Category Archives: Writing and Reading

Entries about the art and craft of writing and commentaries or reviews of stuff I read

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: Time On Our Side?

time-perception-mysteries-e1521774277250

Synchronicity, as Jung described it, is a meaningful coincidence, an “acausal connecting principal.” Things happen back to back that seem to be meaningfully related; even though the first thing could not be said to have caused the second thing, we still feel the buzz or the chill of revelation, usually in a thrilling and positive way. We’ve all experienced these, but some of us experience them more often than others, some of us perhaps experience them all the time. I tend, when I am feeling inspired or especially creative, on the cusp of the next big idea for writing or teaching, or in the company of inspiring friends, to experience synchronicity in pretty heavy doses. Like now.

Last week, wrapping up my study with 9th graders of e. e. cummings, I shared with them a poem I wrote a couple of years ago about time, or rather, how we live within it, and whether or not, as cummings is constantly asking, we are being or unbeing in our experience of time. Today, at my bi-weekly meditation group meeting, time was the subject and the theme, our relationship to our past and future selves and the way in which we might have dialogue with those selves on our way to a spiritual goal. Then I got in the car to drive home, turned on NPR, and began listening to the TED Radio Hour, and guess what the topic was at noon? Time. I’ve been writing a blog series titled “Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year.” There have been two penultimate years now in a row, hence the “Redux” in the current title. Both the words “penultimate” and “redux” are inextricably time-tied words. I don’t know how many more years will be penultimate ones, but it strikes me now more than ever that I am increasingly aware of keeping track, counting up, remembering, thinking about, appreciating, and playing with TIME. I don’t know that I have anything wise to say about it. Let’s find out.

The current wisdom, one that I aspire to and espouse, is that one should try to live in the moment, to be fully present, but one of the Ted Talk Time Theorists was saying that this is a mistake, that only the past and future are real, that the present is illusory, that each moment is behind us in the instant we give thought to it. Maybe that is true, but I still think there are huge qualitative differences in the way of being present in the present–as everyone knows who has ever tried to have a meaningful exchange with someone who is looking at a smart phone, or has ever failed at a task in the moment because of anxiety about something in the future or in the past. I meditate, in large part, to mediate distraction, to ground myself in the moment, to have 15 or 20 minutes a day when my only concern is the breath going in and the breath going out. And while I say that, I know how sometimes excruciatingly bad I am at this–even in silent meditation, my mind is alway teetering between the past and the present, remembering and planning, remembering and planning. So, here are a few more takeaways about time that I gleaned from today’s meditation and today’s TED Radio Hour:

  • People tend to think of themselves as having “arrived” in the current moment–to see themselves in the present as the best yet version of themselves.
  • We feel gratitude toward our past selves, even if he or she was an asshole.
  • Our future self is very encouraging to us, mostly telling us to keep doing what we’re doing, that everything’s going to work out for the best.
  • There’s something really weird, special, and ubiquitous about 4 in the morning.
  • Our memory of our past is not very good–we should make some kind of record of it.
  • Time can make us simultaneously happy and sad: Exhibit A–finding yourself in tears when you look at a picture of your kid from four years ago. Exhibit B: being so happy in the presence of a beloved friend that you want to cry and often do.
  • Time is experienced differently by young people than it is by older people, creating the illusion that it passes more slowly for children and more quickly for adults. That’s because the older you are the more understanding you have of your own mortality.
  • We don’t know if time existed before the Big Bang. The universe is expanding at an ever increasing rate. The universe is a big place and it’s not the only one. We are hurling through space.
  • Time will tell.
  • Time after time.
  • It takes time. These things.
  • Time is probably not on my side.
  • And a joke I saw on Facebook today: What did Dickens have in his spice rack? The best of thyme, the worst of thyme.

In the not so distant future, I will write a poem every day in the month of April for the 7th year in a row. In this way, I will make a record of the time. I’ll close with a blast from the past, my 264th blog poem, the poem I shared with my students last week inspired by e. e. cummings and a prompt from the napowrimo website to compose a thing called a “bop.”  

