Author: JDJPlocher

NfN: Garth Nix’s Sabriel

I brought home Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy (which has expanded to include five novels and two novellas) from my classroom library with competing, vague senses that I had read the first book before and also that I “should” read it. I thought I had read Sabriel, the first novel, in middle school, which, given the publication date, is impossible. I think, at some point in the past, I must have picked it up and read part of it. Reading it yesterday, I certainly didn’t have the sense I’d read it before. Mostly, I wanted something to hold my attention away from the news and social media. Happily, I found a good book.

Overview

Sabriel is the titular character of the first novel in Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy. At 18, she is just about ready to graduate from boarding school when her family history catches up with her. That family history comes from the other side of the Wall, a magical construct that (mostly) divides the kingdom of Ancelstierre from the Old Kingdom. Ancelstierre has early 20th century technology (cars, machine guns, and electric lights). The Old Kingdom instead has magic of a sort that keeps technology from functioning. Some magic bleeds across the Wall, particularly when the wind comes out of the Old Kingdom. Sabriel’s boarding school is close enough to draw on that magic, but the farther south one travels, the more magic ebbs.

The Plot

After the prologue, we first see Sabriel resurrecting a fellow student’s pet bunny. Shortly thereafter, she receives a sending from her father, Abhorsen, delivering her his sword and bells. (The bells are used by necromancers to bind and manipulate the dead.) Intent on finding her father, Sabriel leaves school, crosses the wall, and discovers that “Abhorsen” is a title, not a name, and that with her father dead (it’s complicated), she must become the Abhorsen. She struggles to rescue her father with the help of Mogget, who is not actually a cat, and, eventually, Touchstone, a young man displaced in time. They battle the restless dead, and eventually confront the Big Bad.

It’s a brisk adventure story that touches on enough of personal and setting history to make the relatively small cast shine.

The Cool Thing to Consider

I said “brisk.” I meant it. This novel flies, particularly in the first half.

Pacing is a tricky beast, one I wrangled with a lot as I hashed out the beta draft to Ghosts of the Old City (which I finally finished on Monday, incidentally). Too fast, and you end up with an action movie: trying to solve plot holes by jumping over them fast enough that the audience doesn’t notice. Taken to extremes, you end up losing the meaningful connections between events that make “plot” more than “sequence.” Too slow, and you lose the reader in a morass of…whatever your slowdown is (exposition, tangents, sidequests, S. Morgenstern’s loving descriptions of trees…).

Sabriel is brilliantly paced. The prologue sets a tone and suggests the mysteries that will come in the novel proper. We get fifteen pages to establish Sabriel-the-student and receive the mysterious package, both, followed by just enough time at the Wall to give us a hint of the Abhorsen’s responsibilities and the dangers that creep the Old Kingdom. All together (prologue included), that takes us to page 62.

The next 130 pages are, effectively, an extended chase scene. Sabriel is pursued by her enemies, finding respite briefly enough that she can do little but refresh her resources. It is not until her headlong flight results in a literal crash that Nix allows the reader to pause for breath. This is a risk for a number of reasons. First, Sabriel doesn’t have much to interact with. It is hard to reveal new aspects of a character when you keep her in the same situation. Second, it’s difficult to get the right balance of power for the opposition. Nix needs it to be overwhelming enough to chase Sabriel from even her best refuge, but not so overwhelming that the reader doubts the plausibility of her continued escape.

Nix manages this by altering the terms of the chase, gradually amplifying the magical interventions as Sabriel gets further and further away from the Wall. (This, in itself, is a neatly done bit of macro-scale writing.) Sabriel begins her journey on skis. After a fight with a frightening (but somewhat easily beaten) monster, she soon has to abandon her skis as a more powerful enemy appears behind her. This enemy could clearly overpower her…until she reaches a sanctuary that seems to offer protection. Then the fresh enemy proves to have resources capable of breaching that sanctuary, forcing Sabriel to flee once more via more powerful magic…

Framed this way, it sounds like simple escalation. It does not read like simple escalation, though, because Sabriel’s emotional state provides continuity. As readers, we see her fear, her frustration, her bewilderment. By keeping us grounded in the single character’s perspective, Nix is able to use what goes on around Sabriel to pretty incredible effect. That’s how he manages to zip along to the soft reset that occurs about 200 pages in without losing the reader or the thread of his narrative.

