The Writing Life

Adventures in Taglines

When I started this blog, it was not supposed to be about #postac. I was going to write about writing, all the time. I was going to say profound things. I was going to share my keen insights into the writing process. I was, if nothing else, going to write about the things I was thinking about to try and make sense of them. I had the vague idea that I should have some sort of web presence to point to when people asked about my writing.

That’s what I was doing when I wrote Of Dreams. It was my third post on the blog. It’s still responsible for my highest traffic day. I just re-read the post. It’s raw, and probably the most open I ever was about how much quitting higher education had wrecked me. It was not self-consciously #postac, because I didn’t even know what #postac was. I found out quickly enough. I left academia at roughly the same time Rebecca Schuman was carving out Thesis Hatement and venting her spleen (usually constructively!) on pan kisses kafka.

I was fumbling through on my own with far less attention. I kept writing about writing, but I kept writing #postac stuff, too. It got me traffic. I cared about it. I wanted to document my journey in solidarity with all the people I knew were going through similar struggles. When I went and read other people’s postac writing, I felt less alone. I changed the tagline on the blog to “The Adventures of a Post-ac Writer.” That was back in 2013.

Last week, I went through and checked my links, shuffled a few things around in my sidebar. The virtual housecleaning was necessary—some of the links were broken. Pan kisses kafka is on indefinite hiatus while Dr. Schuman gets her memoir out, continues to write for Slate, and does the whole “parent” thing. Some of the postac sites that had featured my work don’t exist anymore.

I wondered, almost two years ago, whether you can ever really stop being a postac. I wasn’t sure you could, any more than you can stop being from where you grew up. We carry our pasts with us, always.

That doesn’t mean we have to write about them.

I just finished my second year as a full-time classroom teacher. It’s been three years since I was even nominally on the higher-ed job market. I’m much more concerned about preparing my students for college than I am with the preparations necessary to teach college. Really, I wrapped all of my big thoughts into the 4,000 word essay I wrote for “How to Leave Academia.” I still have little ones, and there are occasions where my past and my present overlap in hopefully interesting ways. I’m still going to write about those here. It has felt increasingly wrong to keep the “Adventures of a Post-ac Writer” tagline, though, no matter what it might do for SEO.

My PhD hasn’t expired. I’m still #withaphd. The #withaphd hashtag is great, because it helps erode the “you are your degree” mentality that is so prevalent among academics (and exiting academics). I’m still a writer. But I’m not really a “post-ac writer” anymore. I haven’t been for a while. I’m a writer and teacher who happens to have a PhD.

So, new tagline: Adventures in Wordwork. That label more accurately gets at the mix of writing, reading, and teaching that occupy my time these days, that occupy this blog. Let’s see how it works out.

(P.S. If you are looking for my writings about postac, There’s an annotated list accessible from the menu at the top of the page.)

Something Funny

I want to write something funny, something longer than a tweet.

The first novels that I tried to write, back around third grade, were rather shameless and childlike takeoffs on things like Piers Anthony’s Xanth books. (Yes, I was completely oblivious to the innuendo in those books.) I read lots of Robert Asprin, the Myth and Phule’s Company books. Hell, even in high school most of what I wrote was funny, or tried to be and settled for clever. (Or worse.)

That went away, I think, around the time I started writing Serious Poetry. I was, as my students might say, “in my feelings.” I was in love with what I imagined to be profound as only a seventeen year old can be. Yes, there were self-indulgent love poems about crushes I didn’t know what to do with. (No, I’m not posting them.) A lot of the poems I wrote, though, were about the nature of reality, about girls who smoked flowers and rode to improbable places on desk chairs. Some of them were okay. By the end of college, I wasn’t writing many of those. My honors project was a long poem about stories and telling them and chasing them. It was super-serious and I meant every word of it. I still like it.

Meanwhile, I was turning from Anthony and Asprin to R.A. Salvatore (true confessions!) and Tad Williams and various kitchen-sink epics. I had a few fleeting projects along those lines. More importantly, those kinds of fantasy stories were the ones I was reading when I was writing for Imperial Secrets. Hallas and Leor and Dzalin were all serious characters who had various reasons to save, break, or re-make their respective chunks of the world.

