On my free time, that is. On the clock, I care quite a bit.

One of the hardest parts of the class-like group that I’ve been involved with this past year has been commenting on other people’s work. It feels like grading. Ugh. Sigh. Deep breath. It’s a reminder of how much I burned out on teaching because of all the grading. I’m struggling with the commenting-on-other’s-people’s work part. I owe three people four months of comments on their work, and I just really can’t bring myself to do it. I didn’t know that working on other people’s writing would be part of this gig. I missed that part of instructions until it was too late. It’s all done in March, so I’m gonna really think about whether a community of writers is what I need. Dunno. Last post I was feeling it. Today? Maybe I’m just grouchy.

Revision

Sigh. This is entirely hard for me. I loathe editing my own work sometimes, and other times I love it. The word revision means to see again, and it’s a way to polish up what you’ve created. It’s necessary, but so hard. I know some writers who just sit down, bust it all out, and they never revise a damn thing. They never make a mistake. Words just flow beautifully and it is all gorgeous.

What gets left behind in the editing process can become something else entirely someday, and I’m embracing that constant sifting and sorting of words and stories.

Warm Up

I love this, and I agree. I do this when I when I workout, and I think of my journal as warming up. Though truly, I’m fine sometimes with warming up and warming up and warming up so much that I never actually get started. This past year was learning about this tendency of mine and being honest with myself about why I never really got started. But that’s a story for another day.

Read out loud

This is really hard to do when you live a small space with another person. I love my little condo ski chalet, but it’s not a place where you can pace and read out loud like the wonderful huge house we used to rent up by Lake Whatcom. Gosh, I loved that house. Me and the Mister had our own offices, and a gigantic sprawling yard. Someday I’ll have that space again (hopefully), and until I do, I’ll keep riding my bike or running and thinking about my writing. Reading aloud on the regular just isn’t possible right now.

Be Wealthy

I really laughed out loud at this one. Yes. YES! And I think this is a smart way of accepting the reality of a soul-craft like writing. It’s not going to pay the bills. Some of the writing I do does pay the bills, so like oh my frickin’ gosh that’s a miracle, and I know a small select group of people make a fine living as writers. I once accepted a gift certificate for a pair of pants in exchange for an article, and I remember thinking, “My writing is putting clothes on my legs but not food on the table.”

The most important question that I learned to say this past year after a stint of writing is: “How does this connect with my book?”

Sometimes what I’m writing doesn’t connect at all to that project. Yes. Sometimes it’s so spot-on. Sometimes it pure drivel. Sometimes it’s the same story told differently. Sometimes it’s another book brewing. This is a really lovely way of seeing for me. A helpful revision of my perspective.

Before I suit up, and go for a run, (too rainy and winny for the bike) I want to take a minute to reflect on where I am with this process. Maybe this is a wish for a bit of luck.

If I have twice the words that I have now this time next year, then I’ll be in good shape with finishing with this book. I’ll have a manuscript.

After reviewing my notes, I think my best process is to capture the early hours of the morning for just my writing. Before the work. Before looking at my phone. Maybe each week it changes, but I have to figure it out at least four days a week. At least. Four days a week, I’ll prioritize being a writer in the early morning. Three days a week, I’ll prioritize being a bike rider/racer-in-training. Both make me extraordinarily happy, and both are extremely hard. Lucky me.

For now, this quote:

Being an artist means: not number and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward that summer may not come. It does come. But it comes to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and cast. ~Rilke

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Stretching Into Change

One stranger who understands your experience exactly will do for you what hundreds of close friends and family who don’t understand cannot. It is the necessary palliative for the pain of stretching into change. It is the cool glass of water in hell. ~Laura McKowen

In my last post, I mentioned that I’m working on a book, and I’ve been avoiding writing about this project here because I’m not sure if I can do it. I suffer with all the known unknowns of this process, but the more I talk with other writers, the more I realize this feeling of “I might really suck at this” is pretty normal. I can’t see the forest for the trees because I haven’t been sure which forest I’m in for a very long time. Seeing 2019 to a close has helped me learn a few things about myself and my process as a writer. Here are a few things that I’m taking from 2019.

Being An Undergrad Didn’t Help Me

Contrary to what I dreamed about with going to college, it didn’t help me become a writer. Not one bit. Really. I did fall in love with the idea of being a teacher, so that was productive, and in my most naive moments, I thought I’d become a college professor who lived the life of the mind while writing the next great American novel during my sabbaticals. So cute, right? Would I advise a young person who wants to be a writer to skip college these days? No. I think everyone deserves an affordable college education who wants one. But let me tell ya, if you are filthy fucking rich and never have to worry about money ever again, take that gap year or five, write like crazy while you’re on the road and read and meet interesting people and then choose your college. But yes, go. If you’re poor, then yes, go immediately to your local community college and then try to transfer to the best school that pays most of your way. You’ll need that credential to find The Jobby Job that keeps you fed and living in doors in order to write. Don’t take private loans and floss everyday, Young One.

Being a Graduate Student (Twice, FFS!) Didn’t Help Me

This was another lie that I believed for almost a decade. If I could only find the right graduate program, I’d become a writer. In order to live the life of the mind as a college professor (hardee har har), you need to earn a masters degree or a PhD, I believed, and yes, that’s true, but again, unless you’re filthy fucking rich and never have to worry about money for the rest of your life, take a gap year or five between undergrad and grad school again (why not?), and then choose your grad school wisely. If you’re poor, skip that PhD. Definitely skip the MFA. Floss everyday for damn sure. Unless you have a full-ride and you never ever ever have to get into debt to be grad student, do it, Poor One. Telling people that you’re not that kind of doctor your whole life is confusing and hard. Just try to find a job you love.

Graduate school twice (gulp) taught me how to read All The Things. I’ve always loved reading, and I’ve had a public library card since I’ve been a kid (thanks, Mom!). Reading for graduate school taught me how to read, write, and dish it up for the professors and the people who publish academic work and for an audience who might be interested in my brain and it taught me you can write a run-on sentence and it can qualify as “creative writing” (see what I did?). Conceptual and technical writing is a skill, and one that takes years to hone. A lifetime.

Was it all worth it for the job that I have now? You bet. My last three gigs wouldn’t have happened without that Twice Grad School Experiment, and I’m grateful. So thankful. 

But it didn’t help me become a writer. 

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Creative Writing Classes Didn’t Help Me

Hell is other people, and I’m pretty Sartre wrote that while sitting in a room with a bunch of poets competing for resources like fellowships, teaching assistantships, publications, and grants. Did I ever hate creative writing classes, the few that I took! Good grief, those sensitive souls. I’d listen to them in class and I sat wanting to peel off my skin. I’d work so hard to stop my eyes from rolling (this was really hard, I didn’t want to anger the teacher) while they complained about our reading assignments because it took away time from their writing. OMFG Who are you people? I would think. I wanted yell, “Get over yourself! Nobody fucking cares! You’re not that special or interesting. Really!” I quietly died inside every time a teacher wrote to tell me that I had book inside me on my assignments. Each time I would drink myself blind-to-blackout as I read those well-meaning and lovely comments from teachers. They were trying to show me a map to a destination I could not find on my own. 

Write Drunk, Edit Sober

This was the biggest lie I told myself. I hugged this truth so hard it sprouted leaves and grew around me like kudzu until I disappeared. I drank and wrote in bars, hotel rooms, hotel bars, airports, restaurants, cafes. Any place where I could type and somebody would walk by and bring me another. I relished in the fact that I wasn’t that waitress anymore, and I wrote and wrote. Then I would stop, sometime around the third drink, and I’d watch the waitresses and remember how much I seethed with rage when I did that job. I’d feel that anger all again, and it became more vines of kudzu. And the next thing I knew, the drink was gone, and I hadn’t written any words. The cursor would blink as I said, “Sure, I’d love another drink.” 