(After Sabriel’s crash, the story pivots from her flight to her assumption of the quest “proper,” and the pacing, while still great, works in the more usual way.)

What We Nick from this Novel

There are many ways to counterbalance pace. For Nix in the first part of Sabriel, that counterbalance is characterization. To a lesser extent, it’s also worldbuilding. Nix can whisk us along through quite a lot of material because he balances the frenetic pace of the action with what we’ll need to understand later in the novel. The reverse can apply, too, balancing slow parts of the action with dynamic changes to character.

Alternative lesson: take your chases to interesting places. Give your characters some interesting places to and modes of travel as they run for their lives or chase down their nemeses.

The Abhorsen Trilogy is available as a boxed set (ISBN: 978-0-06-073419-0). Sabriel, as a single volume, can be found with ISBN 978-0-06-447183-1.

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Thinking Cap Swap

capsforsale

(Caps for Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina)

The parallel universe in which I hold graduate degrees in English isn’t that far from this one. For some reason, it never occurred to me to not go to graduate school. (I’m not entirely sure why this was, but it’s probably related to the time when somebody called a family reunion asking for Dr. _____________ and it could have been any one of seven people.) The only real question for me was whether I’d do English or music. I’d backed my way into my music major. (Instrumental lesson waivers are a gateway drug.) English seemed like a natural fit. I’d always been good with words. Why didn’t I dance with the one what brung me?

The short answer? I was sick of close reading. It felt less like a particular kind of thinking cap and more like a straitjacket.

I was never quite a traditional English major. My department allowed me to carve out a plan that balanced literature classes and creative writing classes. This allowed me sufficient training in literary theory and good writing that I started hating some of the genre fiction I’d so loved in high school. It never made me fall in love with “literary” writing, though, because so much of the stuff took itself so very, very seriously. It felt pretentious and the way we read it felt even more so. I wanted to read books without having to pick them apart.

I had a student this year who complained bitterly about Jane Eyre. It will be her Tess of the d’Urbervilles—a novel that I read and hated in high school and am still somewhat bitter about. I don’t feel bad about assigning Jane. There are much worse nineteenth-century novels out there in terms of length or difficulty or things to discuss. I also have a responsibility to get students ready for the exam the College Board writes. That exam include plenty of pre-twentieth century works. Jane Eyre had ample pedagogical merit, even if some students hated it.

The student’s seething made me think about that time at the end of my undergrad when I decided that I couldn’t put myself through who knew how many years of picking apart novels. It felt like killing them. Going for an MFA seemed useless, too, because I’d found my creative writing classes almost as bad as the literary ones for pretentiousness. (To be fair, it came mostly from the students. The professors I worked with at Mac, including the fantastic Wang Ping, were great.) I just didn’t want to hate what I read or wrote.

I’ve done a lot of writing since then, and a lot of reading. Some of it I’ve hated even as I was doing it. (Yay! Grad school!) There’s no doubt I’ve done at least my share of pretentious things, probably more. You don’t make a comparative studies omelette without breaking a few common sense eggs, and I still cringe at some of the things I forced into my master’s thesis. (Mikhail Bakhtin and mature Harry Partch go together better in theory than in practice.) I can’t get away from analysis. I tried! I was going to “just” do composition, but I added music history because I missed writing papers.

What I couldn’t understand—couldn’t have understood, really—when I was developing close reading skills as an undergrad (or, as it felt sometimes, having them inflicted upon me) is that it gets better. Getting better at close reading has meant I can pick up important pieces as I go along without having to let the close reading devour the attention that could be aimed at all the other good stuff in the writing.

Small digression: My college roommate was increasingly obsessed with traditional Irish music. He played it in our dorm room as he worked on learning tunes from recordings. At first, I could tell the tunes apart. Then they all started sounding the same to me, because there are a lot of similar patterns across the various jigs and reels. He insisted that when you listened enough, they started sounding different again.

Close reading is kind of like that. When you’re learning it, it can be miserable because every text becomes this series of discrete semiotic fragments—just a bunch of disassembled jigsaw pieces. Combine that with a 170-year-old text, and I’m sympathetic to the student I mentioned earlier literally burning her copy of Jane Eyre when we were done with it. When you have more practice with close reading, you can spot the shapes of the puzzle pieces without losing sight of the image.