#264: to be anywhereish

(a bop inspired by e.e. cummings)

to be anywhereish and everywhereish
all at once is to be at the mercy of somewhereishness,
and that’s a huge, unmindfulish problem.
someplace else is really no place and you
wander about sheepfully looking for anywhere
but where you are in the nano of the moment.

time is not on your side; no it ain’t.

you may have holdings in the future tense.
you may have findings in the yesteryearly nest.
but the problem is still that there is no now here
and there is not even there anymore, besides.
don’t look at me like that, you goat, not when,
not where. you sit there in your forward engine
and you, clueless, mathless, autocorrect yourself
until the starstuff between your ears spills outwardly.

time is not on your side; no it ain’t.

i think there’s an unsolution. Look deeplyish
at the center of anything and do what no one ever
tells you to do: that’s right, don’t eat that peach.
a friend of mine around sunday kept naming
a tangerine a nectarine. so in the now he forgot
everything, even names. Somewhere in there: that’s it.

time is not on your side; no it ain’t.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: Teacher Appreciation and Spring Break Randomness

First of all, here’s a thing a student of mine wrote in response to the question: what does e. e. cummings say in his poetry about being and unbeing?

When e.e cummings talks about being and unbeing the message that he’s pretraying [sic] is that to be [is] not to be and not to be is to be[,] is the perspective that living is to dying as walking is to running.

This student is either on to something way over my head or he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Either way, I found it a thrill to read out loud. I love the (I think) unintentional nod to Hamlet here, and I am amused by the idea that Hamlet was speaking, not so much about whether to live, but rather, as cummings is doing, speaking about HOW.

Then, teacher appreciation week. It is supposed to happen in May, but our administrative team, in their wisdom (seriously), made it happen during the last week in March, during classified staff appreciation week, in order to ensure that the two appreciation weeks happened simultaneously so that one appreciation week was not overshadowed by the one that follows, to make sure that the certified staff and the classified staff received the same level of love and attention. We all got rocks decorated and painted to look like us, mostly. Mine was good; the hair was perfect. We got a breakfast on Wednesday. We got fancy hand sanitizers on Thursday. We got t-shirts and free coffee on Friday and healthy snacks all day long. And then we got (the Pièce de résistance) Spring Break. Overall, one of the best appreciation weeks of my career. Outside of the rock from the leadership kids, however, students on the whole still seem oblivious to appreciation weeks.

Spring break. On this first day I am home alone. Thinking about a beach trip with the family. Planning to attend the Association of Writers and Writers Programs (AWP) Annual Conference, this year hosted in my own lovely city, where I’ll learn some stuff, see some famous people, schmooze a little by talking to folks about possible places to publish a book, and meet a bunch of friends from my MFA program. I’m writing this little blog entry. And I am gearing up internally for National Poetry Writing Month, when I will, I think for the fifth or sixth year in a row, write a poem a day for a month and post each one of those little nuggets right here on the blog. So I hope you’ll come visit.

I’m trying to finish a review for the new book by David Shields. It’s a difficult one to write, not because I am anything shy of enthusiastic for the work, but because the subject matter is difficult to write or speak about publicly. For now I’ll just let loose the title and you’ll immediately see what I mean: The Trouble With Men: Reflections on Sex, Love, Marriage, Porn, and Power. Initially, I was just hoping to have a small thing to post in the review sections of amazon or Goodreads, but I’m also toying with the idea of writing book reviews here on the old bloggy blog, so it may turn out to be a little more than a blurb, and Shields’ book would be a good, if not risky place to start. Let me know if you have thoughts.

Finally, I posted a haiku on Facebook yesterday, but not a single one of its 30 readers seemed to recognize the form, I think because they were somewhat distracted by the irony of the post, that my dog destroyed the glasses manufactured by a company that donates its profits to dogs, and by the accompanying photos. I’ll leave you here with the picture, followed by the poem, a little warm-up for April:

 

My dog, she ate my
glasses. So I got a new  
pair from Fetch Eyewear.
Postscript: Fetch Eyewear is a local outlet for glasses that donates 100% of its profits to animal welfare. Check ’em out.

 

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Stuff, Stuff, Stuff; the Excavation and Removal (?) of Stuff; Holding On To or Letting Go of the Record of Me

A burst pipe (circa 1930) in the basement necessitates the removal of 40 some years of accumulated stuff buried in a storage closet we fondly refer to as “the scary room.” There’s a bunch of shit in there, we know, that needs to go, stuff that’s doing no one any good. Now that we’ve had to move it out in order to remove an old slab of water-soaked, rotten linoleum, we’re given this opportunity to check this stuff out, to finally look at what has hitherto been, you know, out of site and out of mind:  Old photos we never look at, in frames, in albums, in boxes, photos of René and I over the last 32 years, photos galore of our beautifully photogenic progeny, a whole lifetime of photos from my parents and their parents, super 8 family movies from cousins, storage crate after storage crate of holiday crap, boxes and buckets of various memorabilia, original packaging for gear and electronics and doodads back to which these various things will never return, and, of particular annoyance to my wife but of a kind of introspective curiosity to me, is tons and tons of old writings and art projects of mine: my first attempt at fiction as a 6th grader, album art for imaginary bands I was in, a couple of pieces from high school English, but tons of writings, almost everything I’ve ever done quasi-seriously, from 1984 to the present day, literally reams of college essays, research projects, writings about teaching, and boatloads of poetry, abandoned novels, and short stories. I posted on to facebook the question: why can’t I toss this stuff out? And someone replied (a former student of mine, if I’m not mistaken), that these things are my extra limbs.

