What Teaching Has Taught Me

About a week ago, I was asked by friend, Bryan, to guest write for his blog, TextbookPillow. Don’t ask. I have no clue as to the name either. Because I am a bit of a literary whore and have a slight inability to say no to my close friends, I immediately got started and delivered a short(ish) article to him. As per our arrangement, I allowed him sole control of it, until now. So without further ado, here is my guest piece on teaching and writing.

What I Learned About Writing From Teaching

Like many, if not most, English graduates, I have a touch of the authorial itch. I try to write whenever I have a free moment and feel guilt ridden when a day passes without words having been expressed. Writers want to write; hell, they have an almost instinctual need to do so. I equate it to almost an addiction without the usual, unfortunate consequences. No one will ever die from writing or not writing, but they will tend to become irritable, moody, unpleasant and could possibly suffer certain physiological effects (statements not to be taken as medical fact).

Concordant with my literary aspirations, I also really enjoy the basic amenities of food, shelter, clothing, and the occasional luxury of libations. As you can imagine, at my current level my musing and writings do not provide the sufficient funds to acquire the previously mentioned items. Thus, I have undertaken the noble profession of teaching, specifically teaching collegiate English. I know, I know; it does seem rather cliché of me, particularly considering the unfortunate adage of “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Even before I began teaching, this idiom irritated me. Everyone who has ever excelled at anything had a teacher at their earliest years. Whether a traditional educator or a personal mentor of sorts, no individual sprung forth fully able to create, play, work, in essence ‘do’ anything.

Furthermore, the act of teaching, even the few years of experience I possess, has affected how I write at all levels and has given me an entrenched and undeniable appreciation for language and the ability and knowledge of how to use it well.

In order to avoid too lengthy a text, I will break one of my personal cardinal rules and present the lessons my class and students have taught in a semi-listed form instead of a fully detailed essay. (I apologize to my former English professors, at least the good ones).

Read and Write. Seems rather obvious, right? Hell, every essay, article, and book ever written about the process and act of writing states this, typically, within the first few pages. Maybe they are on to something? Seriously, though, the best writers and students I have had in my short time as a teacher have been those that read. It doesn’t matter whether they read the classics, (e.g. Chaucer, Melville, Austen, etc.) magazines, (Cosmo, GQ, Details, etc.) or just popular books, (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Divergent, etc.) the ones who read were the ones who tended to either excel or improve the most in class. So, read, everything and anything, and write, often and as much as you can.

Respect the Process. Do you need to outline your essay, story, argument, thesis before committing a single word to paper? Do you need to have a spring scented candle lit in the room? Are you a research first type of writer? Music? Background noise? Doesn’t matter. Really, whatever you need to do to be able to write, do it. Whatever ritual or pattern you need to perform so that you can create, do it. Understand who you are and what you need and make that available to yourself. It is the only way to truly get to the core of your writing, regardless of what you are trying to write.

The Ideal Reader is Real. This particular gem is inspired partially by Stephen King’s On Writing. (I don’t usually recommend tomes on writing, but his is an exception. If you have a chance, pick it up as soon as you can). Everyone has an ideal reader in their head; that one person that we imagine smiling, laughing, and tearing up at all the right moments when they have your words in their hands. This is good because no writing, or work of art, is ever done in a vacuum. Even if it is a personal narrative that no else will read, it is serving a purpose and finding an audience in the author. So figure out who is that person who you want to read your book more than anyone else and write the story that will move them.

And He/She Can Be a Real Dick. Most of my students are taking the course because it is a requirement to graduate. Accordingly, they just want a certain grade, so they will write what they think I want to read to obtain that grade. Unfortunately, this severely limits their imagination and creativity when it comes to presenting their research and ideas. Similarly, you should not allow your ideal reader to limit your work’s possibilities. If an idea pops up that you think your ideal reader might not like, try it anyway and see what happens. The results may surprise you.

The Thesaurus is Your Friend. Expand your vocabulary and language. Honestly there are only so many times you can use the adverbs ‘really’ and ‘very’ before I want to drill a roughly sharpened pencil into my cerebrum. Also, instead of someone being repeatedly happy, let them be content, joyous, or exuberant. You don’t even need a physical thesaurus anymore. It is a simple click of the mouse away.

And Your Worst Enemy. If you have been using sad throughout your entire selection, it will seem rather odd for your topic or character all of a sudden to be depressed, especially if the cause of depression was the loss of a piece of gum. I always tell my students that connotation is just as important as strict definition, so be cautious of the synonym option on your word processors. Reaching for higher language is a noble endeavor, but understand and know the limits.