…which doesn’t necessarily stop you from having plenty of pretentious things to say about it.

I have a long “want to write” list this summer, and a lot of related chores: reading up on 1848, revisions on existing pieces, blog posts, essays about some of the great novels I’ve read in the last year. Some of those things require my close reading cap. Other things require the “say something clever” cap. Others—most of them, really—require the “shut up and write” cap. The juggling of such hats isn’t easy. It wasn’t something I could do when I was sixteen and busy hating Tess. It wasn’t something I wanted to do when I was picking graduate programs. Now, it’s something I do out of habit as I bounce between the different paths of my wordwork.

Hopefully the monkeys stay away.

Favorites

My first year of teaching, I somehow ended up emceeing eighth grade graduation. I made a rookie mistake when introducing the class valedictorian: I admitted that she was one of my favorites. I knew that teachers aren’t supposed to have favorite students any more than parents are supposed to have favorite children. We do have favorite students, though. We’re human beings, and can’t help it.

What a lot of students don’t get, though, is that there’s not always much correlation between the students who are good at school and the students who are teachers’ favorites. It is definitely easier to get along with students who behave in your class, who get all their work turned in, who are respectful when they have questions. That stuff does matter, but personality matters, too. I’ve been pretty fond of students who think I dislike them. (They think I dislike them because they’re frequently on the wrong side of 70 in my class.) One of my favorites from this year actually ended up completing English IV in credit recovery.

(Please don’t ask me about credit recovery. There will be ranting.)

Graduation was last week. It was my third at this high school. (Almost) all the seniors I had this year for English IV and AP Lit crossed the stage. So did students that I’d had for English intervention, including the student who called me Mister Doctor Coach and a student who, as a sophomore, wrote me a thank you note and said that I was her favorite teacher. In that note, one I think she had to write for JV basketball, she explained that my class was the first time she had had a favorite teacher. Early this year, this student and a friend would swing by my class at the end of the day and hang out with my really small ninth period class.

Crossing the stage at graduation, she cried. She was supposed to smile with the school board member handing her the diploma folder, but she couldn’t quite manage it. I don’t know if she managed the “happy just got my diploma” picture that the venue took of every graduate to sell later. (The diploma folders are empty, by the way. Students have to come get their diplomas from the school the next day.) I do know that, when I finally tracked her down in the happy chaos outside the venue, she was smiling, and I was the choked up one when I told her I still had that card.

I do get choked up. Not for everybody, but for students like this one. Students like the one who faced incredible mental and physical health challenges all year, the one for whom I worried more about survival than graduation. Students like our valedictorian, who is one of the smartest and most humble students I’ve ever taught—and one of those exceptional individuals who has overcome the socioeconomic odds. He’s off to Yale in the fall. And some students I get choked up for for no specific reason at all.

I get choked up because I care. And it’s because I care that it matters so much when students tell me that I’m their favorite teacher or that my class was their favorite or the first time they enjoyed English.

It’s not an ego thing—not exactly. I’m not in competition with my fellow teachers. We don’t collect the nice things students say about us and go down to the lounge and have a competition about who is most loved…no more than we have competitions about who’s said the meanest things to us this year. I’d be happiest if my students liked all of their teachers.

The thing I dig most about hearing I’m somebody’s favorite teacher is that it means I’ve gotten through to them. Whether it was with a stray comment or checking in with them after they’d been out sick or, heaven forbid, some actual bit of class content, I’ve gotten through to the students who say I’m their favorite. There’s a connection there. I made them care, at least a little, about learning something, about dealing with the adults they’re becoming, about responsibility or humor or some part of being human. It also means, most of the time, that the student’s made a connection with me.

Successful teaching is about making those connections. It’s not just about content, which is where administrators and legislators so often go astray as they pine for the fjords of the quantifiable. When a student says I’m a favorite, it means I’ve done my job, no matter what the numbers show. Really, when those connections happen, the numbers get better anyway.

It’s one of the most satisfying things about the end of the year: the students stopping by (in some cases sneaking back in) to say thank you and goodbye and have a good summer. I love it when it happens for me, and I love seeing it when it happens to my colleagues. It’s one of the reasons teaching matters, and one of the reasons I’m happy to go back and do it again next year.

