You Take It With You

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.
       —Heraclitus (via Plato)

Four years ago (give or take), I was somewhere on I-35, south of the Twin Cities and north of Austin. We had carefully timed our departure to eke another month of benefits from the job my spouse was leaving. We had, rather less carefully, packed up the apartment we spent seven years living in. It’s cliché, but you never know how much stuff you have to take with you until you’re trying to squash it into shipping containers. You also forget just how much work goes into getting an apartment move-out ready until about 1 a.m. the night before you go.

My wife and I left that North Minneapolis apartment with two more kids than we’d moved into it with. We had more books, but fewer papers; my decision to leave academia was a good excuse to get rid of folder after folder of notes and printed articles. We had more furniture, too, having upgraded from Goodwill to IKEA and therefore having some furniture that was actually worth moving.

I can’t say that I was particularly reflective my last night in the apartment. On an air mattress. In the last room we hadn’t scrubbed down. Surrounded by the few items that were going into our cars rather than the pods. The thoughts that went beyond ‘I’m tired’ aimed at the road ahead, about how we’d keep the kids occupied, where we might stop, how it was all going to come together at the other end. I swam in a sea of change, taking care of whichever wave was coming at me next.

Now, I live in Texas. I doubt that it will ever be where I’m from…but my daughter has spent half her life here. I’ve made a new career as an educator here. I still hate the summers and love the availability of avocados. I still miss winter and the quality of the air that you only experience on clear days with subzero temperatures. I occasionally fantasize about moving to Duluth…but I have regular spots here, places I go not just because they belong to the right category (e.g., “coffee shop”), but because of the specific spot (e.g., Star Coffee downtown, which has decent coffee and good food and a few tables tucked into out of the way corners).

The neighborhood in which I wrote swathes of my dissertation—the area around Target Field in Minneapolis—has mostly completed the transition from dilapidated warehouses and small commercial businesses to posh condos and hip eateries. Going back would not, exactly, be going back.

That doesn’t necessarily matter. Until my memory goes, I’ll still have the late-night walks home, cutting across icy parking lots and over dingy barriers of plowed snow. I’ll still have the spring afternoons with my cohort, drinking a Friday beer outside when it was still actually too cold to enjoy sitting outside, but we did anyway because you can never hold back spring. I’ll still have summer afternoons running around the wading pool in the park with my kids (even if they were too young to remember it). I’ll still have burying my son in leaves, listening to his happy cackling and then having to dig out the Tigger he’d left in the pile.

In the last year or so, as I settle in to secondary teaching as a profession, I’ve caught myself thinking more and more about what has already happened. Partly, that’s middle age around the corner (I can hear it there, sounding like spilled soup and a mop.) I am a long way out of high school. When I taught freshmen last year, I had some who were born after I graduated from college. Time keeps on ticking, you know? Lived experience builds up.

The other, related part of thinking back through time is this: I am not in school anymore. I’m not training for what comes next. Years of graduate school kept me oriented toward an imagined future that was always one semester, one successful application away. Hope was perpetually deferred. These days, I have projects, from novels to school stuff to working through the home improvement to-do list. “What comes next” is smaller now. Sometimes that is a welcome release from anxiety. Sometimes it’s a tacit excuse to slide into mere preoccupation: mindless games, social media, reading comment sections.

Stability takes getting used to. Years in the same house, the same job—and teaching the same classes. This year I have no new preps, so I’m tweaking lesson plans and syllabi rather than creating new ones. Drop a work here, insert a project there. Remember which things my students hated and either adjust them or double down on the teacher-side enthusiasm. The small changes add up, just as they do in revising a work. The years are never as much the same as you might expect.

This is because of, and in spite of, memory. You take it with you. Memories aren’t exact, they aren’t permanent. They bleed together. They distort to match the stories we tell ourselves (or are told about) what happened. Even the things we remember as being the same were not necessarily the same; stability is more about the relative equilibrium of competing forces than it is about stasis. Memory is our throughline, but it wavers. We’re constantly re-writing the past in small ways to fit our present, just as we’re constantly adjusting to incoming waves of change.

The waves I’m swimming in August of 2017 are smaller than the ones I swam in August of 2013. The only things I’m packing up are the few items that need to go from my house back to my classroom at the end of the week. (I have plenty of boxes to unpack there, though.) As much as I might pine for Minneapolis on a rainy morning, I’ve still got the version I’ve taken with me. And the furniture that survived the pods. And the books. And things that I have added here in Texas…memories included. Men, rivers, und so weiter.

Mister Doctor Coach

I’ve never felt like “Plocher” is a particularly challenging surname to wrap one’s mouth around. As I tell my students, “it rhymes with joker.” (I don’t give the students a hard time about the other pieces of my name or my ridiculously long work e-mail address. Some day, I’ll write about changing my name when I got married, and all the misadventures that come with having two middle names.) Some of my students never quite get it—I hear lots of “Plucker” and “Plotcher” and “Ploh-tcher” deep into the semester.

