21
Mar 17

The Pedestal in His Workshop

The Pedestal in His Workshop

This past weekend, I began writing about my experience with a specific writing instructor. After reading Bonnie Nadzam’s “Experts in the Field” essay in Tin House on Saturday, I’ve chosen to publish this. After reading Bonnie’s essay, I can’t help but feel like I had a really good experience, even though it was terrible. Our experiences aren’t the same, but neither of our experiences are unique. For further reading that explains just how prevalent this sort of thing is in the writing world, check out this piece on Literary Hub.

Ten years ago when I didn’t have the words for what was going on, I took a writing class with a local author. In fact, I took several. It was during the year between undergrad and grad school, and I wanted to stay sharp and relevant and if I’m being really honest, I wanted the praise that comes from a teacher.

I needed someone to tell me I was special because that year I spent waiting tables at a professional wrestling-themed barbecue restaurant in the parking lot of a Walmart made me feel really worthless.

(I’ve always been susceptible to the bigger and better, especially when I was younger. And when I couldn’t attain it, I crumbled a lot inside.)

So, on my first day of class, I showed up early. I didn’t know anyone, but I didn’t care. This was a class. This was where I excelled. This was what I was meant to do.

I had read one of the instructor’s books, and thought it was decent enough. It wasn’t a life changing read, but not many books are.

The class was an interesting mix. There were young and old, new and seasoned writers, published and unpublished.

Among the mix of people was my friend, Katie. That’s how we met. Even though I look back on this class with a mix of rage and regret, I’m glad I met Katie. She was a bright spot in a dark place.

Though this was my first time to take the class, it wasn’t the first time for a lot of the students. Many of them were long-time disciples, flocking like moths to a flame of this teacher. I couldn’t figure out why anyone would take the same class several times then. I mean, I was waiting tables and dead broke all the time. I couldn’t fathom paying for this $190 6-week class more than once.

As class began, it felt manic and frenetic. The energy felt good. That’s mostly how writing workshops have always felt to me, like the first time you try speed.

In the first session, we outlined a novel together. He’d call out for suggestions of protagonists and antagonists, for conflicts, for setting. We’d shout back as he wrote the different elements on a large easel-sized Post-It pad. Once we’d complete one element, he’d stick it to the wall and start over with another sheet on the big pad.

By the end of class, we had a novel. Sure, it wasn’t good. But most books aren’t. And that was how he convinced all of us that it was super easy to write a novel. After all, it’s just a game of filling in the blanks, right?

Then, for the rest of the class sessions, different people would bring their novel outlines and we would all critique each other’s. It went well. I excelled, in a way. Insofar as excelling is receiving praise.

I took many classes from this instructor that year. There were different class options that he taught, always a different component of the writing process, but taught in his signature madcap style. Katie was always there, and it was nice to have a friend who was into the same thing I was into, because up until that point, I had literally never had that.

Even now, I can count on one hand the number of friends I have who are into the same things as I am.

As I got to know that instructor better, and as Katie and I got to know each other more, a weird dynamic emerged. We were under a figurative microscope. Anything we did — writing, clothing choices, vending machine drinks — were under scrutiny. The instructor picked at us constantly. Sure, he did it in fun, or at least that’s what his tone said. The older, unkempt men in the class picked up the game quick. They would make similar comments, or let us know that they’d love to take care of us, if only we’d marry them.

The younger men in the class followed suit.

The Pedestal in His Workshop Click To Tweet

It’s also worth noting here there were a fair amount of women in the class that were older than me and Katie. It would be hard to be younger than us, as we were the 21-year-olds in an adult education courses. And those women, while they weren’t outwardly cold to us, it was obvious that they were tired of us. Like they thought we were asking for the attention.

At the time, I didn’t realize what was happening. I had never been in a class like this. I had never interacted with older men, except for maybe my dad and his friends. And they didn’t act like this.

I found myself behaving in odd ways in that class. I would specifically wear boring sweaters and jeans — anything to make it harder for that instructor to call me out. And when he did call me out for any number of things, I found myself answering untruthfully, just because I wanted to placate him. I wanted to tell him something that would please him. I needed that validation that I was attending those closes to get. So he’d ask me pointed questions, trying to trap me, to make me look like an idiot, trying to have that little moment where he could point out to the whole class how stupid 21-year-old women were so we could all laugh together, and I’d say anything to get him to just fuck off.

