Sunday, February 27, 2011

The influence of my writing workshop

Farewell Artful Dodger

Whenever I teach a creative writing class, I have great anxiety waiting for the moment that students ask me to share my writing. After all, throughout the semester I am telling them that to be a writer simply means they are practicing writing. What if my secret leaks out that I am not practicing writing and therefore, not a writer?

As a result, I have developed the artful dodge. I tell them that yes, of course, I’ll share something when the right moment arises, hoping that they forget and never ask again. I tell them to ask me privately and I’d be happy to share, hoping that they forget and we don’t end up in a private conversation. I tell them that I don’t like to share during the semester because I don’t want to privilege my style, wanting them to develop their own voices, trying to diminish the power that I hold as their teacher. Simply put, it is all bullshit. The truth is, I don’t want them to know that they have more courage than I have, that they are practicing and I am dormant.

Yet now that I am writing again, participating in a writing workshop, I don’t worry about feeling like a sham, a writing imposter, since I am putting words to the page. Even before students ask, I share pieces of my writing, illustrating my struggles, my lack of clarity, my resistance against assignments that don’t immediately energize or inspire. The day before I’m going to workshop a piece of my writing, I discuss my fears of how it might be received, of how my ego is on the line, of how I create a reward system for myself if I survive the experience. When we meet again after my piece is workshopped, I tell them about how sometimes the voices of feedback end up like a Charlie Brown episode, the adults mimicking the cacophony of a subway, me only hearing bits and pieces because it’s too difficult to digest all the sounds at once. I share with them my confusion about reading over the variety of comments, unable to figure out how to sort through the opposing readings.

I soften a bit in the class workshop, forgetting about being a teacher, allowing them to ask more questions that help them get at their meaning, knowing that I too want to ask questions and receive answers when my meaning is not immediately sensed; I realize that I don’t always have to invoke total silence about letting the page speak without the writer. When a student brings in a prose poem rather than a series of flowing couplets, I challenge myself, and the other students, to see the poem rather than see its failure to meet the assignment.

Together we journey. Together we write. Vulnerability gives way to a reminder that my best teaching happens when I am a writer responding to student writing, rather than a teacher responding to student writing.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Writing Torture

Once again, I find myself in the same place as my students must find themselves, staring at an assignment, wondering how the hell I'm ever going to complete something that doesn't seem to be bubbling with any juice. Each week, my Lighthouse Writers' essay class has a short 500 word assignment we need to complete and bring to class. Each week, this is usually not a big problem, since something seems to immediately inspire. These assignments are usually modeled after an essay we are assigned to read, such as this week's essay by Phyllis Rose, "Tools of Torture: An Essay on Beauty and Pain."

To help myself generate ideas for the assignment (weave two seemingly unrelated topics together), I do what I tell my students to do: brainstorm, ponder, generate lists of opposites, ponder, and explore some ideas with brief freewrites. Nothing, a state I'm certain many of my students face when I give them what I think is a less than problematic assignment.

Today, though, after awakening with the assignment on my mind, I came up with the following. Perhaps it's not quite the assignment, but the assignment inspired this.

Dear Teacher,

This assignment is making me mental. For the past five days I have cogitated, brooded, meditated, and finally surrendered. When I first considered the assignment, I figured what could be so difficult about weaving two dissimilar subjects together into an essay; after all, my life is a study of contrasts, so doing battle on the page and finding the DMZ shouldn’t push me into a writerly fit of discarding every idea. I keep channeling Walt Whitman’s “Noiseless Patient Spider,” imagining casting my own filament into a world of topics, yearning for a connection.

On the page I begin to make lots of noise, hoping to discover a lengthy list of sound possibilities to discover.

Idea 1: Pair up a visit to the dentist with an exploration of spiritual angst, highlighting the notions of helplessness and surrendering faith to another being. Discarded because I already feel helpless.

Idea 2: Detail a description of a wasp sting and weave that together with the horrendous things people have said to me about being queer and Jewish. It seems an ideal match, at first, much like my ideas of vacuums and diets, cars and online dating, and laundered integrity.
Discarded because my clichéd ideas sting, and I can only recall a handful of horrendous things people have said.