By the end of college, I’d turned even further to Brust and Gaiman and Wolfe and Zelazny. Good writers, all. Funny moments in all (even in Wolfe, where they’re always a surprise), but the stories were never hangers for jokes like so many of the books I read when I was a kid.  I “knew” what I wanted to write: thoughtful, clever stories leavened with intermittent one liners. I wanted to put all the thoughtfulness that eventually led me to graduate school behind fantasy stories. (The degree to which it had to go behind the story is another post.) There was not a single whimsical thing in the process.

My kids will both, immediately, tell you that I am the silliest person in the family. They’re not wrong. I pretend all sorts of ridiculous things all the time. The kids are nine and approaching seven and I’m silly enough to make them roll their eyes like teenagers. (My daughter’s head start on that count is frightening.) My students will tell you that I’m funny and weird (and a lot of other things, I expect). Growing up, conversations in my family often revolved clever comebacks (and bad puns). The humor may be pretty dark, but…

…what I’m getting at, or trying to get at, is that it oughtn’t be a stretch for me to write something funny. It is, though. Part of that is the issue of acting versus reacting. One-liners and retorts bounce off of what was said to prompt them; they don’t appear out of nothing. Part of it, too, is that I have spent so much time treating writing as Serious Business. Writing Me is Serious Me, with big thoughts and careful language. Writing has been a way to prove that I’m smart. On the nonfiction side, it’s frequently didactic: here, let me help you understand this thing. (Look, it’s no coincidence that I’ve spent most of my adult life as a teacher of one sort or another.) On the fiction side, most of the stories I want to tell are not particularly funny.

Writing humor is challenging, though. Writing jokes is challenging. Even writing satire—which comes most easily to me—is challenging. It is just as much a skill as being able to explain Bourdieu to your uncle or complex-compound sentences to a disinterested high school freshman. Just as it takes more than speaking well to write well, it takes more than being funny to write funny things. Timing functions so much differently, for one. I know people who can make the stupidest knock-knock joke hilarious because they get the beats just right. Making those beats work in writing takes work, especially when you know that your readers will hear it not in your voice, but in their own inner voice.

How do you get better at things? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice. (My alma mater has a science building named Carnegie Hall; it was a running joke that music students would go practice there just to say they’d played in Carnegie Hall.) Luckily or unluckily for you, my practice space is this blog.

I want to practice, too, because for all the progress humanity has made, there are a lot of bleak things going on. We could all, I think, use something funny…and I don’t do cat videos.

Back on the Horse

This morning, I managed to start the day with yoga. I’ve used a basic sun salute sequence as my athletic warm-up for years. That does not, unfortunately, mean that my body fell automatically into the right rhythm this morning. I tweaked my knee running warm-up laps at frisbee practice a few months ago, which threw me out of that attempt to get back into shape. This morning, my back didn’t want to loosen up. Tendinitis poked my knee. It was all a little harder than when I did the same things yesterday.

I’m probably more out of practice writing blog posts. I started drafting a few different posts over the spring semester, but the only one that I finished is more personal than I want to put up right now. I’ve been writing, but mostly recreationally. Sitting at the keyboard this morning, I feel a little creaky.

It’s also a little like the moment you get a message or social media request from somebody you haven’t spoken to in years. How do you catch up? “A lot of stuff has happened in the last fifteen years. Fifteen years ago, I was… Fourteeen years ago…” You can’t do that. You hit the high points. Right now, I’m glad my blog isn’t really a diary because, to be perfectly honest, I don’t want to catch you up on the last six months of my life.

I can catch you up on the posts I wanted to write. I have about a hundred words of my Song of the Year post for 2015. I have a post that, a little presciently, begins “Writing is putting one word after another. Being a writer is putting words on the page after a long day of work or a short night of sleep.” By that standard, I have not really been much of a writer for the past few months.

But I’m back! I’m working the kinks out, re-reading drafts of Ghosts of the Old City, catching up with all the UI changes on WordPress, usw. I’m reading novels I’m not teaching. My plan is to write three or four posts a week, but only to post two. This hypothetical “buffer” will do bufferish things when school prep starts back up in August.

