Under Pressure

Yesterday I posted a link to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ video about creative breakthroughs. There were two comforting things about this video, which has stayed in my mind. One is that he may be able to write and think extraordinarily well, but he is just as nerdy and awkward as the rest of us. (This is the petty reassurance.) The other is the main point of the video clip, which is that to make breakthroughs you have to put yourself under huge pressure. He got the job as a writer for the Atlantic at the same time he was finishing up his memoir. That summer was enormously stressful, but he found himself writing things he didn’t know he could.

I’m still thinking about what he said, and I can apply it to the small scale. Every day that I have time to sit down and write, I’ve been making myself write 1,000 words. I hate it. I would rather be washing dishes or mowing the lawn; I’d rather be in Target the day before school starts. But the pressure of having to write all those words forces me to write something new. It’s not major ground-breaking stuff, but it is new to this work. I’m making connections and articulating ideas that I had not quite expressed before. This is good.

The triplet nephews are on their way back home to [location redacted] with their parents. Every time I see them I am reminded both why I am not a parent and what kind of parent I would be. (What kind of parent I would be is not necessarily why I am not a parent.) They are now old enough that I know how to deal with them. I played Battleship with one over breakfast this morning, and threw the ball for the dog(s) with one of the other ones. I have been irritated, cranky, and articulate about rules and whys and wherefores. If our greatest breakthroughs are made under pressure, then, by god, those of you who are parents must have amazing children.

Now I’m going to crawl back into my antisocial cave and finish today’s word count.

How do you deal with children if you’re a total misanthrope? How are you under pressure?

First-World Problems

1. I was supposed to write 1,000 words today. I (figuratively) kicked and screamed and (literally) paced and checked all manner of electronic distractions. Then I wrote 300 words and the process began all over again. I wrote new things and formulated new ideas, inspired/comforted in part by this video about writing. And then I wrote 300 words more and paced and read about bento boxes and threw the ball for the dog. And now I have 966 words, and I need to have 34 more. I could just stop where I am and say good enough, but what if in writing the 34 I come up with a brilliant new idea?

2. I made gorgeous eggs for my sister-in-law and me this morning. Cheesy scrambled eggs at just the right level of fluffy eggs and perfect melt, and I doused mine in homemade salsa my friend brought to dinner last night. I am not hungry afterwards, but I want to eat the whole thing again. Twice. Right now.

3. The end of summer means I have to put on pants and closed-toed shoes to go to work. My hair has to be somewhat socially acceptable, and things need to match within reason. I looked up a famed blog about academia and read that female professors should wear heels and makeup, if they can stand it. Well, I can’t stand it. So it’s freckles and nonexistent eyelashes until the freckles disappear due to lack of light and the bags darken beneath my eyes anew.

What’s your first-world problem?

Etudes

Back when I was an itty bitty clause, I played the violin. At the beginning of a good practice day I would play a scale in the key of the piece I was playing. (Note: These words once were so familiar to me, but key, scale, etude are now foreign, half-remembered.) This reminded me what was sharp and what was flat. Then, if I was being a good little violinist, I would play an etude. My ear had been reminded of intonation, and the etude was a simplish piece that helped me with one technique or another. It warmed up the fingers. Once I was warmed up, I would begin to play whatever piece I was learning.

This blog is my etude and my scales. I’ve spent an hour pacing, procrastinating, bothering the dog who would rather be asleep thank you very much, seeing whether visiting family is up so I can distract myself with them (no dice, they got in at 2 am or something crazy like that), snacking, Interneting. But then I found an interview with Eula Biss. I’ve been obsessed with her essays recently, in part because I am going to teach them (do you see how I coolly slipped that in like I know the fuck what I’m doing) and in part because they are a model to me. [Aside to Teri: the Biss essay discusses Laura Ingalls Wilder, read it for that alone.]

Biss writes about the chaos she encounters in the middle of an essay and how she is sure she has made a mess of it this time. But she has enough experience, she says, that she knows she is eventually going to come out the other side. The longer the work, the longer the period of chaos. I think my whole Fucker has been one long period of chaos, but I still think I will come out the other side. At this point I can’t afford to believe otherwise.

And  now that I’ve sat down for a whole 10 minutes, have warmed up my fingers on the keys, gotten my ear reacquainted with the tenor of today’s work, I think I’m going to go write. At least until the triplets show up demanding attention.

What are you doing today?

Numbers

I’m on a nifty new anti-shin-splint running plan, courtesy of a kind, lyrical friend. I run three days a week, rest in between, and take the dog for a long walk on the weekend. I call it cross-training, he calls it “Can I really? Pleasepleasepleasepleasepleaseplease!” The plan is aimed toward getting me to run a 5 K. (I don’t really want to run a race, although I enjoy reading about them, I just want to be able to run 5 km. I’m hoping it’s going to make me into a badass.) My previous plan was to run on Monday when the week was young, and then try and fail to run every day for the rest of the week. So this plan is better.

There are a set number of miles I run each time. Right now it is even lower than the plan says because of encroaching shin splints, but as they seem to have disappeared (knock wood), I’m ramping up next week. In short, I am beside myself with success. (Note: This is a much-needed salve for a rough couple days.)

They say ADDers do well with structure. Today I tried to impose structure on The Fucker. I thought that because numbers had been working out well runningwise, and had worked out well in the past for word counts, that I could try again. Today I wrote 1,000 words in places where it was suggested that I might need more information. It was filler and it sucked.

