Friday, September 28, 2012

Dream Big

I always think of grand theaters while teaching tragedy!
Since starting my teaching routine again, I’ve been thinking a lot about literature.  This is my third year of teaching the junior English course at the high school where I work.  My curriculum features a lot of great classics:  King Lear, Othello, Oedipus Rex, Moby Dick, The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Crime and Punishment.  I freely admit that I love teaching this class; it's the highlight of my day.  It satisfies my inner literature geek.

I begin the year by plunging boldly into tragedy, so my students and I have just spent four weeks talking about Lear and Othello and Oedipus.  Don’t worry – after all the doom and gloom, I clean their literary palates with a good dose of comedy!

Anyway, in the midst of my tragic musings, I realized that the great drama of Othello bears some similarities to my proposed next novel.  Othello, of course, is an African - out of place but honored in a white, Venetian society.  He marries a much younger, more socially privileged woman of a different race than his own.  The disparity in age and background leads him to adore his wife, but also predisposes him to suspect that the marriage can’t possibly work out.  Therefore, when someone suggests that Desdemona is in fact unfaithful to Othello, jealousy almost instantly transforms him into a murderous lunatic. 

Now plot-wise, my story differs quite widely, but the basic set-up of relationships is similar.  My protagonist is half Native American, half-white; he’s respected as the policeman of his community, but he doesn’t feel at home with either whites or Native Americans.  He does, however, fall in love with the young, spoiled daughter of one of his few friends.  She marries him partly out of admiration for his qualities, partly out of a desire to buck tradition and escape from small-town boredom.  However, neither spouse really understands the other.  The wife eventually becomes estranged from the protagonist, who falls into alcoholism out of sheer unhappiness. 

I just realized that sounds incredibly depressing, but I promise there is hope.  The other half of the story is that the protagonist’s son slowly learns to develop a relationship with his failure of a father and actually helps redeem him by doing so. 

We can't paint Starry Night again, but it can inspire us!
Anyway, plot points aside, the reason I’m telling you this is because I firmly believe that artists should have delusions of grandeur.  Just kidding – what I really mean is that we shouldn’t hesitate to feel inspired by some great work or other.  Now, it may sound incredibly presumptuous to say, ‘Oh yes, my next novel parallels nicely with Othello.’  After all, the play is one of Shakespeare’s world-renowned tragedies.  Can anyone really create something which measures up to it?  Probably not. 

However, if I never noticed any similarities between my story and Shakespeare’s, I would miss the invaluable possibility of adding a new range of resonance to my work.  For sure, no painter can say his latest canvas is the new ‘Guernica,’ just as no novelist can say her latest book is a War and Peace for the present day.  What he or she can and should say, though, is that the canvas is his ‘Guernica,’ or the novel her War and Peace

So if I declare that the coming novel is my Othello, what do I mean?  I mean that I recognize that Shakespeare was dealing with the human themes of jealousy and love and displacement and infidelity in his great tragedy, and it is my hope that I too will have a chance to deal with those same themes. 

I'd like my community to fill a place this splendid!
Does the least mention or hint of the play have to appear in my completed novel?  Of course not – it would probably seem out of place, given that I’m setting the story in rural Idaho. 

However, as I’m writing, Shakespeare’s plot can weave itself into the fabric of sources and inspirations from which I draw.  It will push me to deepen my characters and challenge me to construct my plot with such perfect inevitability as the play exhibits.  On the other hand, out of fear of seeming too derivative, it will also push me to find my own way in the story world, instead of falling back on old tropes and clichés. 

I think that all creative people can use such a method to improve their work.  I don’t urge a blind copying of the masters, or even recent successful artists.  However, I don’t think that working in a vacuum is good for anyone.  We need an audience and a community, and that community must not only consist of peers who encourage, but also masters who prompt and criticize.  If some of those masters are dead, who really cares?  We can still learn from their silent example and borrow their genius to fuel our own.  

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

An Analogy of Pickles

Ingredients for greatness: cook and cucumbers!