Big plans this summer, too: getting Ghosts out to beta readers. I’ll be tidying up the collection of my #postac posts and compiling them (with commentary) into an ebook. There are so many things I want to read, so many novels I want to nick from.

Yoga this morning was a little harder than it was yesterday. This post is more disjointed than I’d like, a little rough, a little strained. It’s not smooth or clever. But it’s here. Before you can ride (like the wind!), you have to get back on the horse.

More to come!

NaNoWriMo Reflections, 2015

So the semester is done and I finally have a chance to look back on NaNo.

nano-2015-winner-banner

I won this year, but it was so much different than 2013. I’ve spent the last few weeks (and particularly the evening after our local “TGIO” party) puzzling out which of the differences had to do with me and which had to do with my region. There were a lot of changes in both over the two years between my wins.

Back in 2013, finding the community in the Austin region was super-important to me. I had no idea what I was getting into.  I’d only been in Texas a few months and meeting people who were not in my family circle was novel (sorry). Teaching was still just a stopgap, something I was doing on a substitute basis while looking for a real job. I was still pretty miserable much of the time. I’d also, y’know, never written a novel before. (Never mind that I’d started several going all the way back to third grade.)

That year, write-ins were really social. We spent at least half the time doing word sprints and chattering between them. I went to most of the Saturdays and most of the Wednesdays. A really high percentage of my wordcount came from those write-ins, particularly from the sprints. I remember that most of the people seemed to be writing purely for entertainment. We’d get together, overcaffeinate, and hurl words at our virtual pages.

Last year, I hardly made it to anything. I wanted to, but being a first-year teacher at a poorly-funded middle school was as much as I could handle. The commute did not help, nor did my kids’ challenges adjusting to their new school. I don’t know if the changes I noticed this year were in progress last year or not.

The biggest difference this year is that the community seemed much more…pre-professional. Our new municipal liaisons were great at organizing events. Many of those events, though, aimed directly or indirectly at publishing. The focus on writing for the sake of writing seemed diminished. The write-ins were much quieter. One of the regular ones is at a local gaming store. Back in 2013, it was one of the noisiest write-ins. This year, it was an island of quiet in the otherwise busy store. Don’t get me wrong—I still wrote thousands of words at that write-in. I just wrote them quietly. People said hello when they arrived and goodbye when they left, and occasionally chatted with friends they’d already made when they needed a break. Mostly, though, the write-ins I went to were quiet.

This year, that suited me. That’s the other difference—I’ve written a novel now, even though it’s not quite ready for distribution. I knew going in that I could do it, and I had a good idea of what I wanted to get out of the month. Putting my head down and writing was fine. Really, I needed the time with minimal distractions more than I needed the community this year—I like my job (a lot), my home life is fairly stable, and my stress-happiness balance is tipped very much toward happiness. November was about making time to chase the story and the wordcount.

It was a hell of a chase, too. I was at “par” on two of November’s 30 days: the first and the last. Going into Thanksgiving break, I had over 20,000 words left to write. I spent much of the break writing (including Thanksgiving day). On Black Friday, I hiked downtown and got caught in the rain. (It was bad enough that I had my spouse bring me some dry clothes.) I had about 1800 words left for Monday, and wrote almost 3000 because I was not about to stop in the middle of the climactic chapter.

The end product is, I think, better than the initial version of Ghosts. Most of the story for Spires of Trayan is there, and there are fewer of the scenes where I’m using the characters’ fumbling around to try and figure out where the story needs to go. I’m sure that when I open it back up in a month, I’ll groan and wonder what I was thinking. There will be things that are too obvious, things that are not obvious enough, and a few scenes that will be better off incinerated.

But it’s done. Fifty-one thousand words on the page (61000 including the ones I wrote last year). Words that weren’t there before. It was a quieter, calmer, more focused NaNo, but pulling those words out of nothing makes it a win.

Twelve and Two and Two

A dozen years of marriage, two years in Texas, and—in another week or so—two years of Walking Ledges. You’ll never believe what happens next!

