This has turned out to be a week of many goodbye’s. A week ago today (Sunday) I experienced my mom’s death. An example of a very long goodbye.
I also said goodbye to my summer writing cohort at the Prairie Lands Writer’s Summer Intensive. I hope the ending of our month of writing together is less of a goodbye and more like, “See you later.”
When my mom passed, I was given her wedding rings as a keepsake. What I take away from my experience at summer institute and from each of my writer-colleagues is as precious and valuable to me as her rings, even if what I learned is less tangible in the strictest sense of the word. One of the things I loved most about my experience as a cohort and when working individually with other writers is how every interaction provided insight, while also leaving an open space for more questions. As most of my colleagues probably noticed, I love asking questions – perhaps even more than finding an answer. What would life be without questions?
It may come as a surprise to people who know me that for several years I’ve been questioning the value of my work and my role in education, and wondering if I even belong in education. I’ve filled numerous pages in handwritten journals and posted other blog entries specifically to ponder whether I should pursue a PhD. And why? A PhD sounds so “ivory tower”. Do I need a PhD to do the type of work that enlivens me and gives me a sense of purpose? Will people not take my ideas seriously if I don’t have a PhD? Will I become out of touch if I pursue a PhD? I feel as if I do my best work and have a greater ability to act compassionately when I am in the trenches with people – whether that’s
- living the challenges of our daily lives (never enough time, never enough money…);
- as a student trying to master something new (Twitter, blogging, Google Docs, Spanish);
- as a teacher striving to create the best possible learning opportunity (I can’t possibly do/know everything);
- choosing the right volunteer experiences as means of developing empathy (how can I as one person give my time or money to so many different needs?).
What the writing institute gave me this summer was an opportunity to be in the trenches every day doing something I’ve denied myself for a long time (too long?) – the opportunity to study the craft of writing. Being in the writing trenches with other writers and writing teachers I discovered the depth of vulnerability required to really touch people with the well-chosen word.
During peer to peer readings and feedback sessions, my colleagues gave me the opportunity to experience that I do get to choose my response to criticism in favor of author’s intent. And that it’s perfectly okay to hold on to a word, a comma, or a metaphor after explaining why my choice matters. And while these experiences are liberating in once sense, in another they also exacerbate my dilemma of making a good discernment about the connection between my work, my life’s purpose, and my dream life.
In addition to what I learned about writing and teaching writing, this summer was even richer because it was gave me the simultaneous experiences of being a writer and while also being a teacher of writing. But what does the difference in these roles mean to me at this age and juncture in my life?
I’m fearful of having to start over and obtain another degree in English if I choose to be an English teacher. As an ESL teacher I teach people how to communicate in English, but I don’t teach literature and I certainly don’t teach writing as a craft. Would I want to teach a sheltered English class for secondary ESL students? Do I want to teach composition for ESL students at the community college or university level? Do I need more university study to continue my work with digital storytelling and narrative writing at any grade level or age level? One program that caught my eye is the PhD in TESOL and Composition at IUP, but the out-of-state tuition for this low residence program is out of reach. UMKC offers an MFA that would at least keep me writing. MWSU offers a gradate certificate and an MAA in Written Communications that could launch me in either direction.
I am fearful of not being able to make a living as a writer. Everything I’ve heard or read says it’s nearly impossible. Only the very few and highly talented are privileged to discover that their vocation as a writer is also their sole means of income. It seemed so easy to imagine a paid writer’s life as a little girl reading and rereading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I idolized the character, Jo, from the story who was portrayed as the writer of the March family.
I don’t indulge myself with false praise. I think I’m a competent writer with some natural abilities. I don’t know that I’m a highly skilled craftsperson. Yet, how many times have I heard from teachers, from colleagues who are teachers of writing, from office colleagues, from friends in response to an email, from the look of disbelief on a family member’s face after reading a piece of my writing…You are a writer! But what do I do with that?