One student, though, after inadvertently addressing me as “Miss” and mangling my name several times, just called me “Mister Doctor Coach.” It started as fumbling for the right title, but it caught on with him. That’s all he ever called me afterward. He still calls me that when he sees me in the hallway.

I have written a lot about the emotional challenges of leaving the academy, about expectations, about failure. You can find those on my #postac page, or a longer, more reflective single piece in the “works” page. Most of the conversations I’ve had lately with other PhD holders and graduate students, though, have been about the “professional journey.” That’s not something I’ve written about all that much, and certainly not from my current perspective, four years out from my leave-taking.

“Mister Doctor Coach” isn’t a bad summary of where my journey has taken me. These days, I am definitely #withaphd rather than #postac. I am not, technically speaking, “in my field;” my doctorate is musicology (with a minor in comparative studies) rather than English (in which I hold an undergraduate degree). I do what I do because I figured out (after sorting through the narrative wreckage) that my field was teaching all along.

My professional journey has been shaped by the needs of my family. I was lucky enough to get through graduate school without accumulating significant debt because my spouse had a good job with excellent insurance and we still basically lived like grad students. I juggled my work as a gradjunct with being a stay-at-home dad, including taking my son to the numerous therapy appointments that followed his autism diagnosis. (I mentioned that we had really good health insurance, right?) With two kids, one of whom needs more supports than many, the idea of either a) sticking around in the Twin Cities and ramping up my adjunct workload or b) chasing VAPs that would require frequent relocation became…implausible. I decided, when the first round of musicology openings closed, that I wasn’t going to keep, as I put it, “paying Interfolio for lottery tickets.”

Shortly thereafter, my family moved from Minnesota to Texas. My spouse’s family lives mostly in the Austin area, so we had some nuts-and-bolts support. We were also, though, broke. It took my spouse longer than expected to find a job. I interviewed for a few entry-level positions outside academia, and applied for many, many more.

None of those panned out. The interviews I had seemed to be decided in the first few minutes when I failed to convince potential employers that my doctorate didn’t make me a flight risk. Several straight out asked if I would be going back to the higher ed world, and seemed skeptical when I demurred. These were entry-level positions, mind, mostly in writing-related fields.

Sending out applications doesn’t pay the rent, and rent in the Austin area is…high. I needed something that I could do, even part-time, that would generate some income while I looked for my imagined perfect job. Requirements for substitute teaching? Some college education? I had lots of college education. I spent a half-day at orientation, had my fingerprints taken and background checked, then started finding my way around Austin ISD one school at a time.

For months, I’d sub three to five days a week and spend the other days filling out applications. I wasn’t happy, but I’d also helped get the household to a point where we didn’t have to take on credit card debt to meet basic living expenses. By the spring, I was getting long-term substitute jobs that paid better (marginally, but it mattered) and gave me the opportunity to do actual teaching. (Short sub jobs were pretty much always some combination of babysitting and riot control.) I remembered that teaching was a big part of why I had gone to graduate school in the first place.

Texas, for better or worse, has a robust alternative certification path into the teaching profession. I took it. The classes were the expected mix of useful and redundant. My year spent as a substitute gave me more than enough classroom time to get my probationary certification. Which brought me back to…interviews.

This time around, I was interviewing for jobs with a certification in hand, a full year of subbing (including those precious long term assignments) and years of teaching in college. The first question was still “you have a doctorate, why on Earth do you want to teach middle schoolers?” Because of the certification timelines, I was interviewing during the late summer rush. (Teachers have until mid-summer to opt out of their contracts without penalty. This means that when administrators come back from July vacations, they have only a few weeks to fill newly-vacant positions.) Some of the interviews were really rushed. In the worst, the principal announced that we had 10 minutes for the interview, mispronounced my name, didn’t even try to apologize, and seemed most interested in how much of a disciplinarian I could be. The interview only made it about six of the allotted 10 minutes, and my “thanks for the interview” note included a polite refusal to be further considered.

I eventually landed a job at a charter school in East Austin three weeks after the school year started. Most of my meetings with the principal included admonitions that teaching middle school was not like teaching college. It isn’t, and I knew that, and my lessons were planned for the eighth graders I was teaching. I was a first year teacher, and neither the lesson plans nor my putting them into practice were perfect, but I left most meetings with my principal furious at the repeated idea that I couldn’t tell the difference between a thirteen-year-old and a 20-year-old. I did have great co-workers and assistant principals from whom I learned enormous amounts. They weren’t quite enough to keep me there.

I felt bad about leaving that job because it felt like I was abandoning kids who’d already been abandoned or neglected by too many people. The commute was costing me, though—two hours a day spent sitting in Austin traffic, barely moving. The hours and the stress made it harder for me to do my job and harder to do the right things at home. It was not sustainable. I let the school know that I wouldn’t be returning and went through another summer of applications and interviews.