Actually, if you’ve been following along for any length of time, you probably will: posts on writing and teaching sprinkled with increasingly occasional #postac commentary. Come November I’ll be attempting NaNo again, and probably writing about that. I aim to keep work from devouring the blog the way it did last year. (A shorter commute will help with that, I hope.) At some point there will be something about the availability of Ghosts of the Old City.

In this blog’s first year, I wrote 77 posts. Many of them were about my breakup with academia, about the ways that I dealt with the emotional fallout of quitting and the loneliness of relocating. The second year of the blog has featured half as many posts—my first year of teaching devoured my writing energy, even when it wasn’t devouring my time. Those posts, though, have been…positive. It’s not as if every day has been a happy one. February was rough, and I had some particularly down weeks in the summer when I was spitballing scenarios in which I didn’t get a teaching job for the coming year. Overall, though, life has been good.

Good or bad, life is continuous. The important moments seldom pay attention to the calendar. The less discrete the steps are in a process, the more arbitrary the divisions between them. An 89 is just as far from 87 as it is from 91, but we assign a different letter to the 91 because we have to draw the line somewhere. Anniversaries—of moves, of institutions, of weddings and first dates and birth—are arbitrary markers in a continuous process.

I’m not sure whether that makes them more or less important. On the one hand, my blog is little different at 105 weeks from what it was at 102. On the other, it is much different from what it was at 50 weeks. I still write. I am (somewhat) better adjusted to Texas than I was when we moved. I still think my spouse is one of the best people on the planet. Dividing the time into chunks doesn’t change things.

That anniversaries are arbitrary does not mean they are meaningless. (Language is also arbitrary!) They give us an excuse to reflect. Even artificial divisions are thresholds. Sure, we build the doorways ourselves based on such flimsy things as rotational and revolutionary intervals. When we stand in a doorway, we’re between things—it’s a liminal moment. (I got kind of obsessed with liminal moments after analyzing characters in doorways in Hawthorne.) We can see where we came from and where we’re going, even if we know that the tomorrow will not be so different from yesterday.

So. Twelve and two and two. We count the years, we look forward and we look back. To those of you who are here—whether since the beginning or since yesterday or reading this a week after I type it, thank you. I’m glad you’re here.

The Cleaver and the Needle

Embed from Getty Images

Revising can be messy. It’s all well and good to kill your darlings, but it’s often the case that the darlings need reshaping rather than killing.

Ghosts of the Old City has required some particularly bloody revising. After going through my alpha draft, I realized that almost a third of the book was in the wrong order. Some scenes—and most of two chapters—featured characters spinning their metaphorical wheels, waiting for the next thing to happen. (Really, it was the author waiting to figure out what happened next.) The disappointing thing is that those scenes were not even good character development. I had glossed over some things that should have been interesting challenges for the characters, and I had zoomed in on some moments that turned out to be insignificant.

Starting to implement the necessary fixes has made me feel like a Civil War era surgeon, operating with butchers’ tools and booze for anaesthetic. There’s little delicacy for me at this stage. I ginned up sixteen new chapter files in Scrivener on a fresh storyboard. Most of those will use some existing text. Some will be new. One will require only moderate changes to reflect the altered flow of the plot. “Cut and paste” feels like chop-and-paste, or chop and throw into a bucket for later reattachment. It is brutal and unsubtle stuff.

I find this a little ironic because one of the things that I appreciate about the revision process is the craftsmanship of it. When I’m drafting, I’m chasing the story. I’m discovering things. I am, when things are working well, a damn wizard, conjuring something out of nothing. The revision process, as I was describing it to somebody a few weeks ago, is more like engineering. My friend (who is a research scientist) nodded sagely and said that it’s an iterative process, where you can try things out and see what works. I like that kind of work as much as I do the wilder stuff of creating. There’s something satisfying about each step getting you closer to the beautiful (or functional, or both) thing that you’re working on. I just tend to imagine it like bonsai or playing with Lego.