I think she’s right, to a certain degree. Someone very wise once said that we are not our writing, but rather, our writing is a record of moments moving through us. Fine. I get that and agree with that. No longer limbs, they are vestigial limbs, part of my evolution as an artist, a snapshot of me throughout various stages of my life, much more vivid and certainly more revealing than a photo. And yet, will I read this stuff ever again? Well, I read some of it today and it both embarrassed and impressed me. The 6th grade fiction was clearly terrible, but perhaps not for a 6th grader. This kid wrote like 400 pages. The stuff I wrote very early in college was perhaps more embarrassing, because I saw myself there as a very silly young person who was preoccupied with his own overblown sense of cleverness. Maybe not until I’m 20 or 21 do I start to develop some skill, I start to develop something of an authentic voice, I begin sketching the outline of the issues and themes that would become my obsessions and wouldn’t find themselves into novels of somewhat mature fiction for another 15 years. Some of the poetry I wrote when I was 20 I still think is pretty darn good.

So I decided today, for the most part, for better or worse, to hold on to the record of me. Interestingly enough, and maybe not at all surprising, is that the academic stuff I had very little difficulty discarding. I tossed report cards and transcripts. I tossed my CBEST and NTE results. I tossed essays about books I was studying as an undergrad. I tossed blue books. I tossed creative work that I had done as exercises in response to books I was studying. The original fiction and poetry, however, and the journals, I could not toss because I found those held a much more indelible impression in my memory of self, like, yeah, I remember these pieces. I’ll keep these. And maybe that’s what it’s about. For as long as I live I have a record of my life and my thinking unlike the record that most people have, which is primarily photographic and, even less reliable, residing only in the memories of people whose lives they touched. At some point in time, all of that disappears. I have no narcissistic delusions that the written detritus of my past will be of any value after I’m gone to any number of people, but while I’m alive it might be of value to me in my never-ending pursuit to know this strange individual that inhabits my body a little bit better. And I can’t imagine what it might be like to discover a similar trove left by my father or mother. They left me nothing of the kind–maybe a few letters, a couple of love poems. But my son will have a field day, if he’s interested. And he may not be. It’s a chance I am willing to take.

It’s spelled “juvenilia,” I discovered just today. 

The LC Review: my first published work of note

I think I kept this one. I’m embarking on a career! 

It never ends. 

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: It’s Raining and I’m Flying By the Seat of My Pants!

Yesterday I made a video blog so I could test my new microphone, and during part of my little talk there I kind of bemoaned the fact that it had been so long since my last entry, months, in fact. Afterwards, I was struck by this single observation: It took me three and a half minutes to make that video. I tried afterwards to see if I could do a better job, but the two takes I took after the initial one were disappointing. The one in which I flew by the seat of my pants was leagues better. I thought to myself, what if I flew by the seat of my pants more often? First take. No edits. No do-overs. So I tried it again today. This could become a thing.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: More Songs about Buildings, Food, Flora, Courses, Lectures, Panels, Endings

 

This is the campus bookstore here at Dominican University. Just kidding. It is the building in which the bookstore is housed. It is an incredible building, don’t you think?

Look at this beautiful thing.

I don’t know what happens in this building, but I took a picture of it. And then I went up on the porch, took a picture of the front door, and took another picture looking the other direction.

There’s a building named after Shakespeare’s wife. It’s the Hathaway House. I’ve heard Shakespeare is big here on campus.

I haven’t taken any pictures of the food. It happens not to be very photogenic. But this is interesting: we can have tater tots at every breakfast. That’s not a joke. Other observations: I spilled coffee yesterday all over my arm and I did not get burned. Katherine has had nothing but chicken, eggs, and salad. The children on campus are quite messy. Precocious as they might be, they can’t seem to get the food scraps into the compost bins. This afternoon I stepped on a French fry. This evening the curly kind of fry was all over the cafeteria floor, and someone had left a banana on a chair. I did not take a picture of that either.