At the end of this past August, since the produce from my parents’ garden was flooding their house and leaking out the refrigerator, I offered to make pickles.  My mother had amassed pounds and pounds of nice little cucumbers, and so she happily surrendered three of those pounds to me. 

Last Christmas, one of my gifts was a lovely cookbook called The Lost Art of Real Cooking.  I had stumbled across the title long before in a home magazine, and I was intrigued.  I don’t currently have time to follow the popular, laudable and healthy trend of reinventing popular foods at home, with real ingredients (which somehow never include things like ‘partially hydrogenated soybean oil’ or the infamous ‘high fructose corn syrup’).  I would, however, follow it if I did have time.  So I was very happy to receive the do-it-yourself, old-fashioned cookbook, with recipes for exciting things like sour dough and miso and beer and cheddar cheese. 

The very first recipe in the book is for pickles – more specifically for long-brine crock pickles.

I tend to shy away from things which involve canning.  It’s not hard to do, but it is kind of a pain.  For jam and such I think it’s great, but when the recipe for pickles confidently told me that the results required no canning and still would keep for months, I stood up and said, ‘These are the pickles for me!’ 

What’s the process?  Basically you sterilize a large pottery crock (no metal – it does strange things to the brine, apparently) and pile in as many cucumbers as you want, together with herbs and spices and garlic – anything you please.  Then you make a solution of 1 part salt to 8 parts water to ½ part vinegar, boil it, cool it, and pour it over the pickles.  Put something heavy on top to make sure the pickles don’t emerge from the brine.  Then you put the whole thing, loosely covered, in an out-of-the-way, not too hot, not too cold spot. 

The creation of greatness happens in secret!
Then you wait.  For three and half weeks, in fact.  And in the meantime, you anxiously check the crock every day, because the recipe told you that a scum would develop on the surface (in general, modern kitchens do not embrace scum, so I couldn’t help but be a bit distressed.  However, I knew from brewing beer with friends that old-fashioned cooking often involves strange, unsavory stages, but it’s all worth it in the end).

The recipe was right, except it’s not a scum so much as a thin film.  The cucumbers have a bacteria living on their skins – the same bacteria as in yoghurt, in fact – and it reacts with the salt and starts converting the sugars in the cucumbers into sour goodness.  The surface of the brine betrays this through a transparent film which is easy to skim off.

But the process requires quite a lot of patience....Also, a lot of trust that the film you’re removing from the crock isn’t some horrible thing that will kill you.  After about two weeks, you want to toss caution to the winds and break into the pickles, both because they smell so good, and because you can’t quite believe that they are really okay.  However, I restrained myself successfully for the whole period.  The result: brightly sour, crisp, delicious pickles (which in spite of the bacteria do not kill you, as I can attest, after eating two).

I couldn’t help but think, as I undertook this new endeavor, that in fact pickling compares quite nicely to art, and especially to my writing.  In my opinion, the chief ingredient of art is patience.  Someone might argue with me here and say, ‘No! Inspiration! Vision! Talent! Skill! Practice!’  And I would agree that all those are essential ingredients.  Then I would point out that often we have to wait for inspiration, or we have to take time to understand our vision, or our talent doesn’t emerge immediately, or we spend twenty years perfecting our skills by endlessly repeated practice. 

Being able to manage all of these possible and even likely roadblocks on the way to artistry takes patience.  It’s the impatient people who start stories and then leave them unfinished, or talk about  writing a novel someday, but never do it right now. 

Story-pickles!
So much of good art, and good writing, and good living, depends on waiting.  Just as I put my pickles in the crock and cross my fingers and wait for a secret, unseen fermentation, I tuck a new story idea into the back of my mind and hope it’s strong enough to survive amid all the other ideas rioting in there.  Then I check on it at intervals to see if it still shows promise.  Moreover, once I do actually write it down, I put it away, wait for it to settle, and return only much later, hoping that its good qualities are worth salvaging from the mess of the first draft.