This time it has inspired the above analogies to butcher work. It’s my first novel, and I think much of the difficulty in revising has been adjusting to the scale. If you’re writing an essay or a short story, you may have to move a few pages around, rewrite a stretch of paragraphs. Even a third of your work isn’t that much. With a novel, there’s just more of everything. There’s more room for things to go wrong. It’s more important to sustain reader interest. I don’t want Ghosts to be one of those novels that sucks people in through the first three chapters then loses them by the seventh. I particularly want to avoid that because I think the home stretch of the novel includes some of the best writing I’ve ever done. (I’m sure my beta readers will explain to me where it isn’t as good as I think it is.)

I want the first half of the book to be worthy of the second. I also want the first half to build correctly to the second, which is why the hatchet job was necessary. Plot relies on conflict. Usually—and in this way my novel is nothing unusual—that conflict should build gradually. In the first-and-a-half draft of Ghosts, the conflict is just kind of there. Drafting it, I had antagonists in mind, but I hadn’t thought of exactly what they wanted or how they were going about their business. Now I know what needs to happen, and it’s not there.

Yet.

I’ve gotten through the most brutal parts of the corrective surgery. I can put down the cleaver. The next step is to pick up the needle and stitch it all back together with everything in the right place. One of the fun things about being a writer is that if you’re doing your job, your story won’t even show the scars.

On Writing and Music Performance

“And yes, [writing]’s a performance art – even if you’re writing for yourself – because it’s ultimately also about translating and transferring emotions.”

Do you read MJ Wright? If not, you should consider it. He’s a New Zealand historian and writer who has a lot of smart things to say about writing, history, and science (among other things). Last week, he published a post called “Why writing is a performance art, like concert piano playing.” I have no problem with the thesis of that piece: writing requires practice and, to do it well, you must get beyond “rules.” Experience counts. There’s truth in that, but that much is true of any art. I’m less curious about why Wright compared writing to piano performance than I am with the semantic leap from “translating and transferring emotions” to “performance.”  Where does the composer fit into the equation? Where, for that matter, does a reader?

I’m in a rare position regarding this question: I’ve written lots of text, I’ve written lots of music, and I’ve put in my time performing music (and on much rarer occasions, words). A caveat, though: Wright’s post was just a springboard for this one. I’m not trying to “refute” his argument or really even comment on the post’s content. Said post makes a convincing case for the importance of practice in writing, and I wholly agree with Wright on that point. My quibble is with “performance” and just how well that idea applies to writing.

“If you play one of the classics, let’s say Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, ‘Moonlight’, strictly according to the notation, it sounds plonky and stupid.”

This is true. It’s also true, though, that Western music notation has always been a kind of shorthand—there’s a whole branch of music scholarship devoted to studying manuscripts and decoding the actions the blobs of ink were meant to prompt. (If you’re interested in some of the uses and abuses of ‘performance practice’ studies, I’d suggest Richard Taruskin’s Text and Act, though I’d also suggesting looking directly at some of the essays he engages with. Taruskin habitually pursues his arguments…aggressively.)

It wasn’t really until the 19th century that “composer” became a job of its own. Prior to that, writing music was a part of other jobs—Kapellmeister, for example. The Kapellmeister managed all the musical activity for a church and wrote more as necessary for performance. As the patronage system broke down and professional music-making moved away from the church and the estates of the aristocracy, composers stopped having house or church ensembles to work with. Simultaneously, music came to be treated more as an art than a craft.

Notation was getting more precise, too, because composers were less likely to be in direct control of performances. Dynamic markings (for loudness) grew in importance. Composers indicated tempi, eventually with metronome markings. Articulation marks and phrasing marks and all sorts of indications telling a performer how to play a particular note became common. The more seriously composition was treated as its own distinct art, the more precisely composers worked to guide (or control) performers.

By the middle 20th Century, this had pushed some composers to abandon performers altogether. Electroacoustic music was driven by new sounds and new technology, but it also allowed the composers to create exactly what they wanted to without the necessary mediation of a performer. Some composers—famously, Igor Stravinsky—railed against performers’ “interpretation” of music, instead preferring “execution.” The ladies and gentlemen with the instruments in hand were, Stravinsky argued, just there to make his artistic vision a reality, without any input on the process.  They had acquired a history’s worth of bad performance habits that needed to be scrubbed away. (See the sixth of his Norton lectures at Harvard, published in Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons.)