With more distance from graduate school and proof that I could last at least a year in a secondary school gig, most of the interviews went better. I still had to deal with some degree skepticism, but it mostly had to do with why I was teaching English when my graduate work was in music. (I got pretty good at explaining that, as much as I’d been a band nerd and sung in choirs, I’d never had any interest in being a band or choir director.) Importantly, I was also better able to explain how the variety of teaching I’d done, including teaching at the college level, contributed to the success of my students.

By the end of the summer, I had landed a job at my current school, where I’ve taken over the AP literature class in addition to teaching various on-level and intervention courses. I coach the ultimate frisbee team. Most of the AP students call me “Dr. Plocher.” In the on-level and intervention classes, I get a lot more “mister” (with or without the Plocher). Some of my ultimate players call me “coach” in class. I’m usually not picky about it. (Teachers, like everybody else who works with other people, choose their battles.)   

My higher education experience improves my teaching in a few obvious ways: especially with high school seniors (and most especially with the AP students), I can set realistic expectations for college. I try to teach my students that professors care in direct proportion to the amount that their students care. Many of my students will be first-generation college students. I do my damnedest to help them advocate for themselves, to get them used to the idea of asking for help when they need it.

From a practical standpoint, the skills I picked up in graduate school are invaluable for nuts-and-bolts teaching. I’ve always been a fast reader; graduate school forced me to refine my analytical chops to keep pace. I can do background research quickly. After having to teach syllabi that were handed to me three days before I started an adjunct job, I do okay with shifting administrative priorities and requirements. (I confess I still complain loudly about them, though.)

There are moments—not many—that I look around and wonder “what am I doing here with my musicology PhD”? The money’s not great, but it is much more than I made as an adjunct. I also know where I’m working from semester to semester, which is something you can really only appreciate if you’ve been in situations where you don’t. I get to collaborate (and hang out with!) some great colleagues without having to compete with them for funding.

I’m doing work that is necessary and important. Sometimes it’s thankless, but not always. The gratification is mostly deferred—another thing graduate school taught me to deal with. Teaching is a different job every day; frequently it’s a different job from period to period, even with the same lesson plan. It will wear you out and lift you up and you will feel your students’ departure at the end of the day…the end of the year…graduation just as keenly as they do, although for different reasons.

This, all of this, is why I secretly like the ridiculousness of “Mister Doctor Coach.” All of those titles are part of how I got to where I am. It’s almost August, and my dreams (as they seem to do at this time of year) are filled with the classroom again. The school year is just around the corner, and I’m looking forward to it…which isn’t something I could say four years ago.

Nicking from Novels: Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Miracles

This post is a first for Nicking from Novels—I’m going back to an author I’ve already written about, a series I’ve already written about. (I sort of went there when I covered Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionovar Tapestry in a single post, though.) We’re going back to Bulikov today, site of Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs. Why? Because his conclusion to the trilogy made me do this:

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve been one of those slightly-too-cool kids who can’t help throwing qualifiers even at the stuff I love the most. I don’t take pride in it (anymore), but I can pick out flaws around the edges of just about anything. (Thank you again, graduate school.) What I’m trying to get at is that I don’t do “Holy shit!” reactions. Once every few years, maybe. Mr. Bennett’s City of Miracles provoked one. After re-reading it, I’ll go ahead and say it earned one. This is a book that made me tear up a little with just this line:

“‘Okay,’ she says quietly. ‘Okay.’”

So we’re starting with pretty much the most enthusiastic recommendation I can give. If you like books (and I can’t imagine you reading this post if you don’t), go out and find these books. City of Stairs, City of Swords, and City of Miracles. Got it? Good. Because now I’m going to try and be all smart and writerly like these posts are supposed to be.


Like its predecessors, City of Miracles sits somewhere between the genre expectations of fantasy and science fiction. Miracles are part of the setting’s fabric. More than in the preceding novels, the divine is part of City of Miracles’ characters. You won’t find wizards running around, nor laser pistols, but you won’t miss them.

Miracles jumps more than a decade past Blades, which itself jumps ahead a few years from Stairs. The novel begins with the assassination of Shara Komayd (can’t be a spoiler if it’s on the book’s back cover!). Shara was the protagonist of the trilogy’s first novel, and has subsequently risen to and fallen from political power on the strengths (and weaknesses) of her revolutionary politics. Miracles follows Sigrud je Harkvaldsson, who I described thusly based on the first novel: “[Shara’s] Dreyling ‘secretary.’ (Said secretary writes most of his memos in the blood of his enemies.)” That’s still true as Sigrud pursues first Shara’s murderer, then the backer of said murderer.

His pursuit takes him to various cities on the Continent and on Saypur, and eventually back to Bulikov, City of Stairs, haven of miracles, and historically messed up place. There’s action, and mystery, and, most importantly, real humanity underlying all the explosions and miraculous happenings.