(I didn’t realize that was what I was doing, though. And I didn’t realize that I was doing that until I ran into that teacher a writer’s conference a few years ago. He started in on me as soon as he said hello, and I found myself saying bullshit to get him to go away.)

I can’t speak for Katie. I don’t know if that’s how she felt. But it’s how I felt.

And I didn’t even realize I was doing it. I was trying to play the game I played in classes. Say the right thing, receive validation. I was grasping at straws every time I attended that class.

I feel it’s important here to note that I don’t, nor have I ever specifically sought validation from older men. In fact, I have spent a lot of my life trying to piss them off. This was different though. He was a teacher. That’s who I wanted validation from.

It’s only now, with that 10 years of hindsight that I realize we were placed on a pedestal in that workshop. We were there for the entertainment and delight of a group of old degenerates. These were men, who over the course of several classes, would open up about their distain for their wives or for women in general. They would eloquently express how terrible women were, but they would gladly take up with us in a heartbeat.

And they felt they were allowed to do this because the classroom environment enabled it.

Only I couldn’t see it then. In fact, I joined a writer’s group with a few of those men, and met with them for years after the classes had ended. I think I was still young enough to seek that validation. Even though the teacher wasn’t there anymore, those old men had become his proxies. And I just wanted to hear them tell me I was a good writer.

But what I got was more picking.

While I’m not happy that was my experience, I’m happy to have processed it all, to understand what was happening. It has, perhaps irrevocably, changed my writing process. There’s always a sneering middle-aged man in the back of my head. He picks at words and story ideas. He reminds me that since what I’m writing about is something he hasn’t experienced, it’s somehow invalid.

And then I remind myself that this middle-aged man in the back of my head is just as disgusting as the men in those classes. All ear hair and paunch. Body odor and artificially inflated ego.

For a long time I thought my teaching style was forged by my love of writing. I thought if I just conveyed to my students that if you did the research or knew what you wanted to say, then it became easy to say it.

And while maybe that’s true, it’s not where my teaching style comes from at all. I am a product of that classroom, of those bad experiences from that teacher.

In my classroom, everyone has space to say what they want to say. Click To Tweet

In my classroom, everyone has space to say what they want to say. And no one will ever play those stupid mind games with my students on my watch.


18
Mar 17

As I Write This

As I write this, I’m sitting in  my writing nook at the Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow. I’m staring out the window and hearing cars squeal their tires as they try to get through the intersection of Spring and Polk. I’m grateful to be here.

As I Write This

As I write this, I think there are a million other things I should be writing. There are always a million other things on the to do list. Why would I prioritize a blog post over short stories and a novel?

As I write this, I’m thinking about all the ideas I’ve had before. I’m thinking about whether or not I have any ideas worth hashing out. I’m wondering if I’ve left so much on the back burner in the past that it just kind of dried up and dissipated. I’m wondering if I can even tackle the stories I’ve been meaning to write for all these years.

As I write this, I’m remembering all the prolific writers I’ve met along the way. I’m constantly surrounded by people who bash out words left and right, regardless of whether or not they’re good. Hell, I know people who have built lucrative careers on bad writing. But that bad writing never seems to hold them back. Why do I let it bother me?

As I write this, I’m wondering where the hell is my damn trophy. My generation supposedly got shit tons of them for showing up. I don’t own any though. In fact, I would argue that instead I was probably given more negative reinforcement — constantly reminded of how mediocre I truly am. That’s why I’m practically crippled here at the Writer’s Colony because I know every last word I type is garbage.

As I write this, someone else picks up another copy of Fifty Shades of Grey.

(I’m not shaming anyone. Live your life. Read what you want. But I am saying that people will buy shit, and I am basically paralyzed here while trying to craft a damn paragraph about a 5-year-old wanting Chinese food for her birthday.)

As I write this, I remember what a unique position I’m in. I don’t know how I got here. I grew up the same as all my high school classmates, but they’re all different. Or I’m different. I don’t know. I wouldn’t say special. Just different. I couldn’t give a shit about granite countertops or spring trends or tropical vacations. I just want to write a damn book, and the older I get the less magic there is left in my keyboard.