All this is patience: waiting for story-pickles to do their thing; holding myself back judiciously, even if I'm tempted to interfere and try to force something to happen.  But it turns out that if you do have the calm and mental discipline to trust in the pickles, then they become something marvelous.  I think that writers and artists can find their patience rewarded in the same way.  Trust your story, and it will grow slowly into its best form. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

On Blogging


It’s been just shy of four months since I entered the blog world, so I thought I might take a look back over my experiences. 

The online writing world dwarfs New York!
It’s been an exciting period, actually, since I’ve learned so much – both about writing and about the massive internet writing community.  I find it exciting to discover that there are so many other people, sharing their creativity and their advice.  It’s sort of reassuring about the general state of the world, that we can make connections in the sparking lines of the world-wide web, and then through those connections offer each other help. 

So what have I learned?

1.  There are a lot (a LOT, a lot, a lot…) of writers out there.
 
It’s been interesting to make this discovery – as obvious as it may seem – because I live in a somewhat culture-starved area, and so I don’t necessarily stumble across other writers every other day. Realizing that I do have so many comrades in the writing endeavor makes me happy, of course, but also makes me realize why everyone says…

2.   Getting published is a total gamble. 
 
I’ve stumbled across several agents who run blogs, as well as many writers who have managed to find an agent (sometimes even a publisher), and they all say, ‘Don’t get too over-confident, because getting published is a long struggle, especially in a tough economy.’ This is something I had already guessed in the back of my mind, but it has been enlightening to see basically every blogger confirm the thought. I feel a bit daunted by all this, but also I’ve learned…

3.      If you work to perfect your writing, apparently somebody will eventually take an interest.

This of course assumes you are good at righting, but if you are, then the somebody is usually an agent. While it’s not an automatic guarantee that you will find a publisher even if you do find an agent, still I can’t help but imagine that the latter’s professional approval, encouragement and direction must give a writer a huge confirmation that he or she has true talent. However, agents aren’t blindly accepting, so in order to capture their attention, you have to submit a story that is absolutely the best you can do. And this of course, brings me to conclude that…

The fish is confused by my analogy!
4.  Revision is to the would-be-published writer as water is to fish.

I’ve always known the importance of returning to something I’ve written after it’s finished – and probably has rested in peace for a while – so as to smooth and rework its weaknesses and flaws. However, I never quite understood just how meticulous this process must be until I saw it confirmed over and over on other authors’ blogs. Of course, we have to consider our plots, our characters, our points-of-view, our style; of course we have to check our punctuation and spelling and grammar. All of these matters I was aware of, but I’ve now also discovered…

5.  Writers have to consider even the tiniest details when correcting their own work.

I went to a high school which encouraged an extremely formal, even Victorian/Dickensian approach to writing. I grew comfortable with long sentences, proliferation of adjectives, liberal sprinkling of adverbs. I'm also probably better at telling than at showing. Now, after reading the reams of advice out there from editor and agent bloggers, I have realized that I can’t even take my own style for granted. I have to challenge myself to remain true to my voice and at the same time update my methods to reflect the modern writing climate. I’m about to start a reread of one of my novels, in fact, solely to search for stray and unnecessary adverbs.

6.   All of these new elements to consider can become a bit overwhelming.

This is especially true since my general tendency is to write literary fiction. From what I gather, if you take all of the above considerations, you get what genre novelists have to worry about. Then you multiply that by 3 and you discover what literary novelists have to keep in mind. However, the wonderful thing to counteract the temptation to depression is…

7.   The online writing community is overall supportive, interested, interesting and very helpful. 

A few people have kindly watched me (and I’m so grateful to them), and they are generous about commenting frequently so as to inform me of their ideas in response to what I’ve posted. Moreover, by traveling around the world of blog to meet new people and writers, I’ve been so impressed by how talented and artistic and thought-provoking some of these writers are. Even when I’m feeling a bit low about the prospect of endless revision and agent querying on my hopeful way toward publishing, a trip around the blogs I follow wakes me up and turns me from moping toward creating.