A lifetime ago when people reacted to my cooking ability in similar ways, I started my own catering company while simultaneously going to culinary school (and yes, I did put the cart before the horse in real life just as I intentionally put the cart before the horse in that sentence). But can I do “this”? Can I really “write”? Can I support myself as a writer first and foremost? And if I can, what does this look like? Or must I persist in putting my words, my craft second while teaching other people (students) the craft?
About ten years ago, I discovered the writings of Thomas Merton. I treasure my dog- eared and marked up copy of Seven Story Mountain. I cried my way through the book, entirely blown away by the stark vulnerability of Merton’s writing. Everything – and I mean everything – about him lay in my hands as they held the book, a memoir on par with Augustine’s Confessions but in contemporary life. I’ve searched relentlessly for a female author I would consider to be Merton’s equivalent. I read many of the female mystics and have come close in some of their work, but I have yet to find her. I suspected even before I finished Seven Story that I wouldn’t find a female equivalent. Before I even finished the book, I knew that I wanted to be her. I want to be the female equivalent of Thomas Merton telling my story of the human experience with as much transparency and craft as he offered. I look back on the attempt I made with my master’s thesis, Ways of Knowing, and even though my thesis committee praised my vulnerability I know deep in my heart that some areas of my thesis leave the reader with questions. In Seven Story Mountain Thomas Merton doesn’t leave anything to the reader’s imagination or wondering. He is all there – at once self-conscious and not, remorseful yet unapologetic, hesitant but also unwavering in his relentless pursuit of clarity and honesty in telling his truth. Seven Story is very relatable. The reader can be both Merton and him or her self, so one seldom feels outside of the story.
How deluded we sometimes are by the clear notions we get out of books. They make us thnik that we really understand things of which we have not practical knowledge at all. I remember how learnedly and enthusiastically I could talk for hours about mysticism and the experimental knowledge of God, and all the while I was stoking the fires of the argument with Scotch and soda. — Thomas Merton, Seven Storey Mountain
Here’s the thing – I have absolutely no self restraint when I’m writing…I will sit well beyond the point of muscle cramps while trying to get to the essence of whatever idea I’m trying to capture – I ignore my screaming bladder, the cramps in my right shoulder and hands, the painful bone spurs in my neck, the arthritis in my spine and hip that are exacerbated by sitting. I am well aware these aches and pains are there but they are secondary to my need to get the words on paper or screen. Which brings me back to my questions of what I would get out of a PhD: Do I need / want a PhD because it will force me to keep writing? Do I need / want a PhD because it ensures I have an audience and a deadline? Do I need / want a PhD to teach? Do I need a PhD, period? Or do I have some romanticized notion about pursuing a PhD?
I may be a writer, but what does a writer’s life look like and feel like? This summer pushed me to produce something of my craft within tight deadlines even when I didn’t feel inspired to write. On the other hand this summer also enabled me to live the writer’s life of feeling I have something so important to say that I was willing to drive more than two hours a day just for the privilege of sharing my work. And most important this summer taught me about the writer’s experience of having writing group(s), because as much as I have daydreamed about writing being a solitary experience each and every one of my writing colleagues proved to me that it is not.
To that end, and for the most part, I’m pleased with the writing I produced this summer. There is room for improvement sparked by your thoughtful comments and questions. Thank you for that. But what I have discovered this summer is that I am but a shallow imitation of a writer if I am not also sharing what I write. I think of the three pieces of work in my portfolio as “our work” and that pleases me a great deal. Each time I polish those pieces, or see them (finally) published or spoken, I will think of “us.”
Thank you seems inadequate. Good bye is not an option. So I will close with the invitation to stay tuned, stay connected, and stay true to the writer within.
“If you write for God you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men–you may make some money and you may give someone a little joy and you may make a noise in the world, for a little while. If you write for yourself, you can read what you yourself have written and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted that you will wish that you were dead.
— Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation