What Writer and Teacher Can Tell You About Craft by Kristin Weller

Two beers, four turns around the first floor with a vacuum cleaner, and the first nine episodes of Shameless on Netflix. That’s what it took to work out the Teacher and wake up the Writer between Friday night and Saturday morning, today. After all, carving creative time from the expansive collage of responsibilities and distractions that defines twenty-first century adulating requires creativity in and of itself. The Teacher drags out the little girl in me – the five-year-old one who stood in front of her mother’s old chalk board those many days she had to spend alone in her bedroom. That little girl passed the time spelling words in white chalk. She read her picture books and poetry out loud to herself. She wrote stories about mysterious sounds coming from the attic above (squirrels and bats found their way in through a broken window). She asked questions that still have no answers. That girl has always been high maintenance.

When I teach, there are thousands of choices I have to make in the course of a Monday– most are invisible to the rest of the world. Sometimes, when a day’s spoils result in a student or two laughing or progressing or smiling on their way out and saying, “Have a good one, Mrs. Weller,” that little girl in me feels soothed. I feel her look at her feet and smile, before she runs off to grab her Light in the Attic, her crayons and her sketch book. But by the end of the day, I feel the ache of energy spent on other people’s children, and the thought of going home and doing anything – filling a glass with water, lifting its anchor-weight to my lips, or bending in half to dig out the dog’s food, or sitting to undo my boots, let alone the action of opening my veins with a half-sharpened pencil and actually writing– well, it overwhelms the Writer. The Writer pops the cap off a stout, faces the next page and turns up the volume on the little girl’s favorite song– you’re not good enough, you’re wasting your time, you’re not that interesting. And the little girl’s words turn into question marks that bounce across the living room.

Annie Dillard gets it. In her creative nonfiction book The Writing Life, she uses poetic prose to show, not tell us about the strangeness of the writer’s mind, the process, the inner and outer conflicts that build friction and manifest as resistance to the very act that drives us. She opens by saying, “When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe…You make a line boldly and follow it fearfully.” Her imagery lays out a series of skillful acts which, when unpacked, reveal years of practice and failure. This resonates.

What does practice look like? In the Teacher’s world, practice begins on Sunday afternoons with two hours of mindless tasks in which one’s body is in the present, but one’s mind is selecting objectives, sorting through resource lists and last week’s narrative to begin the lesson plan drafting process. While my hands peel potatoes and wait for the oil to boil, my mind envisions a librarian’s fingers walking through the old-school indices of strategies, techniques and activities which a practitioner accumulates over lunch breaks and in-service meetings. Teachers, like Writers, read all the time. We must steal advice and ideas from blurbs, from listservs and from blogs like bites from our kids’ cheese sandwiches – and every chance we can get. The Teacher’s process is not at all unlike the Writer’s, after all.

So much of the Teacher’s life is designed to kill the Writer’s. The continuous barrage of political sabotage – the standardization of a subject that is itself an art form – leaves bruises on the ego that no one else seems to see. Teaching can be a regular bar fight between rejection and distraction. It is the Writer’s fight too. And I am both.

When I was in high school, I just knew I would publish in my twenties (I didn’t). I thought I was working at it too. I entered contests (never won). I joined the newspaper club (learned about gutters and column lengths). I wrote poems (my teachers said they loved them). I got one into a poetry anthology once (then learned it would cost me $70 to buy it back). I went to college and majored in English and all the while, I thought I was a northbound train making good time.

Really, I was in the beginning stages of finding my pace. In her first chapter, Dillard intimates, “To comfort friends discouraged by their writing pace, you could offer them this: It takes years to write a book – between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant.” She confesses that her inner critic continuously berates her writing pace as being too slow. Most of the authors that make up my local writing community express the same inner conflict. Teachers too. We know where we want to get to – the end – but with every move we make, we seem to change the paths before us. This is the nature of discovering our stories. Just when we think we know them, a single word or turn of phrase changes everything as surely as a rocket after blast-off. Of the requirements for what a writer needs, Dillard states, “How fondly I recall thinking, in the old days, that to write you needed paper, pen, and a lap. How appalled I was to discover that, in order to write so much as a sonnet, you need a warehouse.”

We all want to have the experience of waking up one day, sitting down with our pads or our laptops and banging out the perfect first draft. Who wouldn’t want to skip the years’ long battle with the inner critic, the countless pots of caffeine, and the private war with our anxieties? The truth is – and at some level all of us knows this – the writing process does not work this way for the majority of us. Of course, there are exceptions. As Dillard notes, “Out of a human population on earth of four and a half billion, perhaps twenty people can write a serious book in a year. Some people can lift cars, too.” I know that I have not had the need to lift cards, only my pen.

Acknowledge the difficulty of lifting both a car and a pen. Fear is as much a part of the writing process as the actual writing in my opinion. Without it, the thrill of climbing the mountain would be lost. Fear calls attention to something our body perceives as inherently dangerous. In nature, any action which draws attention to the self could be dangerous, if not downright lethal. And yet, isn’t that what we are doing when we write? And so our bodies react – to protect us from a fall or from the judgment of others, yet to create we must progress through this instinct without ignoring it. Dillard notes the peculiarity of this state of mind when working towards a first draft. She says, “For writing a first draft requires from the writer a peculiar internal state which ordinary life does not induce.”