This is me: a small creature setting out jauntily in a big world!
So in short, I’ve been really pleased with my blogging experience so far.  I’m happy to have entered a new community and to have discovered so many peers.  It's also such a pleasure to have learned so much about the technical and monetary side of my craft.  I hope everyone else has also enjoyed such a positive experience in their blogging careers.  Wish me luck as I continue mine!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind

Seeing this artist, I felt new hope for the world regaining some focus!
We live in a highly distracted world.

My proof is that recently I saw two businessmen in their forties, walking together on a downtown street.  Were they engaged in witty banter? Were they discussing the vagaries of their employment?  Were they even simply lost in amicable silence as they enjoyed the local scene?  Not at all.  They were texting other people on their smart phones.

Now, I don’t have a problem with texting.  I think it’s a great way to communicate with someone when what you have to say is not important enough to warrant taking up a significant amount of time.  A friendly hello, a wish for luck, a reminder to pick up the pizza – what could be better for these than an instantaneous message?  The same rule of convenience applies to almost any form of modern communication. 

However, there is a drawback.  When everyone is trained to keep half their mind on their phone or tablet or computer, to see whether they’ve been called or texted or emailed, or to check the stock market, the latest celebrity gossip and the likelihood of rain in Tokyo tomorrow, a certain lack of focus develops.  The result – at least, as I see it – is that intelligent businessmen end up more interested in their phones than in each other’s company. 

You’ll have a hard time convincing me this is a good trend.  A phone will never be more interesting than another person

Everyone acts like it is, however, with the result that we seldom seem to have anyone’s full attention.  An atmosphere of distraction envelops everyone and everything. 

This is not very healthy for art and writing – or any serious undertaking, really.  On the other hand, we can’t be expected to throw up our hands and revert to the 1800’s, simply to avoid the danger of technological distraction.  Living in our modern world, as (hopefully) constructive citizens within it, we have to learn to counteract the temptation to dissipate ourselves.  We may have 1000 interests – I certainly do – but somehow we have to achieve some focus in the midst of them.

Dancers can concentrate!
Currently, therefore, I’m experimenting with exercise as a way to ground and center myself, to step away from all my pursuits  for a little while each day. 

When I was little (four to be precise), my mother started me in ballet lessons.  I loved it, so I continued to dance for five years.  Then we moved to an area not exactly rich in culture – though I’m happy to report it has improved – and I had to switch to Irish dancing.  So I pursued that for another five years.  Then my sophomore year in high school went into overdrive.  I was obliged to sacrifice dance on the altar of good grades. 

That doesn’t mean my love of dance has died, though.  I don’t have the ballerina body-type (uber-skinny, that is), and Irish dance wasn’t really my true passion, and I don’t have the spare cash to take ballroom lessons – so I decided to sidestep slightly into something which, in my mind, seems connected to dance, due to its use of the whole body and its rhythm and grace. 

In short, I took up Pilates.  I bought a set of DVD’s, and I’ve been following the first routine for a month now. 

I find two things exciting about this.  First, while performing the routine, I have to concentrate quite hard to perform each move correctly.  This means that for at least forty minutes per day I can cultivate a quiet mind, with no distraction from work or phones or even writing.  I’ve always thought an artist needs interior silence.  When I do Pilates, I learn to listen for even the tiny ideas and inspirations.

I appreciate her focus and grace!
Secondly, I have been happily surprised to find that while performing the movements and stretches, I find the tension flowing out of my shoulders and back and neck, where it collects over the course of the day.  In the past four weeks, I’ve begun to see why athletes have almost an addiction to exercise.  It really does give you a form of release and recreation which is hard to find anywhere else.  In order to write, you certainly have to be easy and relaxed, so Pilates is actually preparing me to be more creative. 

(Also, as a girl, I’m doing it partly because I’m vain and would love to be awesomely toned all over!)