And the next day, I reread what I wrote, and it was total shit. Complete garbage. Like so fucking bad you wouldn’t think that I had gone to college much less completed several years of graduate school. I’d repeat the same stories that I thought I wanted to tell, or I’d jump off a cliff and rage my brains out about whatever-the-thing-was-that-made-me-angry-that-day. Shit nobody wants to read.

I had to work so hard to edit what I did write during those “writing sessions,” that I would just start all over. 

I’ll write about this more another day. Not today.

So what does work? What is working?

Low-to-No-Commitment Classes

I started last year to dabble with community-education classes, and the minute that teacher bored me, I started to write in class. Rude, I know. I used that time to just draft my thoughts. Normally, I’d sit there thinking of a million ways I could help the teacher improve, but instead I focused on me and my story. I also signed up for this class-like group, and I’ve committed to nine months of this process with meeting with other people about my writing. It’s been super-hard. My job can be very unpredictable, I have big responsibilities with my volunteer work sometimes, and sometimes at the end of the day, I’ve got nothing left in the tank. Luckily, the people in this program are generous, kind, and gracious even though I feel like a shitty student and a really awful participant. But I’m writing. And writing. And forgiving myself for not being the best student I can be. I clocked another 10k of words since I last published here, and I can see my second book way in the distance. So it’s working.

Talking To Writerly People Who Aren’t My Friends

This isn’t to say that my friends aren’t super-helpful and brilliant because they are. But they also know me and my bullshit too well. Or they lived alongside me during the stories that I’m writing, and they have their own versions that I want to ask them about when I hit the editing part of this process. So I don’t talk about it a whole lot. These new writer-strangers in my life (who are becoming friends as a result of this group) are really invested in themselves and their own stories, so they are an empathetic ear. The only thing we have time for is our writing, so that’s all we talk about. Writing. Reading. They are also giving me hope by their sharing their own processes and struggles. It’s one of the most surprising experiences for me. 

Chatting Up a Person Who Is Coach-Like

I’m working with a coach-like person, and I’ll write more about this another time, but man, oh man, is she dissecting my work in ways that blow my mind. She’s younger than me, and she’s in the process of discovering her talents as an editor while writing her own book. She’s fucking brilliant. I’ve worked with a lot of editors and my work always gets better in the hands of somebody else. It’s one of the core principles that I love about Open education (the remixing and revising) so the editor-writer relationship is really important to me. When the right editor has my words in her hands, that’s where things get really amazing. 

Reading A Shit-Ton

Last year, I filled a lot of non-work hours by reading books. More than usual. I set out to read a book a week, and then I did that sometime around August, so I changed the goal to 75. Then I hit 85 books on New Year’s Eve. Thank goodness for libraries and used books and e-Books that you can check-out from the library. After every book, I wrote something about that book. Not a book review, though sometimes I did. 

Dissing All The Writerly Advice

I love books about creativity and I’ll slurp up any memoir you lay in front of me from writers, but I really detest this new-ish strand of advance that tells you that you have to have platform (FFS), a “why” and that helps you “brand yourself” and “market” to your following. The advice that tells you that unless you have over 10,000 “friends” on Facebook that you’ll never get a book deal. Welp. Fuck all that. Maybe that’s true. I’m just not going to chase that path. I love what brings me a paycheck and that whole business of trying to influence your market (so exhausting) with your brand as writer (so gross) gives me the same feeling as being in those Creative Writing classes (ugh). If you use the word “Influencer” in earnest within ten feet of me, I inwardly start to hope I can spontaneously combust and disappear.

Quick side-note: I reserve the right to change my mind about this advice above if a book deal should ever come down the pike, but I’m just not going to worry about building an audience while I don’t even know what the fuck I’m doing. I do what I do on social media and it’s enough for me.

I’m A Writer. Who Knew?

I told a bunch of teachers this week who were very overwhelmed by the prospect of leaving their traditional textbooks that they should just worry about their own houses and then they can worry about their neighbors and their city and their states and the country and the world later. Just focus on your students. I asked them to write about the one thing that their students struggle to learn—not what they struggle to teach—what their students struggle to learn. Boy, did they write. It was an experiment, and I think the teachers got something out of it. We returned to their answers as they explored courses and resources. I totally dug it.

As I stood at the podium while they wrote, I realized that my biggest struggle with becoming a writer is feeling comfortable saying that I am a writer. I’ve struggled with saying I’m writer because I don’t really know what that means. But if I focus on my own house–this little room of my own that Ginny Woolf taught me to care about–then that’s it. That’s it. So simple. You just have to sit down and do the work. Yes.

A writing teacher shared this easy advice recently: Words becomes sentences. Sentences become paragraphs. Paragraphs become scenes. Scenes become chapters. Chapters become books.

And I believe this. I see this with my own work. That’s the change I’m stretching into.

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12 Posts Complete: A Memoir

I promised myself I would post monthly, and I’m happy to report that I will meet that goal when I click publish today. This post will be short (for me) because I’m still on my break from the social, the digital, and all The Things. In other words, I’m on holiday! Like a real vacation, y’all.

I’m taking a break from the digital interwebz and the social because a major part of the cyclocross season is still happening in Europe, and I follow too many cycling things to filter out the news of the races. The Christmas Block, as they call it in cyclocross cycles, has been super fun to watch this year. What an amazing season for women’s field, and for every boring race that the men’s field busts out (one guy predictably crushes everyone), the women duke it out in spectacular fashion that’s been exciting to watch. The Dutch ladies are so inspiring, and we have a few Americans spicing it up too. I love that silly sport so much, and if I can’t be in Belgium this time of year (someday), then I’m going to watch as much of it as I can on the telly. It would be even better if I understood Dutch, but I don’t, so the races with English commentary are a treat.

Speaking of cross, I’ve had my best cyclocross season to date, and I’ve worked my way back to my 2012 era fitness. It feels like a miracle. My current love for stroopwafels notwithstanding; I will race cross-country in four weeks. My last CX race of the season, I did a double-header, meaning I raced twice in one day. I jumped into the single-speed race and got my ass kicked, but it was truly awesome to be on the course with the women’s elite field. The second race of the day was my actual category, and I started off feeling amazing and then suffered to the end. I only got lapped by the top ladies, so that was a major success for me. Like made me giggly-proud of this middle-age beefy bod of mine! Two bikes, two kits, two pre-race meals, two preps for everything–so fancy! Ah, much to report about this season, but I need to get on with the night’s travels to my snowshoe adventures. Or will it be soak-shoe since the rain has not stopped and it’s so warm? Whatevs. I’ll still be in the mountains for two more days.

The holiday season has been swell, thanks for asking. I love this time of year even though it seems like everyone likes to bitch about it. Me and the mister kinda lay low and disappear into this amazing ritual of ours where we turn into complete hermits. We spent some time at a cabin in the mountains and it didn’t snow until the last night so we read by the fire, ate, drank coffee, spent time in the hot tub, talked about our books, took naps, and watched cyclocross. Totally dreamy.

Back in July when I booked this vacay, we were going to dust off the snowboards and rip it up in the snowy trees. And then it started raining. And raining. And raining. And raining. Since it snowed a bit on the last day, winter did stop by, truly. On the way home I hit some black ice that tested my wintery conditions driving skills, so you know, I got some fun in the mountains. My ninja skills behind the wheels kept us safe, mind you. Winter fun? Mission somewhat complete. Dust still collects on my magic Burton board.