The Plot

As mentioned, Sigrud pursues Shara’s murderer. He’s dealing with his own burdens—atrocities he has committed as a Saypuri agent, the murders he committed in a rage after his daughter died, a pervasive existential bleakness. (There are lots of dad feelings in the novel, too.) Sigrud’s investigations lead him to Shara’s adopted daughter and to divine conflicts that have their roots in the first novel and beyond. The novel’s finale does a phenomenal job of tying loose ends together. It also saves the world in a profound way without fixing everything.

The Cool Thing to Consider

So many! This is such a good book and such a fitting end to the trilogy. The characterization makes me jealous; I’ve not read much (and not yet written much) that makes even wildly improbable characters real people. Bennett captures the motivations and humanity of characters that appear even in isolated scenes that exist mostly to demonstrate that the Big Bad is, in fact, big and bad. Sigrud himself has come a long way (both as a character and fictional person) from simply being Shara’s enforcer. I’ve got a soft spot for heroes whose defining attribute is preternatural resilience. Sigrud’s resilience actually becomes a significant plot point for the novel—another great bit about it.

The defining Cool Thing about this novel, though, is the way that it is profoundly moral without moralizing. If Stairs was about history’s inescapability, and Blades was about the persistence of war, Miracles wraps those into broader questions about power and power’s legacy, about the human and moral costs of necessity and perceived necessity.

Ancient children populate the fringes of the novel, trapped in repetition because a dead divinity made them that way. The “mere mortals” of the book, most of whom are aging and scarred by past battles, intrude on these repeating patterns. As an adult, what do you do with petulant, eternal teenagers who happen to be able to rewrite parts of reality? How do you choose to influence power? How do you try to teach it? How do you break cycles? Should you even try?

Bennett is good enough at his craft that he doesn’t need characters to ask these questions explicitly, nor to speechify with their answers. Conversations that directly address the novel’s moral center are rare, and happen when there are enough significant plot elements in play that they do not distract. The moral questions are part and parcel of “what do you do when the world is falling apart?” (I wish that question were less timely.)

How, though? This is the part where we try to figure out how it all works, to distill some element of a novel into something you can nick, something that’s a writing tip without being banal enough to appear across a hundred different amateur writing blogs. How, specifically, does Bennett make Miracles moral stakes work?

Some of the answer hops back a paragraph: Bennett knows how to make words do things. When you have enough control over your tools, you can make miracles (sorry) happen. The path to craft is to read and write and read and write and let other people tell you what’s not working so you can go back to reading and writing and getting better.

Beyond Bennett’s craft, though, what makes the morality of City of Miracles work is the close relationship between the interior and exterior conflicts. Conflict drives plot. Fiction 101. Characters need some degree of internal conflict to be interesting—second week of Fiction 101. We find exterior conflict easily enough: the Fellowship versus Sauron, John McClane versus Hans Gruber, Harry versus Voldy. Fantasy and science fiction, when they’re the most “genre-y” tend to fixate on the external conflict. Internal conflicts get reduced to “character Z needs to believe in herself” or “character N has feelings about his dad.” Those conflicts get sorted out not as part of the exterior conflict, but as something that needs to happen on the way. When character Z believes in herself, she can use the mcguffin to zap the Big Bad, for example.

City of Miracles transcends that. Sigrud, creature of violence, comes to moral understandings about himself and the world. His answers are not incidental to the broader “save the world” conflict. His answers are the resolution to that conflict. By the novel’s climax, there’s no meaningful division between Sigrud answering his moral questions and Sigrud leaping off a staircase hundreds of feet in the air.

That is how the novel manages to be profoundly moral without moralizing. Literature is a hell of a drug.

What We Nick from this Novel

Characters pick their battles for a reason. Know it.

Sometimes, battles are forced upon us, and we make the stories as we go. Even then, there must be reasons to fight, to pursue conflict rather than surrender. Even in situations where the choice is “fight or die,” the external conflict can’t be everything. The relationship between internal and external conflict does not have to be, as it is in City of Miracles, one that is ultimately congruent. Contrast can be powerful. Whatever you, as a writer, choose, make sure it’s a choice, not just a default or a placeholder. The more you understand the relationship between your characters’ interior conflicts and the external conflicts of your story, the better you’ll be able to tell it.

Novel vs. Dissertation, Round 2 (Revision bonus!)

I’m doing “Camp” NaNoWriMo this month, working hard on revisions to my 2013 NaNo project Ghosts of the Old City. The first full draft of that novel was completed in 2014 the weekend before I started my first full-time teaching job. Since then, I’ve drafted two other novels—Spires of Trayan (my 2015 NaNo project, a sequel to Ghosts that wants another 20-30,000 words and some research) and The Space Between Notes (my 2016 NaNo project, which is a thin sci-fi novel or fat novella that only wants another 7-10,000 words). I’ve made several stabs at revising Ghosts, enough to have a few colors of ink on the manuscript that I printed out way back when.

