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I never promised you a rose garden…or a stapler

Cruising through my files, I stumbled across this blog post I’d written as an English teacher to high school juniors.  I’ve been retired for over four years now, but reading this transported me back to the classroom, to those days when I wondered if June would ever arrive, and to those students…many of whom have stayed in touch with me via Facebook. 

I remember having these actual discussions with my students. Now, with the perspective of time, I find them amusing. In fact, this was my giggle for the day.

DIRECTIONS ON HANDOUT:

  1. Write an essay consisting of five paragraphs.
  2. Staple this handout to the back of your paper before submitting it.
  3. Your essay is due at the end of class.

 

QUESTIONS TO TEACHER (ME) FROM STUDENTS:

  1. Does it really have to be five paragraphs? What if I write only four?
  2. Where do I staple this handout?
  3. Do you really want this stapled to my essay?
  4. Am I supposed to staple this to the back of my essay?
  5. I’m out of staples.
  6. What if I don’t finish? Can I take this home?

 

WHAT STUDENTS REALLY WANT TO SAY:

  1. If we barrage you with enough questions, we think you’ll eventually back off. We would rather listen to an hour of Frank Sinatra than write even fifty words on a sheet of paper.

 

  1. We know you told us at the beginning of the school year to purchase our own mini-stapler, but we either didn’t purchase one, purchased one and lost it, purchased one and broke it, and/or it ran out of staples five months ago when the kid behind me took it and emptied the staples, one by one, into my hair. I’ve passed any number of places where I could purchase more staples and/or a stapler, but I really didn’t have time to stop because Starbucks was about to open or close, and I needed to be there. Anyway, we don’t understand why you won’t allow us to use your stapler when we know you’re hiding at least two of them in your desk.

 

  1. Is the earth going to stop spinning if I staple the handout to the front instead of the back? Sometimes you seem just a tad bit OCD. We think, perhaps, we might be able to help you overcome that if we don’t always follow directions.

 

  1. We know we could finish before the end of class, but we have homework for Free Enterprise/Civics/Biology/Spanish/French/Geometry that’s due next hour. And, Heather didn’t have time in my other class to finish telling me what happened at Prom because she got all caught up in the fashion disaster that Missy wore and then the bell rang.

WHAT THE TEACHER REALLY WANTS TO SAY (and sometimes MAY say some of the below):

  1. Directions are entirely at your discretion. Feel free NOT to follow them; however, feel equally free to stand ready for the consequences.

 

  1. Students in 11th grade honors  should be able to burp five paragraphs in fifty minutes. That’s ten minutes per paragraph. If you think that’s not a long time, think about being poked in the eye with a hot stick for ten minutes.

 

  1. If you write only four paragraphs, that’s one less paragraph I need to read. See #1.

 

  1. Yes, I want the handout stapled to the BACK because I don’t want to read 100+ essays and have to flip the handout out of the way every time. You will need the handout when I return the essay to remind you of the directions. See #1.

 

  1. I told you in August that if you were old enough to sit behind the wheel of a moving vehicle traveling at 50+ miles per hour, you were certainly old enough and responsible enough to purchase, be trusted with, and use a stapler no longer than 2-3 inches.

 

For the record, I have THREE staplers. I purchased them with MY money. Years ago, I allowed students to use my stapler. Over that period of time, staplers were “lost,” broken, or abused. When it was time to submit papers, the room sounded as if it had been invaded by wildebeests galloping through the Kalahari when 25-30 students would simultaneously flock to my desk. It was uncivilized. And it wasted valuable class time. And it made ME responsible for YOUR paper. And so the entitlement program of free stapling ended.

 

  1. My directions may seem, possibly could be, OCD-ish. Wait until you fill out your first tax return. Ask the IRS if you can switch around the information. Let me know how that works for you.

 

  1. The lesson isn’t limited to the writing. It’s a lesson on being responsible, practicing wise time management, and following directions.