To bring this back around to Wright, of course playing Beethoven as if the blots on the page were the whole piece sounds “plonky and stupid.” The score was never intended to be the music, only a vehicle for transmitting it.[1]

Embed from Getty Images

And here the comparison of music to writing gets fuzzy, because writing is also a vehicle for transmitting ideas. We use the written word to tell stories, to explain scientific research, to philosophize, to do a hundred hundred other tasks. The words, though, are not the stories, are not the ideas, are not the philosophy. (You can make a case for that, but that’s a rabbit hole for another day.) Stories live closer to the words than music does to the score, but there’s still a significant degree of difference.

The gap between (Western) music and writing comes in the way that gap between sign and signifier is bridged. With words and ideas, it’s essentially a direct process of semiosis.[2] With traditionally-notated Western music, you need a performer and some kind of semiosis to accomplish Wright’s “translating and transferring emotions;” the semiosis is mediated by the performer. The performer translates the score into reality—that’s performance. Like translating from one language to another, though, there are necessary injections of the performer’s ideas into the final product—the difference between dumping a chunk of text into Google Translate and using a professional translator is much the same as the difference between “plonky and stupid” Beethoven and the performance by Tiffany Poon Wright uses as his counterexample.

You can make the case (as reader-response theory sometimes does) that the “translation” of words into a story or idea—into meaning—is a kind of performance by the reader rather than the writer. It is the reader who controls the pace of consumption, who consciously or unconsciously glides over the boring bits or lingers on a particularly artful turn of phrase. Readers are, at the least, participants in the construction of the meaning of a text. Communication is between the author and the reader.[3]

Musical performance—as with other performance arts—takes place in time. Scores can and do hang around for centuries. What we have on the page of Beethoven’s Op. 27 No. 2 now isn’t much different than what was on the page 200 years ago, but to turn it into music we need a performance now, something to thaw Beethoven’s calcified intentions into flowing sound. By controlling the pace of production (of sound), the performer controls the pace of consumption. The performer, of course, also controls the innumerable nuances that create the music for the audience.

“The trick is to infuse unwritten expression into the piece – something that has to be created by the performer, and which was always envisaged by the composer.”

As a composer, I have to respect performers—their skills make my ideas reality (and often improve upon them in the process). I don’t agree with Stravinsky’s notion of a hierarchical, unidirectional movement from composer to performer to audience. I believe that the relationships are reciprocal and that the musical work exists somewhere in the vague middle of the performer-audience-composer triangle. Performing is creative work regardless of how much or how little the composer has written down. (Any quibble with “which was always envisaged by the composer” must be saved for a separate post.) It’s the composer, though, who takes the first step of creating something from nothing, of recording some idea or intention to give to a performer and ultimately to the audience. That stage of creation embeds Wright’s “emotions” (I would add “ideas,” too) in an artifact. Only then can the performing artist “transfer and translate” them for the audience.

Writing is creating something from nothing. Performing a score is creating something out of something else. That doesn’t mean that writing and music are wholly discrete: words are sounds. Sentences have rhythm. We can talk about pace and tempo and structure in novels in much the same way we do in symphonies. One of my favorite composers (and subject of my master’s thesis) justified his musical style and the creation of a whole new tuning system on the basis of its presumed relation to human speech and song—to embodied words.

My favorite description of what defines a story is the Kalahari proverb “it comes from a far off place and you feel it.” Music is much the same way. I’ve been thinking about and writing about both for years. They’re arts. They benefit from from practice. Sometimes you create texts or scores or performances that suck. You learn from them and you move on. That doesn’t make writing  performance, and that’s okay. [4] Go practice, go write and, as Neil Gaiman puts it, make good art.

1—It’s tangential but important to note that the majority of the world’s musical traditions lack notation altogether. We have to be careful when we talk about music to remember that there is more to it than Western “classical” music. Many Western music philosophers and music semioticians build their work entirely on the Western canon, sometimes narrowing it further to Western instrumental music. That leads to some conclusions that look truly idiotic the moment you step out of the concert hall.
2—…and semiosis is marvelously complicated even before you get neurocogs involved.
3—As somebody whose dissertation was on the presentation of music and all of the practical levels of execution that go with getting music composed and performed, that sentence was a little painful to write. The communication is never going to be perfect and, as soon as publishing enters the equation, you add all sorts of competing pulls that influence both what is said and how it is said.
4—And, as I mentioned at the beginning, the fact that I don’t believe writing is performance does nothing to discount the other elements of Wright’s analogy. Writing is still art!