Anyway, while I don’t intend to stand on the rooftops and preach the power of Pilates, I do want to recommend and endorse daily – or at least regular – physical activity.  I can promise that a little bit of exercise definitely focuses the mind and relaxes the body

As preparation for writing and creative endeavors of any kind, what could be better? 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Ranking Life

Being of an organized turn of mind, I've always found it easy to categorize things.  Picking favorites and arranging things from most to least appreciated is actually a process I enjoy, and it even helped me quite a lot when I was younger.  I got through college based on this ability to divide up my homework, start with the worst assignment and then finish with the best and easiest (since this is me we’re talking about, my reading for literature class was always last).

I'm of the Napoleonic mindset: good at marshaling my troops!
Once I started working full-time, however, I began to realize that my old approach didn't quite work. 

I got serious about writing in my junior year of college, plunging boldly into my first novel.  It was pretty easy to fit the new undertaking into the best-to-worst list which I keep in my head.  I’d charge through all my less agreeable homework, so as to leave myself plenty of time – almost every day – to get some writing done. 

Now I shall take a blatant tangent to ask:  does anyone else feel like college is simultaneously the most inactive and the most stressful time we all go through?  It’s curiously unreal, since we’re just learning how to be, not yet being.  Due to having no place yet, we feel constantly on edge about the future.  On the other hand, we aren't necessarily that active; often our schedules feature huge gaps of free time and leisure.  I think college is an essential period, but it’s still a strange part of life. 

College student caterpillar trundles lazily towards adulthood!
Anyway, after I graduated and started my first job, I realized just how unrealistic the college schedule is.  Suddenly I was working all day, with deadlines to meet and time-sheets to fill out if I wanted to get paid.  Even though I still considered writing my best-beloved pastime, suddenly it was impossible to include it every day.  I remember being astonished because I started The Art of Dying in college and finished 10 chapters in two semesters (9 months basically), but then it took me 7 months to finish the final 3 chapters, just because now I had to devote so much time to work.

Therefore, ever since realizing that work necessarily slows the pace of writing, I’ve been attempting to create a balance between the two.  Alternately I feel content or panicky or cranky or depressed or despairing or excited or pleased or industrious or harried, due to succeeding or failing at the balance.  Maybe sometimes I feel all of those things at once!  Writers and artists are quite good at complicated reactions to things, after all. 

Currently if I gave you a short list of my activities from most to least loved, I’d have:
1)      Interacting with people
2)      Writing
3)      Cooking
4)      Teaching
5)      Exercise
6)      Class Preparations
7)      Grading (notice it’s last, of course – who can love grading…not me!)

On the other hand, based on the fact that I get paid for teaching, class preps and grading, on my actual to-do list, those three things have to take absolute precedence.  After all, there’s no excuse for shirking duties when you receive money to perform them. 

So what allows me to compromise between my ideal list and my real obligation to work for the salary I’m paid?  Actually, it’s the fact that the number one element in my life is not writing but human interactions. 

Everything should connect and work together!
I know that artists and writers always have the temptation to become totally absorbed in their work.  It’s a reasonable temptation, since art is so satisfying.  While you create your product, you also somehow recreate yourself – a beautiful reality. 

However, what is art, and how can it be worthwhile, if you don’t build it on experience?  And what better way to gain experience than by interacting with those endlessly fascinating and intricately-minded creatures who we are? 

Therefore, one of the things that helps me when I feel the tension between being a writer and a teacher is to remember that above either of these things is my interest in other people, and my desire to interact with and learn from them.  Then I realize that both teaching and writing satisfy that interest, since in the former I work with my students and in the latter I tell stories of what I’ve learned from others. 

This realization may not ease the tension entirely, but at least it soothes me and reminds me that I’m never wasting my time.  After all, teaching satisfies my desire for good relationships with people, and then those relationships provide eventual fodder for writing.  It’s a healthy cycle. 

So, my advice when you’re feeling completely torn between two important occupations – especially if one of them is your art – is to look for some common element between the two.  Once you find the connection, after all, it’s hard to remain convinced the two undertakings are really tearing you apart.  Secretly, in fact, they may be working together to improve your skills in both.  

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Shorter View


Things have a way of working out. 