Lovely right? Too bad it’s rock-hard-icy “Cascade Concrete” dammit. Photo Credit: C’est moi.

Okay, so what to post here? Where is The Thing?

Dunno. I was going to complete one of my many unfinished blog posts and I’m not inspired to do that. I thought about reflecting on my Intentions for 2019 and I don’t really feel like doing that either. I thought about writing about the 32,731 words that I have for the book I’m writing (omfg!), but I’m not ready to talk about that. Yet. Plus, I’m behind on a bunch of personal-volunteer-type-shit that I thought I’d have done by now BUT because of the lazy-by-the-fire-reading-books-hippy-book-nerdfest-scene that I mentioned above, that ain’t happnen’ either. Nope.

I also started to look through my journal for quality quotes that I could write about, and you guessed it, I’m feeling awfully Bartleby here–I’d prefer not to. Ah, 2019, the year I figured out that the one book I’ve been obsessing about is actually three different books. Three. Different. Books. FFS.

More on that in 2020.

I did, however, find one quote that made me laugh hard at myself. And really, this is what my blog and most of what I do on social media is for–to laugh–at myself. I took the time to copy the following quote in my journal at one point this year as I researched creativity. For some reason, this quote from all of the 85 books I read this year is the one I’m going to leave you with. Because I can. Because it makes me laugh. Because it’s so true. This quote from noted philosopher, Mike Tyson.

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.

Au revoir 2019.

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Photos & A Thousand Words

I’ve been noodling on whether or not to post this, and I’m waking up this morning to the feeling that this post is nothing compared to the everyday challenges I faced as a writing teacher. I’ve been going through old files this week, and I’m reflecting on how much of the students’ lives you see through their writing. I’m often haunted by students from my past that I know didn’t make it because of the harsh realities that most community college students face–so much depends upon which side of the tracks you born on.

Let me tell you a story about a photo.

On the morning that I took the photo that Amanda Coolidge used in her recent keynote, I was sitting in a coffee shop trying to build myself up with the confidence for the day. I had just paid a visit to my parents—people who sacrificed everything to make my life better–it’s always so hard to say goodbye. I was thinking about how they have a difficult time explaining what I do, and to be honest, I struggle to describe this work to people outside of higher education. The jargon of higher education isn’t always easy when you are a first-generation college graduate. Our story is hard to share. 

The day before I took this photo I spent 8 hours in a vendor hall right across a publisher doing focus groups. In the vendor hall, employees of other companies used the language and the research of my colleagues, and they gave Starbucks card after Starbucks card to faculty who shared their opinions about their new pricing structure. Their new day one access. Their new concern for students who could not afford their textbooks.  

Another company a row over was doing similar work, using the same dialogue, and they were angering faculty. It was one of those conferences where they have a passport for a raffle, and every twenty or so minutes, somebody would come up to me with strong opinions using the phrase “You People.” Everyone feels better after they say this phrase. It’s my job to stand there and listen to the outrage. I wasn’t the only table who heard these comments. You People. You People.

Prior to this work I do, I never went to the vendor hall as a faulty member, except, that is, for the “free drinks and food” (paid for by the companies who sponsored the conference, mind you). I avoided eye contact with the sales people, and I never in a million years would have shared my opinions and outrage. I saw them as people who needed to pay their bills. Just like me. Just like me when I was a bartender, a cocktail waitress, cashier, or an adjunct. Just like me in a capitalistic society where nothing is free. I thought it more polite to be quiet, and nibble on my cheese and crackers and talk with my friends. I thought it more effective to organize and do work that undermines their business model. I thought it more effective to help students and faculty the best way that I could. Sharing my strong opinions with them felt like talking into the wind. You People. You People.

That day, the day of the chalkboard photo, it was my job to be in the vendor hall, and I was honestly thrilled to talk with most faculty and administrators. I get to meet a lot of cool people even if this isn’t my favorite venue to do so. In that space, however, I represent the work so many wonderful people who truly care about students. People who care about adjuncts. Teaching. Learning. During the vendor hall gigs, I will gladly sup on a good sauce of spicy campus politics with you. Dish it up! I’m listening. I’ll take an extra side of faculty rage at administrators (and vice versa), please. Give me a dessert of innovative policy topped with administrative creativity, and I’m in heaven. Share a side of adjunct woes, and data-driven work that helps their labor conditions? I’m in love. I’m all ears. Tell me how the shit gets done to help students and teachers, and I’m yours (academic terminology emphasis, mine).

In the best case scenario, this work is pure joy. In the worst case scenario, it’s like bartending, and you are stuck behind the table and have to serve everyone and listen to everything. You People. You People.

That photo that Amanda remixed was taken on a day where I roamed the streets after work searching for part of my youth that no longer exists. Atlanta, like most cities, has been revised and remixed into a more sanitized version of what it once was. Whole neighborhoods were displaced for the 1996 Olympics. Many spots around the downtown area that I remember as a teenager are gone.

What I remember as “home” does not exist. Although truthfully, I never felt like I belonged there, and towards the end of my teenage years I counted the minutes until I could leave that city. It never felt like home to me.

The only place that looked familiar was underground. Five Points Marta Station.
attribution

Quick digression: Have you see those last twenty minutes of “The Deuce” where Vincent walks the streets of modern day Times Square? That’s perhaps one of the most brilliant twenty minutes of the prestige shows on HBO, by the way (paraphrasing my Mister). I got weepy when Paul, the bartender/bath house owner, who asks the best question of the show summarizing the challenges of gentrification: Where will The People live? (Looking at you, Seattle).

Where was I? Oh, right. Feeling seen, as it’s popular to say these days. And Amanda’s amazing keynote. Like Amanda, I’ve struggled to belong. Still. Always. Her story, albeit incredibly different than my own, resonated with me. The Where I’m From Question isn’t easy. Explaining What I Do For A Living can be even harder.

In the talk where I co-presented at this same conference, I said, for some of you, I represent the villain in this work, and I know I will never win you over, and that’s fine. A few years ago, a wise sage shared with me that this work is A Big Tent, and I didn’t quite know what that meant then because I only knew my work, my people, my community. I was pretty naive, honestly. I’ve learned a lot since then. This work, I have learned, is indeed A Big Tent, and I think there is room for a lot of ideas. You may not—and that’s fine too— I’ll adopt the quote that helped me that last week in October from my colleague: You do you, Boo. 

I wanted to present on this topic because I was asked by a dear friend whom I respect and love dearly to join her. Some of my best conversations about teaching are with her! When she shared that she didn’t want to do this talk alone, I wanted to support that vulnerability. That’s what we do in my corner of the tent, mind you, we support one another when we’re vulnerable. And let me tell you, I have felt more vulnerable in 2019 than any year of my life (a story for another time). I felt honored that somebody I respect asked me to present with her—back in April, mind you. I felt like I could support her ideas and share my mistakes. Wholeheartedly. Authentically. And I could learn some new ideas to build on some old ideas.

I presented not to people who knew any of the insider baseball or to those who openly criticize the work that I do. I was there to reach people who are new to this so that they could learn from my mistakes. Just as I have learned from others. 

I don’t remember all of what I said, and as people kept trying to walk into the door, and I looked around at several people in the room who are my heroes, research citations in old papers, friends, collaborators, colleagues, strangers, my boss. I overshared. I said things I wished I hadn’t. I kept a smile on my face. I felt joy listening to my friend talk about this really good idea. This really good idea. For You People. For me. For Everyone. 