 

  1. Clearly, socialization is an integral part of the high school experience, one which I certainly would not want you to experience the pain of deprivation. So, to accommodate that need, we have scheduled special times for your bonding with friends. We call it before and after school, passing time between classes, and lunch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life Savors

Books and writing have saved my life.

Not literally, of course, like being protected by a bulletproof vest of hardbacks and Anna Karenina-sized paperbacks. But they’ve been, figuratively, life preservers when I’m drowning in a sea of chaos, frustration, anger, grief or all of the above. What they’ve provided for me is a haven; a place to retreat when all the other doors are slamming.
Writing isn’t always an art I can fully share. It’s not like a painting propped on an easel or a tune coaxed from the strings of a violin. But to be able to pull a thought through my brain like so many scarves out of a magician’s sleeve and watch my hand glide across the barren whiteness of paper and create something from nothing is amazing.

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Certainly, not all I write is amazing. Often it’s a mess of emotional brain urp. But the process fascinates me. In the same way that I’m still fascinated waves travel through the air, find their way to my car, and convert themselves into music that comes back out of my speakers as waves again. I mean, how WOW is that? Invisible stuff. Floating through people and places and things and producing stuff.

So, too, writing is that act of creation.

What do books and/or writing mean to you?

Why I Write

I write because there is no one left in my life who knew me before I knew myself.

I write because I can talk to the paper and not be interrupted or misunderstood or frozen mid-sentence by a quizzical stare from a listener’s eyes.

I write because I can’t (nor would you want to watch me) sing or dance or paint or sculpt or provide anything else of artistic value to the universe other than what I can create with my paper and pen.

I write because my days are numbered; I have less days to live than I have already lived, and the abstraction of mortality is waning, replaced by the very concreteness of careening years.

I write because I kept my mouth shut for too many years of my life. I write because I could exorcise the ghosts of the past, the goblins of the present, the amorphous fears of the future wielding a cheap plastic-barreled pen and a college-ruled notebook.

I write because words spoken are swallowed by time. Words written are meals cooked today for a banquet to be held later. I write because I have lived an unexpected life and the surprises–both full of dread and full of awe–would otherwise drift uncharted.

I write because I want my children to know me, not mother me or wife me, or sister me, or aunt me, or grandmother me. But Christa Me. The deep and the shallow places. I want them to have access to bits of my soul, perhaps slices of me that they may not hunger for until I am no longer here to feed them.

I write because, in doing so, I shape the memories, give them words that will be my eternal life breaths.

Why do you write, paint, dance, sing, create….?

Why everyone needs a crap-detector friend

This story starts before Hurricane Katrina. (And, yes, even though it’s been nine years and nine months since the bitch hit New Orleans, it remains—like it does for many New Orleanians—a seminal event in my life…but that’s a post for another day.)

I called Carrie Randolph and asked her to meet me at a local coffee shop because I had something I wanted to show her. She didn’t even ask why or what. She came. Because that’s what friends of your heart and soul do. They know you teeter between sanity and craziness, but they trust and love you anyway.

Carrie taught Spanish at the same school where I taught English. It’s where we met and how we came to be friends. To say Carrie is “just” a teacher would be like saying Barbra Streisand is “just” a singer. I admired, appreciated and respected her for her excellence in the classroom, and for her enthusiasm and passion as a reader. We both breathed books.

Her opinion as a reader mattered to me. It mattered so much that, when we both settled at the table with our coffee that evening, it was as if I slid the pages I’d written across the Red Sea. I trusted that the walls of fear wouldn’t collapse on me, and one way or another, I’d come out on the other side. Watching her read, my heart wrung its hands and my brain paced across the coffee shop. She read often and enough to know if it was crap. I knew she’d tell me the truth.

I don’t remember her exact words when she finished the pages. I do remember, all these years later, that she gave me what I needed to keep writing. And I did. Those first pages eventually grew to my first novel, Walking on Broken Glass, which was published five years after Katrina.

What difference does a reader make?