Lion is to warrior as I secretly want to be to the future!
And that cliché opening is meant to segue nicely into the announcement that I managed to break through the panic about writing which I'd been feeling.  At long last I've again moved toward finishing the preliminary revision of House of Mirrors.  

In a previous post, I mentioned my planning tendencies.  They tend to be somewhat extreme...if I had my way, I'd take the future and subdue it to my will!  I'd beat it into submission and make it my willing servant!  (Insert maniacal laughter.) 

Ahem.  Anyway, obviously the whole point of the future is that it is unknown and can’t be planned out in detail.  My theory is that it’s set up that way to keep humans (especially strategist-types, like myself) from becoming too presumptuous.  I’m sure that if I did know exactly what was going to happen in the next year, or few months, or even few days, my delight over being in control of every foreseen situation would take over my mind and I’d become insufferable.  So I remain thankful that the future is unknown. 

However, since I do like to make schedules, etc., I have to struggle not to let myself get too anxious when my theoretical plans and the nebulous future don’t show any signs of meshing.  A failure to balance this anxiety got the better of me last week, but I did overcome it, eventually.  Since surely I’m not the only person who finds it occasionally overwhelming to make hobbies or artistic endeavors or passionate interests fit into a work schedule, I figured I’d say a few words about how I escaped my panic. 

My trip helped me regain a delicate balance!
Actually, it was largely thanks to another day-trip.  Just recently I wrote about how taking a drive in my state helped me overcome my summer burn-out and produce a poem.  Well, it turns out that a similar drive I made last Saturday also gave me time to think through my difficulties. 

See my trouble is this:  I’m working a lot this year.  This is my third year as a full time teacher at the school where I work, but full-time is a relative term, as the number of classes changes every time.  This year I have 20 hours of teaching, plus 2 hours of test supervision and 1 period of library work.  Then of course there are grading and preparation, which take up 2-5 hours a day besides the other stuff, so I stay quite busy.  It’s fulfilling and interesting and a continuing education for me, so I enjoy it, but still – free time is a commodity that’s rather lacking in my life.

On the other hand, I want to finish the preliminary edit for House of Mirrors, finish the final edit for The Art of Dying, and start research for my next story. 

With these two lists of tasks facing me, I was trying to plan both of them out until Christmas (that’s when I’d love to start writing my new novel, after all).  However, since my school days have been quite busy, I was beginning to despair of there ever being any room for writing.  If you get up at 7:30, dress, eat, drive to work, prepare for classes, teach for two hours, break for grading, lunch, more grading, then two more teaching hours, drive home, take care of the garden and house, exercise, eat dinner, shower, grade, catch up on emails and the news, and then try to get to bed at a decent hour, it seems like there’s not a lot of time left for writing.  Or at least, the time that’s left is hardly the leisurely peace needed to promote a creative frame of mind.  My schedule can’t sound too different from other working artists’ out there, so if you are feeling frazzled, let me say that I feel your pain. 

Imagining such a routine being repeated five days a week from now until Christmas, it was no wonder I didn’t see a place for my three big writing projects.  But this weekend I was driving through the relaxing autumnal weather, and suddenly it occurred to me that there’s no need to think of all three projects at once.  After all, I can’t actually do them all at once. 

My beatitude was as great as a fat Buddha's!
I realized that if I pushed away thoughts of The Art of Dying and of new research, and simply considered the three chapters remaining to be edited from House of Mirrors, I felt entirely free.  Three little chapters can fit into a busy schedule so easily, after all.  And then, relieved of my anxiety, it was easy to open my word document, scroll to the third to last chapter and finally, finally edit it.  After I was done, I felt like standing up and singing hallelujah.  (I restrained myself.)

So what did I learn?  When you’re busy – and we’re all busy more often than not, I’d guess – sanity can be maintained by thinking of things in small pieces.  Don’t plan until Christmas; plan until tomorrow, or maybe even just till lunch tomorrow and let the evening turns out as it turns out.  Don’t think of everything you want or need to accomplish at once; just pick one or two things to focus on, and then when you're done, suddenly your long to-do lists will have pleasantly diminished.  That’s my advice at least. 