What did I hope to get across? I wanted to share that this work is not sustained by rage and anger though it was the flint that started the fire for me. I’ve learned over time that it cannot sustain the passion for my work. I need a short list of things. Hope. Positivity. Joy. Kindness. Heroes are people. Villains are people. Victims are people. I highly recommend that you read the article, that is, if you are one of the lucky few with access to this database. I had to read a shared copy because I do not have access to these journal databases.

A few people on Twitter—that pretty hate machine—shared that they need that anger in response to what was shared about my talk. And I get that. I’ll stand by that bonfire as your guest from to time to time. I get it.

What are the origins of my anger? In the talk, I admitted my deep class resentments (why was I born on this side of the tracks and not you?), my shame of debt we carry for our educations (how else could we have done it?), and the horror of burning out as an adjunct teacher (I loved teaching but those labor conditions crushed my soul). 

The spectre of the imposter syndrome rose up next to me about the doctorate that I thought I’d have by now while standing in front of people who have that D and R in front of their names.  

All of those feelings came from a deep dark place that I’m trying to forget. Trying to forgive. Trying to accept. Trying. 

I used to lift my fist to the heavens shouting “may the bridges we burn light the way” and I loved snarking and sassing my way to some sort of leadership style. Those wishful fires dim the more I learn from faculty who feel deeply frustrated by their current choices. Their current work conditions. Their current state of teaching. The current state of learning.

I shared that one leader advised me that we do this work “one coffin at a time” and I loved that quote for many years. Loved it. Some people in the room knew exactly who said this to me and laughed. Others looked horrified. Others learned a new quote that they will take back to their corner of the tent. 

Almost ten years later, those people (You People) are still alive. Those that retired have come back as adjuncts. The coffins are empty. This work has not grown in those places. But I’m hopeful.

Rage and anger? The flint that started the fire for me. Truly. Those flames dim over time as I walked from workshops with teachers who love their students but have to use materials and outcomes mandated by the accreditation process. On the way to my rental car, I pass by community college students who are clearly living out their cars. The rage and anger does not disappear, it’s just not the emotion that can sustain my work. For me. 

Rage and anger is not how I can start my day. Everyday. As I try to consult with administrators who believe in The Commons yet receive 3% of their budget from the state. As I try to help a leader who has left this work to facilitate a food pantries for students. As I try to help a lead who is no longer supported by her institution to do this work.  

Over time, as I have had the privilege to visit over a 100 colleges and attend many conferences in 18 states to speak about this work, I have found that I can’t walk into a room full of curious people and tell people to “burn it all down” because that doesn’t work. I have the privilege of getting on a plane and going someplace else. Whereas the people I work with have to stay there. They need solutions, ideas, support, and empathy.  

I have since openly-licensed the photo I took because I meant to do it before her talk, and I forgot. It’s done now. Ready for the reuse.

This is the story I wanted to tell you about a photo.

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The Red Pencil

“Always allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind” ~Maria Popova

In a creative writing class, a teacher once told us a story about Raymond Carver who was a legend for reading his published works with a red pencil in his hand. He’d revise his published hard-bound work in front of a live audience.

The words, she said, are never perfect.

Instead of feeling inspired by that anecdote, I remember feeling endless despair. I put my hands to my head and caught the scent of the bleached bar rag from the waitress shift I had just completed. I wondered if I was making a colossal mistake with my life. I remember trying to stop myself from crying because my teacher was this incredible strong feminist. My self-debt glowed like a heat lamp in my chest. Tears gathered, but I could not look weak in front a teacher I was trying to impress. Those women did not cry.

The idea that you’d never be happy with what you wrote—that a great wordsmith and master of scenes like Carver was never pleased–was not what I needed to hear as a student. Fuck, I thought, how will I ever be happy with what I’m producing? I reread sentences of his that I loved from “Cathedral” searching for areas of that he may have deemed worthy of improvement.

Carver wrote these lines with a red pencil in hand:

In those olden days, when they built cathedrals, men wanted to be close to God.

You’ve got to work with your mistakes until they look intended. Understand? 

I’m doomed, I thought. We didn’t have that mind-blowing-up-emoji back then, and I could have used it because I was out of words.

Years later, I reread my journal from that era, and I now see something completely different when I imagine him at the lectern with a red pencil in hand reading to a live audience. Carver had it all figured out really, but I wasn’t ready for that image of a professional writer never being satisfied.

Back then, my self-made misery as a young person eventually contributed to what I thought I could be and what I could do. What I wanted to do. To be. 

My teacher was laying down some real wisdom about writing, and I picked up something completely different than what she intended at the time.

And now I’m ready for that message. I pick up that red pencil (although it’s mostly in the digital form) every day.

The words, I know, are never perfect.

P.S. If you attended my preso with my dear friend, Quill West, I want to express gratitude for your willingness to listen to us share our mistakes and thoughts. I will write about this another time, but for now, I need to post my October blog so that I make my self-imposed deadline of monthly bloggy during 2020.

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Striving

“The real risk is not changing. I have to feel like I’m after something. If I make money, fine. But I’d rather be striving. It’s the striving, man, it’s that I want.” ~John Coltrane

Last weekend my bike team put on our second annual all women and girls mountain bike race, and I overheard a woman say to her friend, I’ll strive to do better next year.

She smiled, hugged it out with her friend, and rung the cowbell that we gave participants as their finishing medals. She had no idea that I was in earshot, that I am the captain of the team (lucky me), and that I had one of the biggest meltdowns in recent history five months ago with the thought of putting on this race.

I woke up one morning in early June, and I just lost it. I felt really overwhelmed by everything I had going on at the time. My plate felt so full I had a hard time prioritizing my time. I felt like that spinning rainbow circle on your computer screen.

Work-wise I was going through another phase where we hired people to do the work that I enjoyed doing, and I took up residence in Panic Town that I was going to be discovered as a complete useless hack. It’s amazing to help hire people who are way more skilled than you, for the record, and really one of these days, I think I will write about the ups and downs and JoyfulTerror ™ of being part of a growing organization. In short, you have to learn how survive hour to hour. Get used to feeling like a yo-yo. Make yourself useful day by day to whomever may need you. Pretend like you have it all together with most people. Melt down on people you trust. Ignore all feelings that you suck at everything. Thanks for reading the first draft of my TedTalk.

Personal-life-wise: I had said yes to too many things. Gawddammit. Again. How many times do I have to learn this? The volunteer work that I had signed up for felt like I was letting people down all the time, and nothing was going smoothly. I felt like I was a disaster at everything. That Yo-Yo feeling at work that I mentioned above? My personal life felt like a bunch of tangled strings.

Writerly-wise: I just wanted to be left the fuck alone to write. And read. And then write some more. I could feel this story coming together in my mind and I had no time to chase it. No time to think about it because of the Yo-Yo and the Tangled Strings. This lack of time and focus was making me grouchy AF.

That morning when I admitted that I had to focus more on the Yo-Yo so I had to cut some Tangled Strings, I drafted an email to the team stating that I couldn’t help put on this race, and really if it were up to me, I would cancel our plans. I wasn’t sure we could pull it off. I typed that email from a super dark place.

Within minutes, maybe even seconds, women on my team responded with phrases like “I can do” and “I can help” and “I’d love to” and “Sign me up for.” As I watched those emails roll in, I realized I should have just asked for help rather than saying that I had to bag out. Saying that I couldn’t do something was easier than asking for help.

Did you catch that?

How many times have I abandoned the hard work of dealing with difficulty because it’s easier to walk away than it is to ask for help? Asking for help means you’re weak. Asking for help means you’re not good enough. Asking for help means you don’t know what you’re doing.