Painted Desert

Making Mountains out of Mountains

Painted Desert

On the way home, and not precisely the mountains, but not far from them.

I grew up surrounded by mountains, in the valley between the Rockies and the Owyhee Mountains. The rain shadow meant that what wasn’t irrigated was dry. Getting sagebrush and crops in the same frame of a photograph wasn’t too hard. Most of all, though, I remember mountains lining most of the horizon, especially on clear days. The thing is that I haven’t lived in Idaho for many years. Central Texas is, thank the FSM, far less flat than Northwest Ohio, but I still hadn’t been around mountains for a long, long time.

That changed on a recently-completed road trip. Along with the family, I did a three-day drive from Texas to California. At the end of the first day, closing in on Albuquerque, we reached the mountains. The sun was drifting down toward them. We rose up from the scrub plains to meet it.

A tangle of emotions followed—the sight of the mountains filled me up. They were a homecoming, but there was also bitterness there. It had been so long not just since I had seen mountains, but since I’d thought about them. It felt like I had betrayed my memories. Added to that was recognition of time’s passage. I had to convince my daughter that we were driving into mountains even though they were not pointy and white-capped like they are in her picture books. All this spun out from and coiled around the more usual beauties of mountain sunsets and the fatigue of a long day on the road.

Travel has always been a time for me to write—or at least to think about my writing. During the trip, I managed to (finally!) finish my read-through of Ghosts of the Old City. There is a lot to improve, especially in the first half of the book. It still has NaNo-wrought passages that don’t do anything. There are—well, I could spend a good chunk of time listing the things that need fixing. Mostly, the things that need to be fixed need to be more themselves, to reflect my understanding of the characters, story, and setting at the end of the process rather than what I was making up as I went along.

You never want to make mountains out of molehills. As a writer, though, you need to be able to make mountains out of mountains. The big things in your story have to feel big. The important things must feel important. Even after thinking about it for a week, I’m not sure I’ve done a good job of describing exactly what I felt when I saw the mountains. If it were important to my story, I’d have to find a way: more words, better words, fewer words…more details and less abstraction.

These are all things I’m doing as I work on my rewrites. Much of it comes back to the fundamental: show, don’t tell. If you can’t do that, your mountains will be flat and pointy against the horizon, capped with white that was never snow. And how is that going to make anybody feel anything?

Finity

Embed from Getty Images

Humans are bad swimmers.

The shape of our bodies lends itself to climbing trees, running long distances, using tools…and creating lots of turbulence when we propel ourselves through the water. Even Michael Phelps expends a fair amount of energy that doesn’t move him forward.

Being a first year teacher is like learning to swim: you splash and flounder and far, far too much of your energy is spent on turbulence rather than propulsion. You’re inefficient—dreadfully inefficient—but you’re in deep water so you don’t really have much choice but to keep swimming. You expend enormous amounts of energy on the little things: keeping track of papers, filing lesson plans, attending meetings. Then, too, there are the more important things that aren’t directly part of teaching content: classroom management, staying on the same page as your administrators, understanding how the standardized tests work. It’s all turbulence and splashing. There is not, as a first year teacher, that much energy left over for propelling yourself and your students toward actual content knowledge.

We do it anyway, though. How could we not? We love our students. Whether we’re fresh out of school or fresh out of an alternative certification program, we’re teachers because we care about the work. We can wear our cynicism about the system for everybody to see, but it hasn’t had time to deepen and become bitter. We give teaching everything we’ve got.