Idea 3: Since clichés are occupying the seat usually held for inspiration, I ponder returning to idea one, but this time pairing a former propensity to cancel dentist appointments with the art of revision, since I easily avoid returning to my words.
Discarded because I might simply cancel the appointment with the essay.

Idea 4: After discarding idea two, I immediately become encouraged by the cliche. I think I might effortlessly entwine the concept of an extended metaphor essay poorly rendered on a mound of clichés with bad food/wine pairings. I could mix together a bit of bubbly and sickeningly sweet cake with all the rotten ideas that torture my page.
Discarded because I have nothing original to say about bad food/wine pairings.

Idea 5: Since food has intruded upon my creative process, I consider eating as fodder for inspiration; the perfect place of disjuncture looms a block away. Off to the Breakfast Palace I wander, musing about the potential of mixing grease with royalty. Searching the menu, I try to tease out clues, word prompts that might just ignite an idea that cannot be ignored.
Discarded because I want to simply eat and dismiss obsessing about essay ideas for at least one hour.

Idea 6: Cheap and easy appear to be my mantra, so I decide to follow that thread, finally settling on the ultimate combination for the essay--fast food and romantic comedies. Both are predictable, cause me stomach pain, and basically leave me feeling like I’ve wasted precious moments of my life.
Discarded because that’s all I really have to say about the topic.

Idea 7: Surrender and create a list of all my failed attempts.

Faithfully conflicted,
Your student

Friday, February 4, 2011

Before I Can Write

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about my writing process, much more conscious of all the machinations, neuroticisms, and unexpected delights that seem to be emerging.

And so tonight, I actually turned off a movie (gasp) to go write because an idea had grabbed me. Normally, I try to stop what I'm doing if I'm grabbed by an inspiration and simply write a bunch of notes and return to my previous activity. And tonight that happened, sort of. While heating up my leftover spicy Indian food, I finally came upon a subject for my next essay to workshop in class. I stopped my thought of eating right away, sat at my computer, and hammered out 500 words fairly quickly. Figuring I would return to the essay tomorrow, I sat down with my dinner and Idiocracy, which I was loving, except for the fact that I realized I had taped it off of Comedy Central and the fucking curses were blipped out, along with commercials.

So, with an easy excuse, I turned off the movie, but really it was because the ideas for the essay kept intruding over my movie thoughts, and I wanted to follow the urge, thankful to have writing calling me rather than me calling writing.

And I've been sitting at my computer for about 20 minutes now, and have yet to start on the essay, because I got distracted and then started to think about all the things I had to do before I can write.
  • Decide on writing music for tonight. For the start, Abigail Washburn's latest City of Refuge.
  • Check my email at work (yup, terrible addiction)
  • Check my email at gmail (combination of school and personal)
  • Check my email comcast (personal)
  • Look up the Wii part I needed to replace because tonight I discovered that the sensor bar wire had been chewed through (thanks to Dowan), and I could not use the Wii (and I probably would have been watching a different movie tonight had the Wii worked, since my plan was to find something on Netflix). And if I had found a different movie without commercial and censored distraction, the story might end here.
  • Go to Amazon to see how much the Wii part cost. Since it only cost $4+, I needed to then surf for books so that I could spend $25 and get free shipping. Each book I found made me think that I should simply get that book out of the library.
  • So then I had to go to the DPL site, see if they had the book, but before I could check it out online, I had to use the new login system for the first time since their recent upgrade, inputting a password, and then placing a hold.
  • And then it occurred to me that I didn't need to order the Wii part through Amazon and spend more money just to get free shipping. Nope, I could go to Gamestop and pick it up there. So I went to the Gamestop website and searched for Wii Sensor Bars and found an even better solution: a wireless sensor bar, coming in at $19+. Not only was I saving money, but without the wires, it meant that Dowan could not chew through this one.
  • I still, though, wasn't finished with my wandering since I had not checked Facebook recently. I scrolled through a bunch of updates, fortunately starting to feel compelled to write, since I didn't even bother to go play a Scrabble hand in one of the five games I currently have going. While lingering in Facebook, I started to think about how many different things I seem to need to do online before I can write
  • Such as my final thing, which is writing a blog about the necessary preparation before I can actually settle down and write.
And I am now ready to return to my original writing urge, the essay for class, as long as I haven't used up all my energy here.