When I overheard that woman say, I’ll strive to do better next year, I felt ten thousand rainbows in my heart. Hearing that declaration also filled me with shame when I thought about how I almost walked away from helping put on this amazing event. I let the rainbows chase away the shame.

I’ll strive to do better next year.

Thank goodness for all of those team mates of mine who said “I can do” and “I can help” and “I’d love to” and “Sign me up for.” That’s really the spirit of teamwork and collaboration. What being a team is all about. Why I volunteer for this hobby job.

What that racer felt is what we’re trying to build with our mission statement. We want more women to race. That racer’s mind was already on next year! What she’ll strive to do. Who she’ll strive to be. Everyone on my bike team believes that racing with other women builds the confidence that we all need in a culture where it is very hard to maintain that feeling. You need those “I can do this” moments to keep your chin up with confidence so you can get through The Yo-Yo Times and The Times of all Tangled Strings.

Racing, I believe, has a spot for every type of woman. You want to be serious a killer who trains year-round? You’re in. You want to wear glitter, dress up in a costume, and compete for the most whiskey shots consumed during the race? You’re in. You want to be solid mid-pack and have fun with your friends? You’re in. You want to race with your daughter? You’re both in.

We can all strive. Together.

Here’s the thing.

I’ve been thinking a lot about asking for help and what that means to all the teaching and learning. As I was scrolling through the stream of things on the interwebs, this list of Coltrane quotes came through, and I chose the one for my epigraph because it sums up the rut I was in a few months ago. He captures the real spirit of how I hope to live my life:

It’s the striving, man, it’s that I want.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of strive is 1] to devote serious effort or energy and 2] to struggle in opposition. It’s interesting to me that this word has a history from the French verb estriver meaning “to quarrel” and some synonyms listed are attempt, try, and essay. Sometimes I quarrel with myself as I attempt to try to write an essay.

 I will strive to do better next year.

That statement has inspired me so much. It’s had me glowing for days. I’m so honored that my team helped make this race happen. Want one more favorite story?

One of the junior girls waited for all of her friends to catch up to her on one of the hill climbs. You know, it was a race, and you don’t technically wait for anyone. She didn’t want to ride the rest of the trails without her friends. I thought about how rare it must be to just ride with your little gurlfrens with no adults. It must be rad! How much I love that story. We don’t deserve little girls, this world.

Photo Credit: Kari Bodnarchuk Wright

Speaking of striving–I’m up to almost 20,000 words with my book, and I’m still in awe that I’m doing it. Like I’m really writing a book. It might suck times to Sunday, but I’m doing it. One of my readers told me she thought it was working, and so what did I do to celebrate? Completely panicked and started writing something else. I’ve decided to enter a local call for writing, and focus on a short piece. Just to clear my brain from the positive feedback. The submission calls for 1500 words, so the 5,541 words that I wrote might need some, uh, editing.

This publication accepted my work in 2012, so I might get rejected to make room for a new writer. We’ll see. I love the spirit of community reads program and the events that go along with it. I also loved the book–To The Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivy–and inhaled it in a weekend. I picked it up first because of her name–Éowyn–she has the name of the character with my second favorite quote in Lord of the Rings: “I am no man!”

Quick Trip To Dork Town:

My all-time favorite Tolkien quote is when Galadriel says:

And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Fucking badass, man. Little Frodo almost greased his shorts when she busted out that feminist edict, right? So great. Elfin feminist rage? Me fucking too, yo.

Okay, I’m clearly losing it. Where was I? Right. Trying to get my monthly post done while trying to make some point. Let me just end it here with another beautiful set of words from The Love Supreme wizard.

One positive thought produces millions of positive vibrations.

Yes.

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As A Writer

This week has been incredibly interesting for me, as a writer. For years, I have to admit, I’ve made fun of the phase “as a writer” because it always sounds so over-the-top. So touchy-feeling. So confident. It’s like giving yourself a title when it’s really up to others to name you. As a writer. You sound a little pretentious. A little like you might stick your little pinky up as you sip your tea. A bit like you take yourself a bit too seriously. If you’ve ever started a sentence with the clause, “Reading this as a writer,” I probably tuned out the rest of what you said in that sentence.

But I’m learning these days that maybe I have it all wrong. As a writer.

I’m learning to think of myself this way, and this week I hit a word count of over 11,000 words on one idea.

Words are becoming my friend instead this avenue of self-despair and pure self-sabotage. These 11,000 words are nothing new. Writing that much isn’t that hard. Give me a rainy morning and fuckton of coffee and watch me go. But these 11,000 words are magic because they are about one focused idea that is all somewhat organized into a story. For the first time, I have a stack of papers that actually has some heft that feels a lot like the makings of a book. About one idea. As a writer.

Two of my favorite bloggers, Kate Bowles and David Wiley, also posted bloggy blogs this week, and I’m still mulling over their finer points. In an ideal world, I’d add to the conversation that they both have started, but in order for me to stay on track with my hobby job project, I want to express my gratitude that they’re putting words out there for me to read. The right words at the right time means so much, that connection of story and thoughts. That’s what keeps me in the blog space. What I still return to Twitter for. Why I scroll through Instagram.

Kate summarized for me in her last post as a reader, the beautiful hard personal question of “Why write?”

Indeed.

I always admire the way that Kate can braid together three threads while presenting another question to consider. A true teacher. As a writer. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve said “I prefer not to.” What those words mean after a day of writing for work. How there are sometimes no words left. As a writer.

And Wiley’s bloggy blog is a history lesson about what is possible and how we get there in blog-essay form. What a word artist. What a teacher. Some days I feel that if Montaigne were alive in the blog era he’d essay it up to answer the question: Que sais-je? As a writer.

Both bloggers are not only teaching, they are writing what they know with an audience. The audience of self. And others who may read. And that’s everything to me.

As a writer.

This past weekend I went to my very first writing retreat with about 12 other people, and I completely dug being a student for a weekend. It was our first meeting after almost three months of purely online interaction. And I’m floating from such a lovely weekend, and extra special love to my friend Tami for cooking me mother fucking delicious dinners, letting me sleep in my van in your driveway, and for the extra time writing on your deck. Magical weekend. As a writer.

During the retreat there was a lot of information about other people’s stories, the physical way that writing helps people work through trauma. And I had an epiphany about “the market” of the type of book I’m trying to write (not that I’ll ever sell it, but whatevs). Here’s why I’ve been filled with despair about this story I want to tell (for years), and how much I’ve struggled with the title “writer” (for years).

Much of what I want to write about will never appeal to a mass market. Here’s why I don’t think I fit into the Oprah-ication of the Memoir Zeitgeist. Quick list.

1] I’ve never had sex with anyone that I didn’t want to.

2] I’ve never been a drug addict,

and 3] my family’s Good People.

Sounds like a fucking country song. You know, life’s kinda worked out for me. I’m not that wounded, and I’m incredibly lucky compared to others. And I suppose I write in that spirit that Monsieur Montaigne intended, only I’d add the work “fuck.” Que sais-je, faaaawwwwk?

Trying to tell a story in the written form requires a lot patience and practice. I said most of these chapters in bars over the years. Or I’ve confessed standing around campfires. But I’m committed to doing this. To writing this book.

I really like the nine-month writing program that I’ve joined (come hell or high water) and I adore the people who are involved, and by golly their stories and motivations are really a joy to hear.  I had the privilege of people really examining my story piece by piece this weekend, and listening to hot mess of words in the mouths of others was so productive to me. I listened to the video of what I said (with mild horror) and how others summarized it this morning, and I loved it. Every minute.

Here’s the thing.