Does anyone else have a way of coping and squeezing in a bit of writing (or other creative activities) during their busiest times at work?  I’d be interested to hear about your method.  

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Write Pacing


I’m two days into my school year, and what’s my chief feeling?  Panic. 

Actually, my panic isn’t about the school year.  As I said last time, I’m only teaching one new class, so I feel pretty on top of my work, as regards both preparation and classroom time. 

I feel Atlas-esque - though not that muscular!
On the other hand, I do feel anxious about writing.  Realistically, this is quite ridiculous.  I have already made it through several years of teaching, plus two years of college, writing steadily the whole while.  Moreover, at least one of those years was far busier than this one promises to be. 

However, I’m at a bit of a loss while trying to figure out a new method for my writing, since I’m not actively dealing with a story right now.  For sure I have to do research, but that’s just reading.  For sure I have to edit, but that’s just old stuff I’ve already been over several times before.  How do I motivate myself to work on such projects, which aren’t of themselves incredibly captivating and/or motivating? 

Has anyone else ever felt this quandary?  It’s been so long since I took an extended break from new writing that I’m unused to the feeling. 

My real problem, you see, is this:  I am not good at working continuously. 

There are lots of ways to approach work.  There’s my mom.  She’s a bit scary, actually, because she can seriously work non-stop all day, besides meals.  Then she falls asleep like a log the second she lies down at night, before rising the next morning refreshed and ready to start the whole process over.  Okay – I exaggerate a little, but nonetheless my mom does have incredible energy, combined with astounding work ethic. 

I have friends who are much more restrained.  One tells me he takes ‘micro-breaks’ all throughout the day, which allow him to work quite steadily from the time he wakes up until he goes to bed.  He has dogs, so he plays with them, or he goes for a run, or takes a walk to pick up groceries, and these short breaks re-energize him for more work at his job, or on his various projects.  I personally think this is an awesome method.  

There’s also Vasnefy.  She is the survivor-type.  She has an instinct for exactly the amount of work that needs to be done to preserve her sanity and that’s what she does.  If she has to put writing aside for a while, of course it bothers her, but not so much as to ruffle her particularly.  An eternal optimist, she simply supposes she’ll get to it later.  Her optimism is usually proved correct. 

Lady Liberty here and I have a similar approach to work!
In a way, I envy these three people.  If I had my mom’s energy, I could teach all day, then come home and write till bedtime, without ever batting an eyelash.  If I had the ability to refresh myself without becoming dissipated,  I’d be able to maintain a steady pace and keep up on both work and writing.  If I had the survivor instinct, I wouldn’t feel panic and dismay at the prospect of having to take a break from writing; I also probably wouldn’t be such a perfectionist about work. 

However, I freely admit that I’m not like any of these workers.  My style is this:  I throw myself completely into my work, and stay in that state for usually around 10 hours.  Then, once I’ve hit my upper limit, I suddenly lose my will-power to keep working.  All I want to do is lie on my back and watch cooking shows (MasterChef is my latest craze…).  If I consciously work on it, I can manage to imitate another person's style, but after a short time I drift back into my natural approach. My brain doesn't seem wired to sustain effort for a whole day or even days on end.  It wants to get through everything in one long burst and then recuperate in peace.

I approve Bacchus' mode of relaxation!
You may ask why this is troublesome, but I’m sure any teachers out there can see what I’m getting at.  A high-school teacher’s work day almost always spans 10 hours, due to teaching hours, plus preparation, plus grading.  Then you have to think of meals and household chores as well, which tacks on another hour or two.

Since that’s the case, by the end of a paid work-day, I’ve put all my efforts into teaching, and the thought of having to work still more (because writing is still work, after all, no matter how enjoyable) is overwhelming.  Cue cooking shows!  No, I’m just kidding – I often do manage to get at least a smidgeon of writing done, but since for the next few months my prospects are only editing and research, I’m a bit daunted.  These tasks are less enjoyable and restorative than actual writing. 