Here’s the thing, though: that extra energy? It has to come from somewhere. Whitman wrote “I am large, I contain multitudes.” First year teachers put most of our internal multitudes to work on teaching. We get a little boring. We do things like eat raw almonds for lunch because we didn’t make it to the grocery store or because we were thinking hard about the day’s lessons and forgot to pack a proper meal. We don’t get enough sleep. We have to remind ourselves that our kids at home are not our students. Sometimes, we have to hunt down that one of our multitude who washes dishes and does laundry. (That one is really good at hiding.)

Our multitudes are finite. Our energy is finite. For me, writing is one of the things that slipped for a while. NaNo was a bit of a train wreck—I didn’t have a plan when I started, spent the first weekend writing some game stuff, and was still at zero words of actual draft two weeks in. By the end of the third, I decided that continuing to gun for 50K was not going to be at all fun, so I stopped. I did write a few thousand words more before November was out, but it was back to writing for fun. There will be Camp NaNo in April and in July, and (shockingly) I don’t require it to be NaNo to write.

I do require time and energy. I have to find space in the finite. I have to decide, day to day, whether I’ll get more out of washing dishes or writing a few paragraphs, whether to spend a spare twenty minutes jotting down ideas for lesson plans or character development (or sleeping). I have to remind myself that I’m more likely to waste time playing games when I’m tired, and that those twenty minutes would almost always be better spent sleeping.

And teaching never really goes away. It’s nearly as bad as grad school for thoughts of “I should be working” lurking always in the back one’s mind. It doesn’t feel as much like being stalked by a monster as the dissertation did, but it still takes a remarkable amount of headspace. There are constantly things to fix, different points to emphasize, procedures to tweak to make things run more smoothly. I think about particular students. I think about particular lessons. I try to figure out different ways to explain things to my ESL and SPED students…and how to give my GT students something that will actually make them think. Teaching, like art, will fill as much space as you give it.

Finity is a bitch. But I’m learning to be a better swimmer.

Once More Unto the Breach

The other day I had to explain the word “trudging” to a bunch of 13-year olds, many of whom spoke English as their second language. Today the word felt apt—not because I was in a Minnesota winter stomping wearily through piles of snow, but because work is work, and sometimes nights are short and work is tough. I think about all the things I have to do (both in the possessive sense and the one of requirement) and it feels like I’ll be trudging until June.

That is why I’m doing NaNoWriMo again this year, even though my time is as compressed as it ever was when I was using grad school as an excuse not to do it. I’m doing it because sometimes we have to jump off a (metaphorical) cliff and remember what flying feels like. Sometimes we forget to hit the ground, sometimes we don’t. (And we can be Arthur Dent in both cases.)

I miss the Austin NaNos I haven’t seen in a year (and some I’ve seen at Camp NaNo events). When I “won” eleven months ago, I called them “a community of fellow striver-sufferers.” It still fits. It’s hokey and a little artificial, but the camaraderie of NaNo is still great. I suspect that I’m much more excited for some of my fellow Austin NaNos to write their drafts than I’d ever be to read them. I’m just as sure that some of the stuff is awesome. Thing is, that’s not really the point: the point is to write. Because it’s fun and sometimes it’s more fun to do together.

The fun is the important part. I still have a manuscript sitting around to revise and get edited and published. Part of me wants to kick myself for starting the next book while the first one is still so rough. There’s just no better, more fun part of the year to churn through a novel draft than November. When something means enough, you stop finding time and start making time.

This post has simmered for a few days—from a really abysmal Wednesday and on to Halloween, when the hardest of the hardcore NaNos are spending the holiday evening having a potluck and caffeinating themselves to get going at midnight. My kids are out trick or treating. It’s quiet between trick-or-treaters, and for once I don’t have lessons to plan. I’ve resisted the urge to throw on a movie…because the quiet is good. This is a moment I’m taking to write.

Nothing fancy, words on a screen, and most of those words are about words, which is too often a snake eating its own tail. But I will write. I am writing. I am a writer.

Tomorrow I start a new novel and send Maedoc and Zahra to Trayan. They might not get there and back this November, but they will go. And I will go with them because it is a far, far better thing than to stay here.

And because I’ve been English teacher/nerd enough to be actually using these speeches in the morning to psych myself up, a little Henry the Five, courtesy of Branagh and Olivier:

Let’s jump off the cliff and try to forget about hitting the ground.