In Memoriam

My dad’s mom was the first person I told I wanted to be a writer, at least with any proto-adult sense of what that meant as an aspiration. I was 17, in a rented car on a winding road in Appalachia. I was, at that moment, technically a high-school dropout, but it was my graduation trip.

Grandma Plocher took each of her grandsons (and she only had grandsons) on a graduation trip after high school. It wasn’t a first trip with her for any of us. By the time I got mine, I’d already traveled with grandma on a jetboat through Hell’s Canyon, camped with her in what seemed like half the national parks west of the Rockies, and spent time taking advantage of her membership in the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’d traveled with my grandma and brother, with my grandma and various cousins, but the Appalachia trip was the first time I’d traveled with just grandma.

We didn’t really get each other. I was 17, moody, and far from being a morning person. I didn’t need itineraries or specific plans…to a point that was probably annoyingly noncommittal. (I was really good at shrugging nonchalantly.) My grandmother was retired, an experienced traveler, somebody who—like my dad—wanted everything to go right now, precisely according to plan. The stays in the hotels were not always great, but that’s not what I remember. I remember being up in the mountains, mountains older and rounder than the Rockies on my youthful horizon, but still…a misty day on the ridge roads was a kind of magic.

So was eating at a weirdly fancy restaurant attached to the Natural Bridge State Park in Virginia. Restaurants, at least, I knew. We did Colonial Williamsburg. I pulled grandma to North Carolina, a quick detour to Kitty Hawk just so we could say we’d added another state to our trip. The Wright Brothers museum was much cooler than it had any right to be. We drove into Tennessee and ate at a McDonald’s just to say we’d done it.

The mountains, though, were the best part of that trip. We hiked, and didn’t talk all that much. Grandma got a number of pictures of my back as I walked or stared at the scenery. There are one or two that she convinced me to actually look at the camera for. Not many of those. (Most of the pictures of me from the trip  are of me reading plaques at the places we visited.) The longer conversations were in the car as we traced the Virginia border. I told her about Wales, about being at an international school, about what were surely my Deep and Profound Teenaged Thoughts. [Aside: the more time I spend with AP high school students, the more I realize how insufferable I probably was for spells when I was that age.]

I was bad at asking questions. I wish I’d asked more, or remembered any of her answers. We seemed to be in different worlds, from different worlds. I remember, not from that trip, but from other visits, the way she would throw her hands in the air, raise her eyes, and cry “Good grief!” Her grandkids inspired that reaction sometimes, but so did her own kids. So did the world.

She wrote, a few days into the trip: “…getting more comfortable. We talked about his school and his interest in writing. He reads much more than I do and more heavy stuff. More power to him.”

And that’s what made those trips so special: “More power to him.” She didn’t understand me, but she didn’t have to understand me to appreciate me. Grandma was great at appreciating the world and the people in it, even when she didn’t understand. She traveled all over North America, was active on Elder Hostel trips, and was constantly telling stories about people she’d met or things she’d seen. She was great at asking questions, at listening to the answers. Sometimes her only response to those answers was “Good Grief!”, but she didn’t stop asking questions. She didn’t stop listening to the answers.

Grandma Plocher died in her sleep this past weekend. Her health had been deteriorating for years; her memory was shot. The last time I sat down and talked with her, she needed occasional reminders of which of her sons I went with, and didn’t always remember that my dad was dead. It didn’t stop her smiling, though, to see my mom and my brother and me. We had a big party for her that summer, a belated celebration of her 90th birthday with all the kids, grandkids, and great grandkids. She held on most of the way to 93.

Death doesn’t get easier to deal with, even when you know that it ends a struggle. That makes it more complicated, sometimes, because part of you is relieved to see an end to suffering and an end to the complicated responsibilities that go with care. One of my first responses was a desperate sense of how unfair it was that I couldn’t help my dad through this, that he was already gone. Mourning grandma came later.

Grief is messy because life is messy. We only ever understand a small part of either, but we keep trying. And that is good, Charlie Brown exclamations included.

Rest in peace, grandma. The world’s a better place for having had you in it.

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)

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Overview

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.