These plants here are like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I don’t know what they are; my botanical knowledge is somewhat embarrassing. But there’s a jade plant in this garden about the size of my Honda Fit. I’ve already mentioned the evergreen with the dangerous pinecones. I still can’t get over these gigantic palm trees. They look to me like giant pineapples.

I haven’t taken very many pictures of people. More precisely, I have only taken two. I took a picture of myself a couple of days ago. And then today I took this selfie right here of myself with Joan Frank, an amazing individual and a phenomenal writer. She taught a class yesterday about the dangers of political fiction–or rather, its potential pitfalls, described brilliantly by Emily as “liberal porn.” Joan told us that “story” must have dominion over message. Message, with a capital M, when characters become mouthpieces for the writer’s causes, no matter how noble and good, can make a novel or a story suck. Joan’s class did the best possible thing–it got people thinking and talking. We’re still talking about it a day later and we’ll still be talking about it after all of us go home, I’m sure.

I meditated so hard yesterday morning, first with my own little gathering before breakfast, and then in a class that Leslie Blanco taught about meditation, spontaneity, and creativity. I almost arrived on another plane. I was also sleep deprived. And I’ve never introduced or followed up a meditation session with a freewrite (a la Natalie Goldberg). That was revelatory.

Allison Moore talked in the afternoon about memoir writing, which I hear generated incredibly deep, profoundly personal stories from many. I would love to have been there. I find at these incredibly content rich retreats, that I cannot and probably should not go to everything. There’s got to be a place to recharge, or rest. And many of us choose to spend a lot of time just writing. The beauty of this work is that everyone is invited to get what they need. For example, some of us need to kill the tendency to read in “the poetry voice,” that tendency that poets have, even some of the best poets, of habitually falling into a particular tonal patten that is rather tortuous to listen to and has the potential of destroying otherwise perfectly good poetry. So, many of us went to Sara’s class: “Death to the Poetry Voice.” I wasn’t sure that I needed that, but I hear people had a wonderful time, so I have to forgive myself for missing that one as well.

I was on a panel yesterday afternoon about writer’s block. Interestingly enough, I was blocked; it took me almost forty minutes before I said a word–only because there was tons of energy in the room, lots of people sharing their stories, their woes, their strategies for that most terrifying of predicaments for writers: not writing. Finally, I shared my silver bullets, primarily forced creativity experiences (napowrimo, nanowrimo, powersongwriting, those kinds of things), but most importantly, at least for me, community. My writer soul would die without my Warren Wilson friends, without this conference, and without the empowerment and discernment and clarity that comes to me in Courage and Renewal work. Without these two communities, I would wither.

Can I just say one more thing? Peg, Nan, and Marian did a rocking panel discussion about the pleasures and pains of small press publishing. It was both pleasurable and painful but totally informative, completely honest, and super-uber relevant. Three cheers to these three wonderful women who opened their hearts and their experiences up to their fellow Wallies.

One more day and then we head home. Six days is just the right number of days. Five would be not enough. Seven would be too many. Leaving the conference Wednesday morning, I will be at once happy to return home and sad to leave.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: Last Night’s Reading, Short Stay Alumni Converge, More Talk About Secret Agents, and Voices Inside Our Heads

Notes from one of today’s brilliant offerings. My penmanship has become stupid. Translation: Therapy is not art–art is not therapy–but there are important parallels. Anxiety moves us into creativity instead of driving us away–Susan Kolodny, paraphrased.

This title pretty much says it all. I think my work is done here.

Perhaps I can begin with the stuff left unfinished or uncovered by my title’s verbosity. We had a lovely little meditation experience this morning sandwiched between two readings of Stafford’s “Ask Me.” Some time when the river is ice ask me/mistakes I’ve made. Ask me whether/what I have done is my life. This has to be one of my favorite poems on the planet and it served this morning as the perfect bookend for 20 minutes of silence. But then, things turned ugly. Even though our masters of ceremony reminded us and warned us (no breakfast on the weekend until the 10:30 brunch), we were woefully unprepared. It was a rude awakening. It necessitated another foray to Whole Foods where I bought Burt’s Bees lip balm, a couple of bananas, a box of granola bars, and a latte. I refrained from eating a banana or a bar for some masochistic reason–I think I planned to save these items as a contingency for tomorrow morning’s unfortunate fast. Today, I thought, I’ll be brave. I will hold out. I was successful. I survived. And boy, that brunch was delicious. And I had Faith Holsaert all to myself–which brought me no end of happiness. Do you know Faith? You should know her. I cannot believe my good fortune to have her as a fellow Wally and a friend.