For me, it was the difference between seeing myself as writer and an author. In one of her blog posts, Jami Gold, a paranormal author, said: “I am a writer because I write, but ‘author’ embodies my goals, my actions, and my attitude toward writing.  So I swallow the self-doubt that plagues most of us writers and strive to live up to the word ‘author.’ “

One reader made a difference. A life-changing difference.

 

 

 

 

Introvert or extrovert…we all start with vert

Because I’m caught between the Domestic Diva-ness of getting the cottage and apartment ready for the vaca guests tomorrow, and playing Florence Nightingale to my husband who just had surgery, I’m just now sitting…just to be sitting.

So, I’m “repurposing” a blog post that captures my angsty writing moments:

 

“Author John Green, who has penned a number of acclaimed Young Adult novels, puts it this way: “Writing is something you do alone. It’s a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story, but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it.” From the blog, A New Fiction Writers Forum, “Why Introverts Make Good Writers”

CGBlake, author of the blog, shares a sentiment widely expressed by others, which is most writers would call themselves introverts. For many of these writers, being asked to speak publicly is about as appealing as pole dancing on Bourbon Street.

I am not one of those writers (though pole dancing would be a totally humiliating experience for me mostly because with my lack of grace and athletic ability, I’d have a head injury in less than twenty seconds).

After spending 25 years teaching high school English, I’m not uncomfortable being in the public forum. The by-product of decades being the target of thirty or more sets of eyeballs. Over the years, I developed my teacher “with-it-ness” to recognize when their eyes looked like glazed donuts.

But teaching and sometimes (often?) entertaining teens is far less intimidating for me than presenting to my peers. It’s not so much the being “on stage” as it is attempting to be the “sage on stage” while I’m there. I’m eager to volunteer to give workshops or attend conferences for the opportunity to meet readers and/or other writers. Then, when I arrive and find myself in the company of well-respected agents/editors and writers whose books are NYT bestsellers, my inner child has a wee panic attack.

I wonder, even after having written six novels, what I could say that would be share-worthy because I don’t feel like I’m there yet. That there place where everyone else who’s found recognition must hang out and have lavish parties and chocolate-induced comas.

So, I remind myself that I’ll never be there unless I’m here first. Challenging myself to grow as a writer means being willing to fall off the pole and to trust that the people I meet will catch me.

 

When a book idea falls into my brain, and I’m not there to catch it

This post originally appeared on Girlfriends Book Club, a blog written by a gumbo of about twenty-seven-ish women, who share their agonies and ecstasies about writing, for authors and for readers. Funny, smart, talented women. And me.
     A few nights ago, I took my customary running leap into bed (we have one of those old, four-posters…and, yes, I know there are stools for beds, but they look too much like church kneelers, which I find disturbing next to my bed. But that’s another story). Just as my cheek met the cool pillow, an idea charged through my sleepy stupor into my brain.
     A brilliant idea. Brilliant, I tell you. Nothing less than brilliant. Enough to hip-shove The Hunger Games into Twilight. Enough to make Brad Pitt want my phone number to ask if he could play the male lead. Enough to tell Angelina she couldn’t bribe me for the female lead.
     I can’t tell you the idea.
     Why? Because I can’t remember it. Because I didn’t drag my brilliant butt out of bed to write it down. Because I didn’t lean over and risk a head injury to find the paper and pen I store in my nightstand to scribble the idea.
     I should know better. Well, I do know better. As soon as I hear my brain whisper, “Oh, this one is so A-MAZING, you won’t forget it,” I need to make one of those Bella Swan Cullen new-vampire dashes to write it.  Unfortunately, unlike Stephenie Meyer, I do not wake up from a dream with a four-book series in my head.
     So, where do my ideas originate?
     In the most boring of circumstances.  Like one day, after retrieving mail from my mailbox, I wondered, “What if a woman went out to get her mail and never returned? Or what if she walked out in one year, but when she walked back into her house, twenty years had passed?”  (BTW…if I want to watch my adult children practice synchronized eye rolling, all I have to do is mention this idea.)
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     Those two words, “what if?” can launch me into writer orbit. But I have to be willing to turn ideas inside out and upside down. I have to muzzle the editor in my brain who says, “Go you…you’ve just thought of the dumbest premise in the known universe.”
     Years and years ago, I attended a conference and delighted in listening to Georgia Heard talk about her recent book, For the Good of the Earth and Sun:Teaching Poetry. What I most remember is her talking about poetry constantly surrounding us, that it’s everywhere…from the worn steps outside your grandmother’s house to drinking coffee with a friend.
     And while those may not be ideas that carry a novel into hundreds of pages, they’re a beginning. Even poems marinate in my brain. When I read “Patterns” by Amy Lowell or “The Lanyard” by Billy Collins, I just know a story is there waiting to happen.
     If there is anything I’ve learned, it’s this: whatever the idea, however ridiculous and goofy it may seem at the time, I must write it down.
     It’s a gift. And it doesn’t always keep on giving.