Writing is Easy, Revision is Hell. I know this sounds like idiotic blasphemy, but it is pretty accurate. For all the excuses and obstacles we place before ourselves, writing is a pretty simple process and one of the few things that virtually anyone can do regardless of class, race, gender, etc. Essentially, you are taking all the thought, research, and ideas you have in your head, and possibly notebooks and scraps of paper, and putting them all down in order to get them out of your head. This is easy. Does it take time and effort? Sure, but most of us have so many opinions and thoughts, that it doesn’t take too long to fill up a few blank pages. The real trick, and what separates decent writers from good and great ones, is being able and willing to go back over what you have initially written and meticulously deleting, editing, and rewriting your incoherent babble into something resembling intelligent, coherent, and entertaining essays and stories.

Screw the Rules, Do You. This is something I tell all my students. I will teach them grammar, spelling, how to actively read a text, and how to think critically. I will give them strategies, methods, and systems for improving their reading and writing abilities. Ultimately, it is up to them to incorporate them and, if necessary, ignore them. Earnestly, if they do not find my lessons or advice useful and it somehow impairs their success, I fully encourage them to ignore what I said and do what works for them. So, concerning all the advice on writing, on getting published, and on having a literary career you have ever read and heard, take what you want and disregard the rest. (Yes, including this essay).

I am sure I have already gone over my allotted word limit, so I’ll end there with the advice. Hopefully, you’ll find some of it useful, or at least a bit entertaining and thanks to Bryan for giving me this idea for a post.

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Sounding Board

I honestly do not know why, but for some reason my friends have tended to use me as a sounding board. Whether they wanted advice on relationships, work, movie recommendations, or simply someone to bounce their ideas off of, I was able to enjoy some odd and interesting conversations. I cannot tell if I was helpful to my friends or if I provided anything more than a pair of ears, yet they kept coming back and seemed to derive as much enjoyment from these talks as I did.

I wish there was some way to monetize this skill because talking to intelligent and intriguing people and figuring out how to help them in completing their endeavors would be far more satisfying than my current employment. Recently, I had an idea for a project a friend should undertake. Deciding that I should actually do something about it, I sent him a proposal outlining how it would work and what he should do. It seems that he is very interested and is actually going to listen to me for once and do what I suggested. So hopefully soon I will be able to shill for his work in a few months.

Seriously, though, it was rather fulfilling even just giving him my idea for a project that I know he would be good at and would work toward his own individual goals. Events like this make me seriously question certain academic choices and have the constant thoughts of what could have been. I believe this is one of the main reasons why I listened to Bryan when he suggested that I start this blog. I want to be part of a community or group that encourages progress. I do not mean any ideological, social, or political agenda, but actual progress in the sense of working toward completion of goals and the creation of new plans.

I am unsure if I have managed to do this yet, but will work toward fostering such an atmosphere around me. After all, success, in whatever measure, is far more enjoyable when your friends and peers are along for the ride.

Reading the Signs…

“You remind me of the man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town, and that the all the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said, “I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.” The waters rose up. A guy in a rowboat came along and he shouted, “Hey, hey you, you in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.” But the man shouted back, “I’m religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.” A helicopter was hovering overhead and a guy with a megaphone shouted, “Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and I’ll take you to safety.” But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety. Well… the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter he demanded an audience with God. “Lord,” he said, “I’m a religious man, I pray, I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?” God said, “I sent you a radio report, a helicopter and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?””

Father Thomas Cavanaugh talking to President Josiah Bartlett in The West Wing S1E14 “Take This Sabbath Day”

 Something you should probably know about me; I am a huge Aaron Sorkin fan. Sports Night, West Wing, Newsroom, even Studio 60; I have seen each and every one multiple times. Is his work perfect? No, but no piece of art is without criticism and I tend to look at Sorkin’s with a more positive eye, especially West Wing. The preceding quote has been in my head for awhile after a few friends had a ‘quote off’ of season one. An example of the many time wasting word games my friends and I play, to an obsessive degree.

Sorkin claims to be an atheist, at other times an agnostic at most, and I have no reason to disbelieve him. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, he has always included some degree of faith and religion into his programming, both to mock and to demonstrate a sense of respect and dignity. Now, before you exit from this post, this is not meant to begin a discussion about faith or religion or the role of either. Not saying those posts might not come late, but this is not it.

To me the quote above could have God replaced with Buddha, Allah, fate, life, Cthulu, the Easter bunny, or merely the universe for all I care. (Quick trip outside to make sure no one is trying to smite me…all clear). Honestly, it is not about placing one’s faith or life in specifically God’s hands but in looking for the signs to take action. I vehemently believe that there is some sort of code or pattern that makes the universe function. Even amidst the chaos and uncertainty, there are some underlying elements that we can see and observe and use to guide us. Not sure how accurate this belief is, but I am sure I could find some reputable scientists and theorists to back me up.

If we are willing to listen, observe, and act upon the signals and signs we see, I think we would be more fulfilled and less regretful. Will events and actions always work out in our favor? No, not at all. Sometimes the cute girl in the corner is smiling because she is remembering something funny and has nothing to do with you. Sometimes taking that risky dream job will end with you fired and on the market again a year later. Nonetheless, even with those instances you will have done something and learned from the experience without ever having to think about what could have been. This seems like a better way to have a life, or is it just me?