As I write this, I can feel the crisp, Ozark air. It’s different than what I breathe in Oklahoma. I don’t know why or what it is. Maybe it’s all the hills. Or the way the air has to snake around the curves of the hills and the twisting pathways.

As I write this, I’m remembering that Hemingway quote about writing “one true thing” and it makes so much sense right now that it hurts. And I’m also disgusted with myself for identifying with Hemingway, of all the literary misogynists.

As I write this, I’m curious. I’m dodging self-defeating thoughts and crippling doubt. I get through a sentence, and remind myself that I’m not that kind of writer. I remind myself of the writer I want to be. I stall. Does this sentence work? Does this whole story work? What am I doing, other than wasting everyone’s time?

As I write this, I’m breathing quietly. I’m clearing my head and shutting down the thoughts that do me no good. I’m alive. I’m capable. I’m here. And I’m going to use my time wisely instead of wrestling with the demons of my own making.


21
Feb 17

Dear Universe: I Need Something Big

Dear Universe,

I know it’s been a hot minute since I asked for something via this ol’ blog, but I got another favor. I need something. Something big. And I don’t even know what it is.

Dear Universe: I Need Something Big

See, here’s the thing: I’m running on autopilot. Everything is going smoothly. I can’t see a speed bump or a pothole for miles. And that’s good, I think. Except, well. Last week I jokingly said to my office mate that every week is the worst week of my life. And joking about something is the first step to admitting that you have hella problems, right?

I’m not asking for a whole lot, dear Universe. I don’t wan’t to win the lottery or to find a bag of unmarked bills at the park when I’m walking my dog. (Let the record also show that I don’t not want those things. I’m just saying that it doesn’t have to be those things.) I don’t want anything fancy or expensive. I don’t want some life-changing news. I don’t want to make a big decision.

I kind of just want a sign. I don’t know what for though.

Sorry. I’m trying here, dear Universe. But that’s the thing about this time of year. It’s the third quarter of the school year, and the third thing out of four things is always the worst. Like when you run a mile on a track. It’s only four laps. The first lap you’re fine. Your fresh. Your lungs are full of air. The second lap is okay. You’re doing it. You still have some energy. The third lap sucks because you’ve already done this thing twice and OMG can I just be done now? And the fourth lap is great because you’re almost done.

I kind of just want a sign. I don't know what for though. Click To Tweet

That’s where I am right now — smack dab in the middle of OMG can I just be done now.

So here I am, feeling antsy and anxious. I don’t know why. It’s been a hot minute since something big has happened. I mean, I guess I did buy a car on Saturday, but that doesn’t feel like anything. And if you know me, dear Universe, you know that material possessions don’t mean a whole awful lot to me. I’m looking for something that’s the spiritual equivalent of a marching band tromping down Main Street and playing Seventy-Six Trombones.”

I want big things and little words scribbled in notebooks. I want stories that make me stay up until 5 AM because I absolutely have to read them. I want words pouring out of my head and onto the page like an avalanche. I want to not feel so empty. I want to have thoughts worth thinking again.

I guess what I’m saying here, dear Universe, is that I want a little inspiration. I want to want to do things again.

Help me out here, Universe. Remind me why I’m here.


13
Feb 17

5 Steps to a Better Night Time Routine

I’ve written before about how to be a morning person, and Kieran shared with you how to kick start your morning. But there’s one crucial thing to being a morning person, and that’s having a night time routine.

Five Steps to a Better Night Time Routine

I’m fanatical about routines, and I absolutely love habits. I think rom coms tend to make people think they have to be spontaneous and easygoing in order to be viable people. But let’s get real. I hate spur-of-the-moment anything, and I actively work to build better habits because I know they make me a happier, more productive person. (If you call me at 8 PM and ask me to come have a drink, I will not only tell you no, I will also lecture you on why you need to schedule with me in advance. I DO NOT DO SPONTANEOUS.) So that’s why I’m talking about my night time routine today, and the five steps you can take to have a better night time routine.