What I struggle with, as a writer, is the genre of confessional memoir. Memoirs are marketed for their drama, trauma, and sad as fuck denouement. I mean, who doesn’t love the last words of person who struggled and lost with suicide. You sick bitches! Who doesn’t a story about how love blows everyone apart? Pass the popcorn! Who doesn’t love a story about somebody’s life falling apart? On pre-order from the bookstore! Who doesn’t love a redemption story about how one recovers from [enter shitty thing that humans do to another here]? Sign me up.

My denouement isn’t that earth shattering. I would like to teach people something. Maybe make them laugh. With me. At me. I don’t care. As a writer.

You know, my little bildungsroman of a young woman compared to the stories of true sadness and horror just doesn’t fit the zeitgeist, man. Fuck it. I’m still going to write it. C’est denouement be damned.

The added writing retreat bonus was I got a peek at how one of these retreats work. Would love love love to teach something like that, y’all. Holyhotdamn. The whole experience reminded of when I taught Saturday classes that met from 9:00-3:20pm. Those were long days of composition classes where the students did online work during the week and then we met face-to-face. The class was specifically for career adults who worked weird shifts, and every single one of my students wanted to be there. Very rare experience as a community college teacher, mind you. I loved that class. That summer the college grounds crew hired a herd of goats to eat up the blackberries on the hillside. My class and I were on Goat Watch all summer. It was awesome.

Also time in a workshop setting without a computer lab was fascinating to me. It’s been ages since I was in a learning environment without a computer, and it was odd to write so much by hand. Analog. I missed my magic machine. Typed like a banshee once I was back to it.

I was asked to repeat “I Stood For” as a writer and I said the following. It was a little touchy-feely, but it was a retreat after all. Totally got with the program.

Here’s how the scribe heard me, and she wrote these words in my journal:

  • I’m telling a story that I’ve wanted to tell
  • A woman who learns about backpacking, so it’s about being a woman, but for anyone
  • Humor
  • Learning from mistakes
  • Teaching others from these mistakes
  • Brave
  • Trying to relate to her through story
  • Taking time to write
  • Taking time to connect with others
  • Trying to do something I’ve always wanted to do
  • Trying to be the writer I’ve always wanted to be
  • Life as a writer
  • Life
  • Time as a writer

So that’s what I’m working on. Why, I don’t know, but it’s something I love doing. Scoping out the entire journey of my narrator is really fun—the narrator is already a bit unreliable there, eh? She has a terrible memory, drank a bit too much at times, and forgets names. Flawed. Imperfect. Becoming.

As Flaubert says about his narrator in Madame Bovary so shall I:

C’est moi. 

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Silence

Let me give you a poem in these last hours of July:

The silence that lies in the grass

on the the underside of each blade

and in the blue space between the stones.

These sweet words of space and color are from Rolf Jacobsen, a poet quoted in a book that I read this month in the backcountry, titled Silence In the Age of Noise by Erling Kagge.

Lovely, right?

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Now and Next

Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. ~Rick Hanson

Here it is. Month six of my once-a-month-bloggy-goal this year. I must admit that I’m kind of phoning this one in because I’m really exhausted and homesick. The month ends tomorrow, and I need a day without the laptop and the phone so this will be what is. Forgive half-baked thoughts and typos. I’ve been in west Texas for three days, and as much as I love the work I’m doing, I feel so out of place in that part of the country. I miss my dog. My bikes. My walking trails. My snarky husband. Temperatures where human beings can be outside without dying of exposure and extreme dehydration.

So. What to write about during my two-hour layover in the DFW? An airport that somehow consistently smells like a cocktail of cheap perfume, hangover skin, and Panda Express. Give me the honest smells of body odor and Bacardi breath you get at LaGuardia any day.

Most of what I’m writing about in my personal journal I’m not ready to share yet, and it’s Saturday so I want to give the jobby job journal thoughts a rest. I keep two journals, and somebody shared with me that they thought this was a great idea. It’s more to carry when you travel, but I find it helpful to separate my thoughts and to-do lists. It’s something I’ve done for about six or seven years, and it works in times of acute stress. I write them both by hand.

My brain is most tired, and I’m facing 12 or 13 hours of travel today. Who wants to read about that?

I will share that I adore a VPI that I met yesterday! She smiled when I shared the first online teaching advice I received was to “put all of my handouts online.” A story I’ve told many times as I talk about how we have improved with OL/HY designed teaching. While I was presenting, I thought, “Oh fuck, I’ve offended her. Did I sound too dismissive? Crap. Crap. Crap.” I gotta watch it here in the land of big big bucks invested in all the quality that matters. I always fail to explain that I’m not dissing the certification and the canned processes of professional development–I’m thankful for any attempt to improve shitty OL/HY classes. The silver lining of those certifications gray when I see how much it costs to get that stamp of approval on your OL/HY class when students have no idea what the fuck it all means. How much money a select few of reviewers make with a process that can be done in half the time. How nobody measures whether anyone changes anything about their courses as a result of those trainings. And if they did change something, what works? What doesn’t? How do other teachers learn about it? Why invest in anyfuckingthing that doesn’t directly help students? Hold on, Ranty McRanterson. Keep the Saturday Bloggy spirit light.

Okay, where was I? Oh, yeah. Finding a Sister Fren VPI! We bonded over remembering WebCT! That’s it. Plain and simple. I can always reminisce about what was the best idea at the time, and I find the history (and its criticisms) of educational technology fascinating. I think she expected me to diss it all down and brag all about the possible shiney future techy ideas, and you know, that ain’t my style. I like to talk about what works and how we can make things better without burning it all down. Leaders who lived through the early days of online learning are where it’s at. They get it. We also bonded over a nursing department that still relies on CDs for their students to complete the state-license exam. The mother of fuck, right? Glad to know that the cutting-edge technology needed to save my life requires a boom box compact disc player in order to study. Where is a 19 year old finding a CD player these days? Christ. The one education where you can hop-skip from being poor to the middle-class in just a few years—mostly for women–is totally owned from the study guides to the state-licensure by the Giant Pubby Grubbers. And I’m dying to know if there is major underground market of pirated materials. There has to be.

Oh. Okay. I should really get to a point. Merci mon amour, je t’aime if you’re still with me.

Two weeks ago, I was the lead contact on my bike team’s mountain bike clinic, and I learned a really hard lesson. I can’t be the lead and participate as a sweep and be good at both. I think I pulled it off—meaning I fooled other people into thinking I was a-oky-dokey when I was dying inside. The whole experience left me so drained emotionally that I haven’t been able to process anything from the weekend. Then I jumped into an intense two weeks of work, blah blah so tired blah blah so grouchy blah blah STFU, Indrunas.

Let me describe the the sweetest moment of the clinic weekend. For me.

For those of you who have never participated in a bike clinic like this, let me humblebrag it and say we put on the best weekend for women and girls, and I wish I could do it every weekend all summer. I’m so in awe of all the women on my team who just busted out all of the work. We have created something amazing. So special. There was a point where I looked around at all of the women and girls riding bikes in the field and all the pieces of my life clicked with sparkly joy. Like lake water shimmering in the sun.

We try to keep a seven-student-to-one coach ratio in the groups, and there is always a Sweep with each group, or a person who rides at the back to make sure we don’t leave anyone behind. Sweeps also demo moves and help the coach whatever she needs. The past two years I’ve been a sweep for the beginners, and this year I was super-sonic nervous to be paired up with the intermediate group. My coach, Anne Galyean, is a former professional racer and we were tasked with a group who has some experience mountain biking. And let me tell you, I loved my group! They were all so sweet, and I saw all of them make great strides over the two days we shared on bikes listening to the badassery of Anne. Ladies, I floated for days when I thought of our time together.