Unfortunately, this is one of those situations where I do not fully practice what I preach, but I am working on it and, with a little effort it, soon it will stop simply being words.

Day After the Day of Love

So for Americans, yesterday was Valentine’s Day. It is a day set aside to commemorate love in all its forms, but more specifically for those involved in a romantic relationship. People make plans and arrangements for luxurious dinners and surprises and lavish their significant others with flowers, chocolates, and gifts.

As for me, I have somehow managed to avoid being in a relationship on February 14th since senior year of high school. This was in no way an intentional action, merely the way circumstances shaped themselves. The last few years have found me in the company of good friends sharing drinks, breaking bread, and finding random ways to spend the night (movies, video games, poker, billiards, etc.). Don’t know if this was a way of either ignoring or acknowledging our mutual single status, but it was still fun.

This was the first time that I spent the day completely alone in quite some time. I spent Valentine’s Day watching movies and eating pizza. I also read a large section of a book. Frankly, it was a great night, though the pizza could have been better, that I really enjoyed. Don’t get me wrong. I look forward to finding someone to share and celebrate Valentine’s Day with, hopefully in the near future. Until then, I will continue to grow, learn, and find amusement and pleasure in whatever experiences I can find and have. I want to be the type of person and have the type of life that the kind of partner I want to have would join me in. I am not quite there yet, but definitely working on it.

So for those who enjoyed yesterday with their significant others; I hope you had a wonderful time and have a healthy relationship. For those who spent the night with friends; I hope you had fun and have a few memories and stories for the future. Finally, for those who were alone, whether by choice or not; I hope you enjoyed the solace of the evening and did something that put a smile on your face.

Also, a few last things: watch, as soon as possible, Much Ado About Nothing by Joss Whedon and In A World, read Paddle your Own Canoe, and remember that Valentine’s candy is now on sale so go get as much as possible.

Obsession

I want to be obsessed. I know, I know, it seems like a ridiculous wish and notion. After all, being obsessed with someone or something is probably a horrible idea. We have all seen the movies and tv shows, heard the songs, and are familiar with the stories of obsession and how they usually end. Still, I want to be enthralled and consumed to the point of exclusion. I want to become so obsessed that I become a hermit ignoring the world around as long as I can be with the object of my passions. I want the world to revolve, evolve, and continue without me leaving me and my beloved alone to get to know one another on a deeper and more intimate level. However, the supple curvature of a well rounded and defined form hold no appeal to me nor the blush of rosy cheeks nor the softness of pink lips (at the moment). I want to become engrossed with this; with writing.

I want to form words into sentences that fill blank pages upon pages with stories and ideas. I want to create rhymes and lines that entertain masses bringing smiles to their faces and tears to their eyes. I want to paint full unique pictures and portraits with the brushes and colors provided by similes and metaphors. I want to weave epics and narratives with the meager tools that I have. I want to be so immersed in writing and words that my right hand becomes deformed and withered to the point that only a pen can fit in it. i want to have early carpal tunnel syndrome due to my hands working so long on my keyboard. I want to arrive at the point where I want to write so badly that I lose friends, family, sleep, and straddle the line of sanity pushing my mind and body to jot down just one more word.

I am afraid that one day I will somehow manage to get to that point. That I will truly lose myself in this obsession and exclude the world.

I am even more frightened that I might never get there. I am unsure which is the worse fate.

Journal

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I recently purchased a notebook to use as a personal journal. I have never kept a physical record of my thoughts and truth be told I never considered owning one before now. It seems a bit silly or juvenile, even now, as though I am trying to rewrite my own personal history as keeping a journal seems like more of an activity one would perform during their teenage years. Furthermore, having both a blog and a physical journal seems rather redundant, so I’ve been trying to figure out why I would want both, especially considering my less than stellar record of timely posting on this blog.

I have yet to come up with a legitimate answer, but the best that I have been able to come up with is simply that I need both. I know, seems indulgent or like a cop out, but hear me out on this one. I believe in the power of words. More so, I honestly believe that words take on a particular strength when they take a physical presence; when they are transferred from thought into speech and writing. This platform allows me the opportunity to give my thoughts weight and to share them with an audience (however small or large it may be) that can hold me accountable to something or someone beyond myself.

However, some ideas do not want to quite yet see the light of day. Some words are not ready to be seen by eyes other than mine. Yet, they still need weight, presence, and physical embodiment. Thus, a personal journal serves a purpose. It is a space for me to express the thoughts and feelings that need to be put down onto paper but do not need to be heard or seen by anyone else. It is my own personal haven created by my soul and hand to be examined and read by an older me who needs the guidance of his past to walk his future.

So, like I said, maybe I got a journal because I need it.