So currently I’m trying to decide how to motivate myself, or perhaps how to pace my work and writing better, so that I don’t end up too tired to do one or the other.  Does anyone have any advice?  This is an area where I’m still experimenting to find a good balance, so I’m open to suggestions!  

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Teacher's Ramblings

I've been quarrying knowledge to prepare!

With the start of school looming up tomorrow, I’ve been rather busy.

However, I’m happy to say that I'm actually ready (as ready as one can be to teach, that is), so I’m sitting down at last to write a blog post.  Unfortunately, the flurry of tasks to do before work begins has kept me from writing or even editing, so I think I'll just tell you a bit about life as a teacher, instead.

I started teaching in college, actually.  My college was very, very small, but nonetheless had an even smaller prep-school attached to it.  In my senior year, there was a dearth of teachers, so the principal came to me and besought me to teach sophomore Latin.  I agreed, since my college scholarships had gotten messed up and I needed the extra money.  Thus began my glorious career as a teacher. 

Actually, I just helped four fifteen-year-olds through the extreme basics of Latin, so it wasn’t that glorious, but it was interesting – a good experience.  For one thing, it was a co-ed school, so I learned what it’s like to have boys and girls in the same classroom.  As mid-adolescents, the boys were very shy about appearing foolish before the girls, whereas the girls seemed much more confident and ready to display knowledge.  I felt that was an interesting revelation about the difference between the young male and female psyches.

After I graduated, I had more or less decided not to teach.  My father is a teacher, and so I knew from watching him how easily the job can consume all one's time and interest.  I was worried about the fate of my writing if I started teaching, so I thought I'd avoid the danger altogether.

I looked about this freaked out when I was first asked to teach!
Then the principal of my own high school called me up.  She said, with a beguiling tone: ‘We’d love to have you teach for us.’  Then began a period of mental distress for me while I tried to decide whether my decision not to teach was strong enough to resist the pleading of the extremely charming principal.  It turned out not to be.  Charm wins out over vague decisions any day. 

So I started teaching – Latin again and some English literature, this time in an all-girls, private school.  Now several years later, I’m still at the same school and my repertoire of classes has expanded to include History and classical Greek (I have warned you in the past that my interestsare extremely geeky).  For a while I continued to think, ‘Oh, after this last year of teaching I’ll head off and do something else for a job.’  But now I’ve given up.  It appears that I’m set to be a teacher for the foreseeable future. 

This year I have twenty hours a week, plus two extra hours of supervision, so I’ll be keeping busy.  There are 7th, 8th and 12th graders hungry for Latin (hah!), 9th and 12th graders hungry for Greek (even bigger HAH!), 8th graders hungry for history (this one's probably true, at least), and 11th graders to teach English lit.  I’m pleased with the line-up of classes. 

However, with that much to think about, I spent about two solid weeks getting ready for it all.  I would have devoted even more time, but luckily I’ve taught several of these classes in the past, so I’m not starting from scratch.  I'm sure anyone who has been a teacher can sympathize with how nice it is to teach the same classes from year to year.  Steadily things get simpler and you feel on top of your subject.  It’s a bit like writing, in fact:  the more you practice your skills, the more your work improves, and the more you self-edit, the better your performance becomes. 

Sometimes I wouldn't mind having a cat's leisure for writing!
I am a little sad, though, that besides one poem, I’ve not been able to write for more than two weeks now.  After such a long (and enforced) break, I’m definitely feeling the need to work on my stories once again.  There’s always this niggling fear that if I don’t keep actively writing, I’ll lose the ability and the desire to write at all.  In the end, though, I think that fear is what distinguishes a devoted artist from an amateur.  The latter doesn’t mind letting talent fade once it’s burdensome; the true artist is harried by both desire and fear to keep that same talent alive. 

So, in my quest to be a true artist, I will hopefully do some writing tomorrow night, as a way to celebrate the successful inauguration of my school year.  At least I hope it will be successful…Everyone, please keep your fingers crossed for me! 

Expect more news soon.  I’ll keep you updated on how I’m balancing between work and writing, now that teaching is beginning again.