By now, “finishing” the novel is in the ballpark of how long it took me to finish my dissertation…although I wasn’t drafting a sequel dissertation while ostensibly finishing the first, nor was I branching out into dissertating on, say, literature. This month is the first time I’ve really dug into making changes (rather than just suggesting them to myself in margins or identifying problems). It’s gotten me thinking about the how revising a novel is and isn’t like revising a dissertation. (For a comparison of NaNoWriMo versus writing a dissertation, see my old post here.)


While dissertations are contributions to scholarship and (in a tiny way) to human knowledge, the audience for the document itself boils down to your advisor and committee. Turning the dissertation into a proper monograph is a different step, with different needs, than figuring out which references you need to include to help ensure that Dr. ______ signs off on it. Dr. X expects to see a careful, critical-theory heavy definition of “new music.” Professor Y wants more engagement with existing research. Dr. Z wants your footnotes to do some specific thing, and will throw a small but enthusiastic fit if you don’t.

(There is always a Dr. Z. Sometimes I wonder if professors draw straws to decide who will play that part.)

The revision process for the dissertation becomes, depending on how involved committee members are, a process of juggling occasionally competing needs, a delicate attempt to balance what you want to say with how you need to say it to get some more letters after your name. You pick your battles. For my master’s thesis, my advisor wielded a mechanical pencil of doom, marking all sorts of things. Some of them, I thought, were actually good. Good enough that I’d leave them alone and only change them if she marked them a second time. (I never attempted to go for a third.)

With the novel? Well, the audience at this stage in the process is me. I am writing a story I would like to read. I’m beholden to myself and myself alone. I can pick as many battles as I want, and feel responsible to pick all of the ones I can find. Once the draft goes to beta readers (in a month or so—drop me a line if you’re interested), the calculus will change. It will change again when agents or editors get involved.

Right now, though, revisions are thoroughly in the “author knows best” stage, which is certainly more fun than trying to suss out what a committee wants.

Staggered Starts

Dissertations are not novels, and they’re not, as mentioned earlier, scholarly monographs. Even with a plan for the whole thing, dissertations tend to be written one chapter at a time. This alters the revision process and hockets it with drafting. I was revising my first chapter while I was drafting my third (and revising it again when I was finishing my seventh). Finish a chapter, send it to the advisor, get feedback, use revision as a break from drafting (and vice versa). This process results in a dissertation that is much closer to being “finished,” usually, at the end of the drafting process than a novel is.

The NaNo process amplifies this difference: the whole point is to shut off your inner editor and get words onto the page. Most people, if they have a better idea for a scene they’ve already written, either take some notes or re-write it. Nothing gets sorted until later. When you do get around to sorting it, there’s invariably material you never want to see again. You do rewrites, but you’re rarely trying to alternate between drafting and revising. I didn’t really start making headway on my revisions for Ghosts until I read through the whole draft several times and went to work right at the beginning, a very un-NaNo process. No staggered starts.

Digging in the Guts

I tell my students that the purpose of revision is to help a piece be its best self. I also tell them that this means getting rid of parts that aren’t working. (High school seniors who freak out about needing to write a 5-8 page paper really freak out when you suggest that the paper would be better if they cut out a page and a half in the middle.)

With Ghosts, I threw away big chunks of text even before the first complete draft was finished. Of the 52000 I wrote during November of 2013, I threw out something like 10,000 almost immediately. They didn’t fit the way the story had grown. And now? I am still digging out the most “NaNo-y” passages and replacing them. I understand so much better what the story is, who the characters are, what needs to happen. There’s a lot of work I’m still doing to make the novel its best self, even before I get to the stage where other people start poking it in my blind spots.

The dissertation didn’t require throwing so much writing away, though there were equally painful cuts involving interesting research that proved to be tangential. I would have loved to follow up on some of the new music/pop crossover that appeared around the edges of my research, but that would have taken me out of my carefully-determined (and painstakingly-justified) timeframe, as well as away from my thesis. It would have changed the dissertation’s self.

I did change a few things substantially in the dissertation, particularly in the early chapters as I refined my argument and its scope. That’s probably the closest confluence of novel-revising and dissertation-revising: the writing and revising both refine your understanding of what the text’s “best self” is. Digging around in the guts of the work is about discovery as much as it is about doctoring. And it’s just as visceral as it sounds. There is a story you want to tell, and you evaluate whether you’re telling it, whether the story you think you’re telling is the story you are actually telling. Sometimes, the story your draft really tells is more interesting than the one you had in your head. Sometimes, the story your draft tells is just kinda dumb. Reconciling either can be messy and painful, but making things better often is.