5 Steps to a Better Night Time Routine Click To Tweet

001: Get Un-Ready.
When I say un-ready, I mean undo all the things you did that morning to get ready. I pretty much put my pajamas on the minute I get home from work so I don’t get dog hair on my work clothes. So, for me, getting un-ready means washing my face, flossing and brushing my teeth, and applying like 6 different moisturizers. (I work with 20-year-olds. I feel like a haggard, leather face all the time. Don’t judge me.) I try to do these things around 8 PM because that means I’m physically ready to get to bed. And this is such an important part of my night time routine because if I wait until I’m too tired, I may not wash my face at all. (I’m gross, I know.)

002: Be Aware of the Time.
How many times have you started something around 9:15 only to finish up around midnight, when you fully intended to go to bed at 10? It’s easy to get caught up in things like projects, movies, or to do list tasks. That’s why I’m always aware of time when it comes to my night time routine. Chris hates it when I say we shouldn’t start a specific show on Netflix because it’s too late. (He’s a total night owl.) But I’m fanatical about going to bed on time, and to do that I always have to know how much time I have until I’d like to be asleep.

003: Turn Off the TV and put your phone away.
Now, you know I refuse to let my phone run my life, but I feel I should admit here that I’m not super into TV either. Sure, I like watching shows, but I feel like TVs have become such an intrusive presence in our daily life. They’re so big and so loud, and I don’t need a theater experience to watch the local weather forecast or Jeopardy. Chris and I have even talked about how if our TV breaks, we may not get another one. (That’s a post for another time. Also, we have computers and tablets that we stream TV from anyway. Do we need a TV too?) For me, I like to turn the TV off because I like quiet. And turning the TV off (or, going in the other room while Chris finishes watching something) is a great way for me to slowly unwind and enjoy some quiet before I go to sleep. I also put my phone down, and have it set to go into Do Not Disturb mode every night at 9 PM.

It’s worth noting here that there are all manner of studies about how lessening your screen time before bed can help you sleep better. So I won’t harp on it. Just know that backing away from screens is a great way to improve your night time routine.

004: Hydrate.
I always have the worst sleep when I’m dehydrated. Whether I’ve been drinking too much caffeine or alcohol throughout the day, or just not enough water, I always try to chug about 10-15 ounces of water about an hour before bed. This generally rehydrates me and helps me not have massive charlie horses in my calves. (I get these all the time, and sometimes they work their way into nightmares where the hook-handed guy from I Know What You Did Last Summer hooks me right in the calf. Luckily, it’s just a charlie horse. But unluckily, ouch, it’s a charlie horse.) Also, one of the main reasons I ever get up in the middle of the night is because I’m thirsty and need a drink. Rehydrating prevents that from happening. Also, since I do it an hour before bed, I’m able to use the bathroom before bed, and I never have to get up.

I should probably note that I still keep my full Nalgene bottle on my bedside table anyway. Just in case. You know, when I need 32-ounces of water at 3 AM.

005: Read.
Okay. So. Real talk. Reading is a big part of a lot of my routines. But I like to read right before bed. I always have. It doesn’t matter what I’m reading — something happy or scary or adventurous — I just like to read before bed. Most nights, you can find me crawling into bed around 9 PM to start reading, so I can be safely off to dream land by 10.

I never have issues with falling asleep after reading something intense, and I’m not sure why. It’s probably because I’ve been doing it since the first grade…

What's your night time routine? Click To Tweet

What about you? What’s your tried and true night time routine? Anything I should add to my night time routine?


08
Feb 17

American Public Education Made Me Who I Am

I went to public schools growing up, and because of this, American public education functionally made me who I am.

American public education made me who I am.

Sure, there were things my parents did that shaped my education. My mother, an avid reader, always kept books around and took us to the library whenever we wanted. My dad would read to us when he got home from work, which I consider to be one of my most important memories. My brother and I had toys, but all of them required an immense amount of imagination. There was never a moment in my early childhood when my brain wasn’t in use.

So when I got to school, I was ready. I remember feeling very inadequate on the first day of kindergarten when I didn’t know the difference between left and right, but overall, I was pretty much ready for anything. (Except the rich, blonde girls that plagued me for the entirety of my student career. No one is ever ready for them, though.)