That’s it, everything that is not already alluded to in the title. I suppose it could use a little flesh on its bones. So, let me try that.

Last night’s readings were mind blowingly good. Yes, I know “blowingly” is not a word, but that’s how good they were: word-makeruppery. I was so honored to share that evening and that podium with these fine folks–but there’s the wonder of it–there will be (my prediction) no group of readers on any evening before or to come that I would feel less honored to share a stage with. I wish you could have been there. This guy, fellow Wally, Rolf, he’s making these lovely recordings, so the best I can do is to share my part of the evening with y’all. You can skip ahead and continue reading if you like, or, you can rest your eyes for 9 minutes and 50 seconds to listen to these five prose poems from my manuscript in progress, Fail Better: The American English Teacher Makes a To-Do List. 

Today, our ranks started to grow. There is always a group of people who, for what ever completely explicable reasons, are not able to come for the full six day retreat. So about three days into each of our conferences, new writers arrive and it’s like Christmas, but only if Christmas was a good experience for you. If it was not, insert a favorite holiday. Levity increases. Joyfulness exudes. The writing contests begin. Just in time for another round of discussions about agents, which is both terrible and good: terrible because we’re talking about agents, good because the more we talk about it, the less scary, the less secret they become. That’s a win. And finally, we heard an expert and insightful lecture about psychoanalytic insights into the obstacles many writers face in the creative process. Hint: writers often face obstacles in the creative process. There are reasons for these, some of which are unconscious. Psychoanalytical insights may be, often are, helpful. Here’s a takeaway that came from a new Wally friend, Peter, which I thought summed up Susan’s big concluding idea very nicely: Don’t try to get rid of your problems. Make friends with them. If you get rid of them, others will just show up in their place!

Yes. Amen. Take me to the bridge.

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Dispatches from Writer’s Camp: Generative Muscles

No one told me to get off the lawn! 

Edgehill Mansion

Some flora. Apparently, this tree on the right has a reputation for producing dangerously large pinecones 

Our digs for six nights

I began this blog post on the first full day of Writer’s Camp surrounded by writers in a quick half an hour session of generative writing practice–the large group version of what fellow camper Lauren Yaffe calls a writing buddy system: two or three or more people sit down in a room or at a table and they write together. Peg has a box of prompts in the event of blockage. I cheat, pick through the prompts, more just to see what she’s thrown in there than because I’m stuck. I think I know exactly what I want to write about, but getting at it might be the difficult part. I realize I may have to write about what I want to write about before I can write about it. Working my generative muscles.

Here we are at another new venue, Dominican University of California in San Rafael.  Another lovely Catholic institution welcomes our most un-Catholic proceedings. It’s very good of them.

So far, in the first 24 hours, we have snacked, eaten a meal, welcomed old friends and met new ones, enjoyed our first night of readings from seven fantastic poetry and prose writers, found a source for ice, and engaged in preliminary whiskey accompanied by loud and joyful conversation and laughter; we have slept in mostly very tall beds (I need a chair to step on in order to hit the hay); we slept late or meditated, and we ate breakfast with a lot of super young people on campus for other various programs; some of us have gone on short little jaunts into a nearby Trader Joe’s for supplies (I forgot shampoo and breath mints), and we have attended our first classes. An agent was here to talk to us about agenting, and we will have had, by the time dinner rolls around in about three hours, opportunities to nap, to learn about embodied narrative, narrative rhythm, and inventing what we desire–all very exciting stuff, especially that last bit. Tonight, there will be another 8 readers. This goes on for five days! It is glorious.

I’m reading tonight and that’s very exciting. Best, most appreciative and generous audience ever, as long as you do not exceed the ten minute time limit. People read from books they’ve published sometimes, but mostly folks like to try out new material on this most trusted group of friends. I think I’ll sport my disco bowtie, but I’m not 100% certain, and I think I should shave. I should probably also practice a bit. I may have to miss that class about narrative rhythm so that I can decide on the bowtie, shave, practice, maybe nap, and work my generative muscle, by which I mean: work on that poem that I wrote about writing about this morning. Speaking of poetry, even though I’m a fiction guy here in Wally World, I’ll be reading poetry tonight from a manuscript in progress and nearly finished which I’ve titled,  Fail Better: The American English Teacher Makes a To-Do List. I’m hoping to record it. If it turns out nicely, I may share, but no promises.

I feel so lucky and privileged to be here. Such abundance. A momentary stay from the general chaos. I’ll take it.  

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