Gradfessional Development

I spent most of last week attending an Advanced Placement (TM) Summer Institute, a training program for teachers who teach AP courses. I spent a week doing it last summer, too, with no idea that I’d be teaching it two months later. This year, I went to the session for new and returning teachers, which made it a bit of a grab-bag. I was at a table with a middle school teacher who was simultaneously moving up to high school and about to teach AP Literature as a one-semester class, a teacher who’d gone to the same session I did last summer (and was, like me, one year into teaching AP), and a third who was about to teach AP for the first time. Between the four of us, we had two collective years of teaching AP Literature.

There was a lot more experience in the room, though, people who’d been teaching AP English courses (Language or Literature) for long enough that they really had to work to count up their years of experience. We didn’t really get into which degrees people had, but it came up in passing that a few people had masters degrees (in either English or education). That’s relatively common; a postgraduate degree in your field gets you a pay bump in most districts. (Aside: my summer courses back in Bowling Green were full of music teachers because, in Ohio, teachers were required to get a masters degree within a certain number of years of starting teaching.)

Professional development—and this institute was 30 hours of professional development—is always a mixed bag. It’s common to go a whole day and pick up perhaps five to ten minutes’ worth of stuff you might use. The AP summer institutes, thankfully, are better than that. Even so, there was a lot of repetition. A lot of margins filled with spirals and such:


From day one, the slowest day, and one on which the slow crawl of my doodles across the page became a spectator sport for the next table over. And the consultant leading the workshop.

We frequently broke to work with our groups (our tables). Those situations had me thinking about my smartest person in the room post. Graduate school and inclination make articulating snap analyses quick for me. Most of the time, I can come up with something that at least sounds smart very quickly. By the second day, I was intentionally backing away from my group because they’d already started to look to me for answers. (I did my best to be a good teacher and ask questions instead.) The situation made me a little crazy, not because my group members were awful (they were great!), but because it frequently put me on the spot in ways that encouraged me to indulge in bad grad school habits. My responses curved back toward my old seminar self and a need to prove not only that my readings were good, but that they were particularly good and that I was particular smart. In among my notes, I wrote a short poem:

I think fast, get to my answers


Like a fox

Especially when they are wrong

Too clever by half in half the time.

Even when I want wisdom,

I want for wisdom.

As much as I miss some of graduate school—the discoveries, the fun parts of research, the camaraderie—I don’t miss analysis as a competitive sport. As we slogged through sample texts and sample student essays, the institute participants got there. Also from my notes: “By the end of the day, we frequently descended to the worst of ourselves, quibbling like grad students over the minutiae of texts, forcing literature into the procrustean bed of the Hero’s Journey.” English teachers are articulate. We grasp the basics of texts quickly. We also have a related capacity to give slight disagreements undue significance. Doing this to texts is a big chunk of the reason I didn’t go to grad school for English…never expecting that I’d end up in music history and comparative studies, where the arguments just as frequently hop back and forth across the line between inane and inspired.

You know where else I heard lots of self-serving cleverness mixed in with cool stuff? Academic conferences. Those are as close as higher ed faculty usually come to the kind of professional development required of secondary teachers. From my current side of the fence, that seems so weird. Professors aren’t obligated to know how to teach. (That doesn’t mean they don’t, or that there aren’t many who take their teaching at least as seriously as their research, including writing books and giving seminars on pedagogy.) “Continuing education” is keeping up with your discipline. There is a whole section of a tenure portfolio or CV dedicated to “professional development,” but it again comes back around to conferences and committees, to research and knowledge and “scholar” as a profession.

Do I lose my thread? I lose my thread. Let it suffice that in the Venn diagram of secondary teachers’ professional development and academic conferences, there is a space of significant overlap having to do with cleverness and ways of displaying it.   

The thing is that none of the cleverness we participants performed for one another makes us,  in itself, better teachers. We don’t have to win arguments about literary meanings with each other, never mind with our students. We have to teach them to make those arguments in fruitful, responsible ways. Parts of the APSI did a great job of that; I picked up lesson plans and strategies that should help me help my students. Other parts didn’t. The squiggles in my margins testify to that.

When it comes down to it, teaching teaching is not so different from teaching writing: “here is what I did and how I did it and here are a bunch of ideas that might work for you.” There are technical details—what is on the AP test, how they’re scored, what the College Board requires in a syllabus—but so much of teaching is the delicate blend of performance, communication, and knowledge. I’m not going to lie: being clever helps. It’s the rest of the stuff, though, that I’m working to develop. Professionally.

NfN: Shanna Germain’s The Poison Eater

I haven’t read a new novel published by a gaming company since the days when Dungeons & Dragons was still a TSR property. Back then, I spent a lot of time with novels that frequently wore their related game mechanics on their sleeves, sometimes to the point that you could see a change in editions in a character’s new capabilities. Some of those old novels were good, but many exemplified the worst of “genre” fiction.