By way of explanation, she describes an office she held on the campus where she taught and wrote poetry. She looked through these large, slatted-blinds past the parking lot to a softball field. She spent hours watching the games played there – even joined in with them for a time – until she’d absorbed the essence of what lived outside. Then, she drew a picture of it, closed those blinds and taped her picture to them. In a way, this is what we writers do in our craft. We absorb the world, distill it, let it worm its way from a solid to a liquid until the condensation beads like a fine sweat and makes its way to our pages. It is a process after all.

Additionally, Dillard shares an anecdote about a young photographer who would bring stacks of his work to a seasoned veteran each year to get the veteran’s opinion. The seasoned photographer kept putting certain landscape print to the back of the slush pile every year. After ten years or so, the senior photographer asks the protégé why he keeps entering this particular failed landscape, and he says, “ ‘Because I had to climb a mountain to get it.’ ” That’s how I was with my writing through most of my twenties. I thought I was climbing mountains to get the prose on the pages. I guess in a sense we all feel like we are climbing mountains when staring down a page or a deadline. I feel that now especially, as I am in my third year of trying to create a novel manuscript. But, Dillard’s point is that every writer or artist feels this way. The road ahead is long and bends out of sight and it’ll be dark soon.

She writes about how writers, unlike painters, work from left to write – writing countless scenes trying to discover the beginning of the story; whereas painters can paint over false starts, hiding their previous drafts under layers of sketches and colors. As I’ve gotten older, the act of letting go gets easier. My parents have helped with that.

My parents are in their seventies. They still live in the house in which my brother and I grew up, but they are entrenched in foxholes there. My mother’s is in her knitting basket next to her recliner in the living room. My father’s is behind his computer desk in the den. It is sprinkled with tobacco leaves, old coffee mugs and unfiled papers. My mother has been trying to get my father to dig out from his relationship with the house – he’s been renovating and reshaping it for nearly forty years. In the first year, she emptied the attic – a third to my basement, a third to Goodwill, and a third to a dumpster. In that first year, she’d call me daily to ask if I wanted the box with her old purses or if she could toss a bag of old clothes. Often, her lists came with stories. “Aunt Linda found this one when she went back to Vienna to see Franz and Margaret in 1989, right before she switched positions in Upper Moreland. Margaret took Linda to one of the boutiques where she and Franz sold their clothing lines and there it was – a wooden purse painted to look like a barn. She said it reminded her of our farmhouse and she just knew she had to get it for me. You always liked to play with it when you were little. Remember?”

And after a year, I realized – not all stories will keep. It’s okay to let them go. There’s only so much room in a basement, or a house, or a computer drive, or a library. And while you might fall in love with each little bit in the moment, moments pass and the air can grow stale or the light coming through the casement changes and makes whatever you are holding onto look shabby or motheaten. Dillard encourages writers to look closely at their work. “Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object in a piece of art.” Sometimes, the object’s vintage qualities will be just what you are looking for, but more often than not, the object’s best qualities were spent long ago. In letting go, you make room for something better.

The manuscript I have been trying to write for a few years now is like this. I started writing it from a fifteen-year-old girl’s point of view – a scene about a school dance and a mission she had to fulfill there. I wrote thirty pages and used them to apply to a writer’s-craft conference. They were raw and somewhat discordant, but beautiful in spots too. I got into the conference program and work-shopped them. The feedback was enough to get me thinking about a re-write, though through it, I knew I would lose some of the beautiful parts. I re-wrote the dance scene a few times and test-read it at several writers groups – all in all with satisfactory responses, but the story still felt wrong somehow. I stopped picking at this scene and started writing fresh ones – not so focused on which scene comes first, but just on developing characters, settings, plot sequences. Now, they didn’t fit together smoothly, but my butt was in the chair despite the Teacher’s demands and that was something. I sketched some conflict charts and researched some settings, set down a few more scenes and debated applying to graduate school. The pages stopped short of fifty and despite my regular efforts refused to budge.

A few weeks ago, I scrapped the idea that this story had to be a young adult’s story. I started over. Linus and Vivian, the two adult sibling characters, had been trying to steal the story for a while. I cut out Lolly’s heart and transplanted it into Linus – gave him his chance to lead, and finally, a new beginning.

Even as I drove to the University last Friday, the new version of the first five pages of my thesis tucked into my laptop bag, I was second-guessing the writing. I ran my Kindle through my Murano’s speakers and listened to the last fifty pages of The Writing Life where Dillard describes seeing her first aerial show featuring a well-known geology professor and stunt pilot named Dave Rahm. Dillard was stuck in a section of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It was summer and the days were long. A friend convinced her to go see Rahm fly. She loved his performance. It resonated with her as an external manifestation of beauty – at once both wild and precise. She pondered his performance for months. Something about that show unlocked her and helped her to move forward in her thinking and her writing.

When I walked into my Friday night workshop and found my seat I thought about Dillard’s experiences, her description of her writing life, and I felt the little girl in me try to crank up her scared-voice broadcast. She wanted me to apologize to these fellow travelers for the story I was about to read in its unfinished state. She wanted to run out into the hallway and fake a seizure or a family emergency or blame the Teacher’s exhaustion. But, the Writer emerged. She took out her pages and set them on the table. She added a pen and a half-drunk bottle of water and told the little girl to watch the sky – to lay back and let the pilot take off and see what happens next. If the pilot doesn’t believe in the plane’s potential and in his own ability to fly it, no one else will either.

 

kristin wellerKristin Weller is a Pennsylvania writer, teacher, and a graduate student at Wilkes University. She earned her fellowship with the National Writing Project in 2000. When she’s not grading eighth grade English papers or running her two boxer dogs around agility courses, she facilitates a local writing group called Write Nights in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. She looks forward to earning her master’s degree in creative writing in 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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