But I was reminded of my friend J, who had a really hard time writing anything after her college senior thesis. This was, in part, because her thesis was about difficult stuff. But it was also because her thesis was very well written by the time it was finished. It’s hard to go back to writing crap after such glorious highs. You forget that your gorgeous sentence on p. 45 once was a steaming piece of crap that you considered doing yourself away over. (I exaggerate, but only slightly.) (And no I’m not sure that sentence is grammatically correct. Fuck off.) (And, yes, the series of parentheses offends my copyeditorial eye.)

I turned to the interwebs to see how many words an actual memoir contains. (Between 45,000 and 100,000 said a number of sources of varying levels of credibility.) I turned to a friend who said 80,000. Because I’m not even quite at 50,000, I decided she was completely wrong, misguided, misled by the interwebs. (No, you’re probably right, my friend, but let me have my moment of willful ignorance.)

I am not sure, in my present frame of mind, that I have even 10,000 words more in me on this subject. And I don’t know if that is because I am done or because I need to expand, learn more, give it a rest.

How do you feel about numbers?

Indy Clause’s Guide to Pedagogy

When you come up with an idea for an assignment (in the shower, of course) and you think, “Oh my god, my students are going to HATE me,” then it’s probably a pretty good assignment.

One of my former student colleagues stopped by the other day. “Are you going to be one of the really hard teachers like [professor redacted] who fails everyone for one single error in their reference section?” This professor is famed for that, as well as being “99 pounds of pure rage,” as my same colleague puts it. I have defended this professor in casual conversation, although I don’t know her. If you’re going to write up references, you might as well do them right. But I can’t steal her thunder. Instead I’m going to stare the class down and say, “I don’t care which style you use, as long as it’s correct. And I once spent three months editing references, so don’t think I won’t notice.”

But my same colleagues are totally in support of my teaching. “You know it so well,” said one former colleague. “Yes, you can curse,” comforted another. I still advertise myself as per one of my former colleagues who said, “She kicks my ass, but in a good way.” I swear I’m going to put that on business cards some day.

What’s your most recent good idea?

Notes on Words

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I’m thinking about the way the press talks about Ferguson. I’m thinking about riots vs. protest vs. mostly peaceful protest vs. civil unrest. I’m thinking about those of us who do not live in Missouri, and how we don’t know really what it looks like. Choosing these words is like choosing the picture taken of an unarmed black boy or man who was shot. Look at any of the “if they gunned me down” photos. (I know it’s a hashtag. #TooFuckingLazy)

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One of my facebook friends posted a quote about how you shouldn’t leap into a relationship with someone new immediately after a relationship ends. Take some time and be complete with Christ, she says. I of course would have said “figure out your own shit before you fall in bed with someone new.” Or at least before you fall in bed twice with someone new. I feel as if we are saying the same thing. DP, who grew up Catholic, would probably say we were saying different things. “Whackjob Christians,” I can practically hear him muttering under his breath now.

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The Right is trying on the language of the Left. “Help, we’re oppressed,” say old white men. Our authority is being challenged. It’s a neat rhetorical trick, but if you have learned how to think critically, you can see right through it.

*

The population of students I work with are largely complacent. They come to school and go back home to live in the towns they grew up in, and essentially become their mothers and their fathers. They are mostly white and mostly good-intentioned (although many don’t try very hard) and pretty much entirely unaware of their shelteredness and privilege. So many of them are completely unequipped to see, much less question, their place in society. I watch them read and compare articles, and they are so busy trying to understand the material that they can’t even begin to see how to analyze it. They have no context, no critical thinking tools, no experience in looking critically at words on the page.

I very much want to bring the issues around Ferguson into the classroom. I want to show them the biases in their own ideas. I want to teach them about what institutional racism means. I want to show them how to choose their words and how to examine the implications of other people’s choices of words. But I am afraid of their ignorance, and am not sure where to begin.

Where did you begin?

Writing and Professionalism

My colleague at Second Job has a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition. As part of his program, he took a class on professionalism (can’t remember its exact title). In this class he learned how to go on the job market, how to interview at a university, how to write a CV, etc. As part of my MFA I had two minor class discussions about how and when to submit your work to journals (most of it was summed up by: later). I learned many things during the course of my MFA that I use near-daily, but at the end, I did not know how to query a book, organize a poetry manuscript, or how to manage a writing career after grad school ended.

Maybe insecure grad students grow up to be insecure writers. Maybe these professors had no idea how they got to where they were, and didn’t want to remind anyone of that. But one of my professors lived two hours ago on [very scenic location]. How did he swing that? How did he get his book of vignettes published? Another professor is the poetry editor at [major magazine]. How did he get to that place?

This article addresses some of these issues. Sure, professors want to focus mainly on craft and let the rest take care of itself. But a little idea of what lies ahead would be useful. I was a little distrustful at first. I hate the idea that college needs to be all directly applicable to the job market. And of course I hate it. Who would study poetry other than print ad designers in that case? But this is not the article’s slant.

How can you expect to earn money as an MFA? Or, how do you find a job that gives you the time to write? MFAs are under tremendous pressure by everyone they know to justify themselves and their choices. The program can be a place where real writers can tell these fearful graduate students that they can in fact write a novel while holding down a full-time job.

What do you wish someone had told you about the work of getting your writing out under reader’s noses?