Writing is as right as rain

It’s just damn ugly outside right now. Proof:

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This reminds me that one of the rites of passage into living on your own in New Orleans is having your own hurricane tracking map. That season hasn’t started yet; it’s June 1-November 30. Today’s just one of those pre-cursor events. Mother Nature’s way of reminding us that we’re not the boss of her.

The lights are flashing, the outside shutters are slamming against my windows, and Herman is curled into a canine fetal position in his dog bed.

Today is one of my scheduled writing days. Writing by candlelight, especially in this humidity, is not at all romantic or productive. The paper ripples with the dampness, and the candle singes any wayward pieces of my hair if I’m not careful. So, when I experience one of these days, my admiration soars for those writers who used quill pens dipped in ink, wrote without benefit of electricity, even those who pounded out stories on manual typewriters. For those of you too young to even recall an electric typewriter, here’s a visual of each:

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Oh, the days of erasable bond and correctable typewriter ribbons…(pause for angry crack of thunder).

All this to say…I have a laptop, an iPad, a Livescribe…all the tools necessary to make the actual act of writing easy, of making letters, word and sentences appear as if by magic. Even research is just a Google or a Bing away.

But the art of writing, well…it’s like this storm. It’s at times unpredictable, messy, angry, and gut-churning. But this storm will pass, and the grass will seem greener, the sun will nudge its way out from  behind the waning grayness, the birds will find their way back into the trees, and the thirsty ground may need some time to swallow all the water that’s been dumped on it, but it’s grateful for the excess nonetheless.

So, I’m off to make some messy art while I can because I know it’s going to lead to somewhere better.

 

Starbucks, Snails, and Sororities

I didn’t forget that today is Friday, and I said I’d live to blog again. Working in CST, I still have a four-hour window open.

After getting the downstairs apartment ready for a group coming in for Jazz Fest, I schlepped to Starbucks to write for a few hours before working at the clinic. A snail outran their internet speed today, which meant no blogging for me. Instead, I focused my attention on the new novel idea that’s still in gestation. I’ve learned conception isn’t so difficult in novel-land. Though there have definitely been long stretches of time when my brain puts itself on abstinence. It’s birthing the damn idea that can be the labor from hell.

Without revealing too much, I can say that I’m relying heavily on the expertise of one of my daughters. The novel involves a college sorority. Guess what I know about college sororities? That they all use the Greek alphabet.

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Anything else I might know is only information I think I know because I have absolutely no personal experience never having been in a sorority in college. So she’s teaching me a new vocabulary: bid, rush, dirty rush, legacy, PNM, preference, big, little. . .And I have to tell you that after I became aware of the entire process from beginning to end (end being you’re in), I developed a new respect for her. She faced, what I now realize, was an emotionally grueling week, and she survived. I’m proud of her. Not just because she joined a sorority, but because she set a goal, did the hard work, made herself vulnerable, and achieved what she set out to do.

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It’s humbling when your children become the teachers.

Had that experience lately?