And for me, I love love love listening to people who can teach. I’ve learned that any cocky yahoo can present on talking points, but a true teacher/coach inspires people. Makes people feel like they can do something. Makes people feel like you’re making a true connection. Makes people feel like they can do that thing too. Makes people feel like they are something different from when you first got together. Magic.

I tried to share what I could but I really wanted to let Anne run the show. She is a great coach, and what I loved about her style on the bike is how easy she makes it look. The bike and the body become one instantly when she clicks into the pedals–the hours and hours she’s spent in the saddle is the exact grace we’re all aiming for when we take a clinic like this.

The best part of our clinic is the group of coaches that we bring together. I love them all so much, and I can’t wait to bring them back next year.

Here’s the thing.

Anne did this awesome little drill on the trail to teach us about reading lines on the trail, or where you will steer your bike on a trail. Something that’s really hard to teach because it usually happens at speed, and it’s hard to describe what you’re doing.

She told us that she had a pocket full quarters and she was going to drop them on the trail. She wanted us to ride slowly, scan the trail, and count the quarters for about fifty yards or so. My group of seven rode off, and when I followed them I didn’t see any quarters. I rode up, stopped, and stared at everyone.

Anne asked, “Did anyone see the quarters?”

We all shook our heads no. Rather than getting all “Got ya! Tricked ya into learnin’ something. Haha!” she launched into explaining how we scanned the trail carefully, and that sometimes that’s what you have to do to make sure you are ready to react to what’s next on the trail.

She called that “Now” and then she demonstrated what “Next” looked like.

She over-exaggerated with her eyes to look ahead and then down while saying “Now” and “Next.” It was exactly what that group needed, and I loved seeing it click for them. What a great way to empower your students when they are learning something hard. Just pause and teach them something easy so they feel good about what they’re learning overall. You can see roots ahead now, and maybe you have to prepare for the switchback next. Now. Next.

As she rode ahead, she kept repeating “Now” and “Next.” As we rode throughout the day, she’d point out how we use that sighting skill. “Now” and “Next” I’d hear her say as I watched seven women try to pedal and keep up and apply all that they were learning.

She broke down the “Look Where You Want To Go” advice that you hear in cycling, snowboarding, and skiing. I’ve never heard anyone explain the two steps that actually get you there. You look at what you’re riding now in order to see what’s next while you’re looking where you want to go. Nicely done, Anne. Simple. Genius.

So I’ve been thinking about the Nows and Nexts with all the teaching and learnings.

Which brings me to a great podcast that I listened to this week! I’m a little late to podcast craze. I’m not a big fan of books on tape— I’ll be honest I don’t really consider that reading. How sad that you don’t sit and see the words that the writers bleed on the page, I think. How contrived the voices are who read the books, I think. Give me the words. Always. Or make a really great movie—otherwise, I got zero love for books on tape. And thus, I’ve put the podcasts into Ho-Hum Audio category.

What’s brought to the podcaster-y is my new devotion to working out regularly. Training, I guess you could say. I’m running on treadmills at hotels. I’m pedaling on our new Bike Robot (what I’ve named our new computerized bike trainer). I’m walking longer distances. I need something for those hours to keep my brain from spiraling into a black hole of despair about the Nows and the Unknown Nexts. A book that I read advised a certain podcast, and I gave it a shot during one of my runs. Turns out, I kinda dug it. When I can’t really sort what music I want to listen to, these podcasts are filling that space in my head. Who knew?

This week I decided to listen to the Teach Better podcast featuring my Tweep/Hero/Fren Kevin Gannon. Full disclosure, I met Kevin in person in 2015 at the New Faculty Developer Institute where I died a million deaths of the imposter syndrome when I saw that he and Lee Skallerup Bessette were there as students and yours truly was a “faculty” member. Lee wrote an awesome summary of that experience if you want to check it out. I’ve been a religious follower of Kevin’s on Twitter–whether it’s for photos of his dogs or when he’s sparring with fascist buckets of shit. Most of Twitter sparks very little joy for me these days. I’ve stopped following a great many hashtags that I used to love. That’s a story for another day.

Back to the podcast-y thoughts! As I was trying to keep my Bike Robot pedal watts above 175 (why is that so hard?), I listened to the hosts and Kevin rap about teaching. I found myself wanting to add ideas, and I laughed out loud when they talked about Monty Python and their favorite teachers. I felt like I was hanging out with my Teacher Brahs.

What stuck with me was when they (I’m not sure who said what—three dudes with deep voices are hard to parse. That’s the challenge of the podcast for me—it’s hard to tell who said what unless it’s like two distinct voices like Tavis Smiley and Cornel West). I do think it was Kevin who mentioned that we—meaning teachers—were the students at the front of the room hanging on every word of the teacher and we are now  faced with the challenge of teaching the students who sat behind us in the classroom.

Yes. Most interesting.

Yes. For those of us in charge of teaching people who are not early adopters of certain teaching practices, we’re faced with trying to reach teachers who never ever come to the teaching and learning center. And they could give a fuck about changing what they do in the classroom.

Yes. Most interesting.

What I took from that bit of the conversation was the challenge that every teacher faces when he/she learns that most students don’t care about your discipline. They are there for the credit. How do you make them care? How do you help them learn?

The day that I realized that my Comp II course was the last and final English course that my students would ever have to take again, and that they really didn’t care about a course that I loved, changed everything for me. I had to find another path to keep myself happy and interested because I was teaching just another gateway course. Course after course after course. I was one stop on the degree conveyor belt, and those students didn’t really care about Now—if I may bring that coaching language back around–they only cared about Next. I was the same way when I was a student. Truly.

Kevin did mention one thing—I know it was his voice—and that’s the importance of having a beginner’s mindset. He was quoting Zen Buddhism there, and I dug that thought. That’s the key to any good teaching experience. You have to remember what it was like to be a beginner. When Next stresses you out because you get really lost trying to find the Now. You can’t even look where you want to go because it’s just not clear.

I’ll leave you here with the definition of Shoshin. Something the most humble teachers I respect practice. My hopefulness in the Now and Next defined:

Shoshin (初心) is a word from Zen Buddhism meaning “beginner’s mind.” It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would.

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Three Dark Nights of The Soul

“…people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things.” ~Joan Didion “On Self-Respect

I’m traveling to my fifth state in seven days, and I’m currently sitting in an airport waiting for a my second delayed flight. Not my best space for contemplative writing, but I need to publish a blog post so I can hit my (sad) goal of publishing digital words once a month. Thank you in advance if you stuck this one out with me.

Technically it’s a new month, but the last two weeks have felt like one long day so I can do whatever I want. Self, you met your May deadline. Just a day late.

I want to write about creativity in order to share some ideas of what I’ve been reading. In my free time (also known as when I can’t sleep or when I’m trying to avoid people in public places like airports), I’ve been taking an online class on project management. It’s been awhile since I’ve taken an online class, and it’s been even longer since I’ve read up on project management, so I thought I’d log-on to an affordable self-paced OL course. Why not? I got through a few of online modules. Felt like I was accomplishing something. Felt like I was advancing my skills that pay the bills.

Then I got a little bored of the recorded lectures and the readings weren’t that interesting and then I started questioning whether the content truly supported the learning outcomes and then found myself rewriting the verbs in the learning outcomes. Shit was going south with my learning, in other words. My Inner-Perfectionist was like, “You must finish what you started or you’re a failure.” Then my Inner-Spicoli-Like-Brah was like “Fuck that noise, man, I’m out. I’d rather look at bike pics on Insta. Danger is my business.”