Monte Cook Games ended my long hiatus from game-company fiction by including a novel from Shanna Germain as a stretch goal in one of their (awesome) Kickstarter launches. The Poison Eater is a novel of Numenera, the first of the Cypher System games. Numenera, as a game, is hard to pigeonhole. It is essentially a game about discovery in an impossibly far-flung future. Mix the surreal sci-fi art of the 1970s with Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, sprinkle liberally enthusiastic extrapolations from modern sciences, then dial the weird way up, and you’ll get close. As a game, it’s a long way from D&D.

And The Poison Eater? It’s a long way from those old Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms novels.


First: Numenera is as distinct enough as a setting that you need no acquaintance with it to appreciate Germain’s novel. There’s little reliance on conventional fantasy or science fiction tropes. Numenera, as a game and setting, relies on “the weird.” It’s an actual thing in the game, something you’ll see in sidebars and in the main text. The weird of Numenera drives the game—there are billions of years of accreted and discarded and forgotten technology. It is, functionally, magic. What sets Numenera’s weird apart, though, is the persistent sense that all of these devices and ruins meant something else, or still mean something else to a sufficiently knowledgable party. Residents of the Ninth World are bricoleurs, tinkers assembling meaning and utility from bits of other worlds they can’t ever fully comprehend. (I’ll spare you the long tangent about engineers and Claude Levi-Strauss and semiotics.)

Talia, Germain’s protagonist (and the titular poison eater), is just as much a bricoleur as the rest. She’s putting together a new life from lies and devices she doesn’t understand. For much of the novel, she knows just enough to hide what she knows. She and Khee, her faithful warbeast companion, have run to Enthait, a city in the middle of a desert, protected by its greyes and zaffre and by the visions of the poison eater. Said visions are induced by some of the city’s weird devices. The society’s pattern is thus: the poison eater identifies threats to the city; the greyes and zaffre deal with them. When neither the visions nor the dealing with them are simple, you have good grist for a novel’s mill.

Germain’s writing is evocative. She creates the setting as much by what she neglects to explain as what she does explain. It reminded me, at times of Gene Wolfe. Wolfe is better than anybody I’ve read at picking exactly the right amount of exposition, the perfect details that allow the reader to fill in the gaps. Germain accomplishes similar things not so much through her selection of details, but through her diction. There’s a persistent poetry to The Poison Eater that perfectly suits the ambiguities of its protagonist and the inexplicabilities of its setting. The ambiguities of her word choices and the way she uses sound convey Talia’s uneasy relationship with the world. Good stuff.

The Plot

For all that the novel’s climax features a battle with inhuman forces, the fundamental conflict of The Poison Eater is an interior one (more on that below). As the poison eater, Talia must decipher her visions, which, rather than visions of distant places, are instead memories of her previous existence as a captive of the monstrous vordcha. She must negotiate her relationships with her lover, Isera, and Isera’s daughter, with the captain of the greyes and a technician and the orness (Enthait’s nominal ruler). Talia must decide whether she will commit to these people, whether she will trust them, and whether she will let them trust her.

Talia’s internal conflict plays out against the backdrop of the city of Enthait and against an increasingly imminent exterior threat. There’s a classic skeleton to the story: establish a group of characters with complex relationships, then add heat and pressure to see what breaks and what welds.

The Cool Thing to Consider

Germain establishes the central conflict—and the coolest thing about the novel—in the first two sentences:

Poison never lies.

But Talia does.

“This statement is a lie,” right? Talia knows she is a liar. She has, we quickly learn, been making up the visions the poisons bring. Her comrades expect her to die soon, because that is what poison eaters do. (The poisons really are poisonous.) Talia has other plans, though. Surviving the tenth poison means becoming the orness and getting control of Enthait and a superweapon. The superweapon would, hopefully, allow Talia to destroy the vordcha. The problem? Talia isn’t sure whether she’s a true poison eater. She’s not sure whether the superweapon actually exists. She’s especially unsure of the orness.

Talia consciously wraps herself in lies and, like so many heroes, finds the isolation of falsehood hard to bear. She is torn between desires: desires for the weapon (which would end her fear), desires for stability, rather more literal desire for Isera—but that, too is coupled with a need for their relationship to be more than mere coupling. She must face the question of merely surviving versus actually living. Ho hum, yadda yadda. Mopey intrapersonal conflict. Why do we care?

Beyond the obvious reasons (the quality of the writing, all the reasons we read novels in the first place), we care because Germain keeps wrong-footing Talia, and, by extension, her readers. Just when Talia thinks she has figured something out, she discovers another layer. The nature of truth itself gets murky as Talia matches wits and belief with the orness, her memories, and herself. This is a novel deeply concerned with questions of truth and consequences.

It reminds me at times of China Mieville’s Embassytown (one of the few Mieville novels I have enjoyed without rolling my eyes at the way he wears his cleverness). Embassytown is a novel for linguistics nerds and philosophers, but similarly involves alien forces and the power of lies. The aliens speak two words at once and, because of the relationship between the simultaneously spoken words, cannot lie. Resolving the eventual crisis in that novel requires that, via metaphor, the aliens learn to lie.

There’s nothing so complicatedly linguistic in The Poison Eater, but there’s a similar shell game with what is true, with simultaneity and the effort to comprehend competing ideas. Germain makes it work, which is what takes the novel beyond low-level genre expectations. She does this in part through her use of language; poetry is great for wielding ambiguities and simultaneities. Though Germain doesn’t do any Tolkien-esque pages of song, her novel is shot through with passages that are suggestive and allusive rather than properly expository. She also makes it work by refraining from explaining everything.

That brings us back to bricolage and bricoleurs and Numenera as a game and a world. What makes this novel “literary” is also what makes the game cool: though the foundation and frame are built of fundamental human questions, the rest of the structure is pieced together from the partially-unexplained and the wholly-inexplicable. It’s a fantastic place to play with truth and lies and mystery, and Germain does a great job of it.

What We Nick from this Novel

Reverse your reversed reversals.

Keeping both your characters and your readers guessing is a dangerous game. It’s too easy for the whole thing to slide into murkiness. This is especially true if you throw out all the mysteries at once. What makes The Poison Eater worth nicking from, though, is the way that single strands of mystery weave to and fro. Characters find intermediate answers that seem, in the moment, to be final. Don’t be capricious about it, but let your characters run with incomplete or wrong answers for a while. You—and your readers—will learn something about them, and you’ll potentially do a good job of building the drama, too.


Last weekend, my family went camping. This involved a flashlight hunt; the kids have the usual interest in them and they end up everywhere. We were particularly looking for one from our last camping trip, which prompted digging through the minivan to see if it had gotten stashed somewhere in there.

The flashlight we were looking for never did turn up. Instead we found this:


It’s a flashlight, obviously, by Eddie Bauer. It is also, though:


A socket-and-screwdriver set. Flashlights and socket sets, two things that go together like chocolate and tuna fish…

…unless you were my dad. Since my spouse and I beat my younger brother to having kids, we ended up with the minivan when my dad died. My mom had gotten a thorough mechanical review of it, and cleaned out most of the stuff that my dad had left in there. Most.

My dad was always putting things in the van. It was not only his commuting vehicle, it was the catering vehicle and the barbecue puller (we had a trailer-sized gas-and-lava-rock grill). It was where he kept his stuff. I still remember when he got a car phone, how it sat between the seats in its leather box, hardly ever used. He also filled the van up with flashlights, because apparently you could never have enough of them. By the time I got the van, it still had a couple of the big Maglites, the kind that for some reason I will always associate with Richard Grieco breaking cantaloupes on 21 Jump Street (something about proving to gangers that a crowbar, not a cop flashlight, killed their buddy). There were matchbooks. There were a couple of sponges. A first aid kit. A fire extinguisher. A pair of my dad’s sunglasses that I wore until they broke.

And, under the passenger seat, this flashlight-socket set that had remained out of both sight and mind for years. It is such a dad thing. You never know when you might need to shed some light on some…emergency auto repairs? That would have made more sense if my dad had been the sort who did his own automotive work. His level of expertise, like mine, ended mostly at checking fluids.

It’s such a goofy thing. Why would anybody make it? You can still get them, apparently, so you can “never be caught unprepared for household emergencies or repairs.” The reviews mention that keeping charged batteries in it is a challenge, and most of the praise is that it’s a convenient package for the small socket set, or that the flashlight was handy during a power outage, not that there have been times when having a flashlight and socket wrenches saved the day.

But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Saving the day, I mean. That’s what dads want to do. We get sold, sometimes, on the fantasy of the perfect tool for the job. My dad was hardly immune to this, even in the kitchen, where a good paring knife and a good chef’s knife and your hands can accomplish at least 80% of what you need. Despite this, we had a few kitchen tools that we only used once or twice. I’m sure there were a few that never made it out of the cupboard.

Being a dad is the same way—as much as we might want to have the perfect, day-saving tool, the real work is the stuff you do every day with basic knife skills. In doing the dishes. In paying attention to your ingredients. In knowing the people you’re feeding. I can’t help slipping into kitchen metaphors because that’s where my dad lived. That’s where it was easiest for me to get along with him, to understand him. That’s where he taught me so much of what, like all sons, it took me a long time to understand: we want to save the day. We want gadgets that are perfectly suited to the problems. We want to have a magic wand to fix things for the people we care about…

…but we don’t. We have work to do, everyday work, and every day. If we really want to be good at the fatherhood thing, that’s the work we must do. There are no magic wands, and rarely do we have a perfect tool for the job.

Still, the flashlight/socket set has gone back into the van. Who knows? It might save a day.