American public education made me who I am. Click To Tweet

With the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary, I thought I’d take a minute to talk about American Public Education and what it’s meant to me. Or, I guess I should say, what it’s given me.

001: A Path.
When I was eight, I decided I was going to become a writer. I had just finished Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby, Age 8. And for the first time, I felt that I had seen a real-life family being portrayed. In the early 1990s, there was a lot of garbage sitcoms that showed perfect families with stay-at-home moms, gigantic houses, and literally no one ever talked about money. But in the first chapter of Ramona Quimby, Age 8, it’s made clear that money is tight in the Quimby house. Later on, Ramona’s parents get in a fight. I decided then that I wanted to be a writer, and proceeded to buy several blank journals at the dollar store the next time I went to the mall.

I was in Ms. Galloway’s second grade class when I read that book. I checked out a copy of it at the school library before finally buying a copy at the school book fair. To this day, when I think of Ramona Quimby, I can smell the cherry Mr. Sketch markers I used daily in that class.

002: Perspective.
I’m constantly thankful that I was never homeschooled or sent to some elite private school for rich kids. Why? American public education gave me perspective. Because I was never cloistered away or kept from a broad cross section of my peers, I was always aware of expectations and benchmarks. My ego was never artificially inflated because I never got to the big fish in a small pond. I never got to pay my way into anything. I never got to assume my best was good enough because there were always students better than me.

I'm constantly thankful that I was never homeschooled or sent to some elite private school. Click To Tweet

Because of this, I learned quickly what my strengths were, and what I needed to work on. I can remember as early as first grade being told I was a good reader. And I can remember my junior year of high school when I worked my ass off and finally rose to the top of my Algebra II class. Without that perspective, I wouldn’t have known what to work on, or what I was good at.

003: Next-Level Emotional Intelligence.
I consider myself a communicator extraordinaire. Not only am I great at reading body language and the emotions of others, I have been known to charm my way into promotions, or coveted spots. How? Well, because I went to public school, and you absolutely have to learn that on the fly if you want to survive. And luckily for me, I had teachers who were fantastic at not only teaching the academic lessons, but who also pushed socialization.

And this didn’t end at elementary school. I can remember these lessons occurring as late as high school. Teachers didn’t hesitate to call down students and explain to them why they needed to phrase questions differently in order to achieve what they wanted, or why their body language was incorrect for their statement. At the time, it was incredibly stressful. But I am so thankful for it now, and I consider myself to be a master communicator because of it.

004: A Career.
True story: My high school freshman Spanish teacher asked me if I planned to go college. I straight up said no. I couldn’t see a need for it, and at the age of 14, I totally had everything figured out. Well, she didn’t let that comment rest, and four years later, I went to college. But I cannot stress how much the American public education system played a roll in my enrollment in college.

Without AP classes, teachers who cared way more than they had to for what they were paid, and the perspective to know that I would excel in the college environment, I wouldn’t have gone. This may not seem like that big of a revelation, but it is. Since first enrolling in college, I’ve earned a bacherlor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and now I literally teach college sophomores. ALL BECAUSE OF THE AMERICAN PUBLIC EDUCATION SYSTEM.

Let me rephrase that.

I wouldn’t be where I am today without the American public education system.

I’m not saying I loved every single day of school, because nobody ever does, and I’d gladly erase fourth grade all together. But I am saying that American public education has made me who I am.

I also need to state outright that my experience in the American public education system was nearly ideal. I had the great fortune to grow up in one of the best districts in the state where the textbooks were never more than three years old. I debated about whether or not I should write this, just because it feels like bragging. When it comes to schools, I won the metaphorical lottery, and I know that many people can’t say that they got as lucky as I did.

But I also know this. The American public education system is flawed. And it may need an overhaul. But what it doesn’t need is a person who has never been a part of it at the helm. Betsy DeVos’s advocacy of school choice and school vouchers, I fear, will spell the end of the system that made me, a system I was hoping would make my children too.

Betsy DeVos is the end of the system that made me. Click To Tweet

I’m not ready for the American public education system to implode, nor am I ready to think about the consequences this will hold for me as a college educator.

What was I saying about nobody really being ready for the rich, blonde girls?