I quit the class.

Instead I started reading a book that was recommended reading in the class. See how I’ve grown! I skipped the Required Reading and went straight to what sounded interesting. I checked out the eBook from my public library and I inhaled it during a flight and then wrote a ton of things I’ll never share anywhere. It was magic. That class that I didn’t finish? Totally worth it. Thanks to that book, I’m now behind on every project I’m involved with. Totally worth it.

Here is the best graphic to describe where I am right now with two hobby job projects in my life:

Screen Shot 2019-06-01 at 3.42.28 PM

from Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon

So first of all, I laughed out loud really hard on my flight when I saw this, and I scared some snoring dude awake. Sorry, Stranger! You scored by sitting next to a Cray-zay-Lay-day who laughs into her Kindle. Lucky you!

“The Dark Night of The Soul” is where I tend to live on a daily basis with a lot of creative endeavors, but I put on a happy face for other people in my life. This diagram of a project is everything to me right now. Everything. And let’s face it, it’s really funny, right? It makes me sad that I didn’t think of it. So good.

But you know, given who I am, and how I think, I had to use of the magic of the interwebz to research this phrase a bit. I discovered an attribution to Hazrat Inayat Khan, who said, “There can be no rebirth without a dark night of the soul, a total annihilation of all that you believed in and thought that you were.”

Shit. Way to sum up the last couple of weeks.

And then it all took me down a delightful rabbit hole of reading about spirituality, metaphysics, and all the hot and heavy words about the Meaning of Life from some choice yogis. I’m not going to recap all of that jazz here, but thanks to some algorithm I got a lot of targeted ads for rose quartz crystal lamps and meditation pillows and sexy yoga tops and and matching bedspread sets from big box stores that honor the light in me and my disposable income. Namaste.

Okay, I’m not going to write about the heavy questions of life, I want to talk about creativity. Specifically writing.

I think there are three categories of the Dark Night. For me. As a writer.

The first Dark Night of the Soul occurs when I get myself into something that I know I don’t have the energy for, yet I force myself to do it because I don’t like to let people down that I care about. This is the self-inflicted suffering of overbooking myself or (over)committing to things I know I don’t have time for, and thankfully the older I get, the more I’m okay with saying no. I start a lot of conversations in my volunteer work with “I love that idea and somebody needs to do it; it’s just not something that I can do right now. Can you volunteer the time?”

These kind of dark nights take away time from when I can read and write, and thus I’m not the best person I can be. I know this.

The second Dark Night of the Soul is the result of things I can’t control. Shit just rolls down the pike of life and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. My reaction to these things, however, makes all the difference. (See, I pay attention in yoga class).

This is also a skill that I learned as a waitress, and one that I’ve carried into my career. Sometimes you have to get through the shift and do the shit that needs to be done. What’s the point of bitching about it?

This Dark Night leaves me with little time and energy to read and write, so I try to wake up early so I can write 500 or so shitty words and read a chapter before the days starts. I set an alarm, lose sleep, and I do it.

Some days I don’t get to work on the things I really want to work on, so I daydream about them every minute I can. I’ll see the words in my mind and sneak away moments to savor whatever it is I’m obsessing about. This Second Dark Night I can’t control and I have to live through it. Sometimes it feels like it will never end.

I just have to be patient. It ends. I know this, but I often forget. I so often forget.

The third Dark Night of the Soul is when I just get stuck. And this is where I’ve been for about the last six months as a writer. Since this is the hardest Night to describe, let me tell you story about riding bikes to try to describe how it feels.

For the past two months, I’ve been trying to ride with flat pedals instead of riding with shoes that connect to my pedals on my mountain bike. You have to use flat pedals if you’re going to coach mountain biking, so I thought I’d take the time to commit.

Quick digression Ferda Bike Nerds: I’m a CrankBrothers Candy Pedal girl. I tried to love SPDs, but I almost broke my ankle on those things. I missed the SPD boat in the 90s so I don’t dig them. Candies are the way. I love how the mud just blows out those egg-beater beauties. And their logo is kinda bitchin’ in my eyes.

Okay, where was I? Oh, learning something new. Right. Pissed me off ten ways to Sunday, those fucking pedals. Oh. My. God. I hate flat pedals. I tried. I truly tried. I got me some cool looking shoes that all the cool kids swear work better for riding in the Northwest. I haven’t been this pissed off on a bike in twenty years. Guess I’m not going to be a coach.

On the one hand, I was like, “Oh, I teach people all the time to do new things. This might teach me empathy for learning something new. It’s sometimes painful to learn new things. Blah blah blah, empathy. Blah, blah, blah, experiencing new things. Blah, blah, blah, this will make me stronger.”

After my 8th ride, I was like, “Fuck this fucking fad. If the fastest mountain bikers on the planet ride clipped in, so will I, dammit. Fuck you, Enduro Bro Culture. You can stuff it in your fanny pack! Give me my Candies back. My time to ride is too precious; I don’t have time to learn anything new. Flat pedals aren’t for me. When I’m good enough with these pedals, why change?”

Second digression Ferda Bike Nerds: My husband had already switched out my pedals the day I worked myself up into lather about My Big Decision To Not Be A Flat Pedal Rider. He had already switched them for me without me knowing, so he didn’t need The Big Speech. So that was like one of the most romantic gestures ever or he had already decided that he was tired AF of hearing me bitch. Either way, style points for days for the zen master that puts up with my shit.

So back to the Dark Night of the Soul. This is the most interesting Night because it takes me bit to see an answer that is already there. Every time. It’s like the blue bright sky that is always above the cloudy storms that delay flights out of fucking Chicago no matter what time of year it is. You know the blue sky is there. The night, though, is really dark.

The Bike Pedal Digression wasn’t really about the Dark Night of the Soul, but it did help me describe how it’s sometimes really painful–literally and figuratively–to move on from that low point. After dealing with bloody scarred legs and stupid crashes, I decided to stay with what I know and feel good about it with my mountain bike riding. I could move on. I could move forward. Finally.

That’s the sunrise after the dark night, so to speak.

This painful low-point is what helps you gain creative momentum again. Happiness.

Here’s The Thing.

I’ve been sitting with an idea that I want to write about for a very long time, and I think I see a path to completing it. Finally. It’s going to be hard, but if I don’t try, I’ll never be able to move on. No other stories can stay alive in my brain until I get this one out and on the page.

I desperately want to get to the upswing of “It’s done and it sucks.”

That’s why I laughed like a madwoman on the flight when I saw this image. I want to be done. I know it might suck. But I need it done. I need to write it.

So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to write This Thing and be part of This Thing I’ll Write About Later.

I honestly need a break from All The Open and The Teacher Things because it’s the jobby job right now, which makes my heart and brain full. I’m lucky in so many ways and I’m so grateful for all of the smart people in my life.

If you’ve found my work because you wanted more of the Open and Teacherly, please click on the Teachery Tags to the right. There’s enough there about those topics for a good six or so months of reading. Or I can recommend a self-paced project management course you get get half way through.

For now, let me return to my epigraph, and what I think Joan is preaching in that essay. She reminds me of what it means to have character. Regret. Intention. To be human. How the shape of an essay can move past my eyes and feel the way my arms do when they cut the water when I swim. The way my feet feel when they’re attached to my pedals. The way the right sentence sits with me all day. The way the right words are what I need to read but didn’t know it until I read the sentence five times. How a sentence can thread the needle of a perfect thought that I wish I wrote.

I need to write the book I need to read. So I’m really going to try.

Anais Nin captures that feeling of the trapped story: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful that the risk it took to blossom.”

Yes.

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