Be a Rookie Every Year…

P1050370.JPGI heard this advice at a teaching conference, about a million years ago (or so it seems). A guest speaker — I don’t remember who he was, but his specialty was teaching with technology — was telling us about some of the newest brain science. He said the best way to keep your brain moving as you age is to “Be a Rookie.” He suggested beginning some new project every year, and not just a “new” project, but something to learn. Every year.

I’ve been relearning. For instance, I’m taking piano lessons, again. At age eight or eleven (it seems I took them for several years, but that can’t be right), I never became comfortable with playing the piano. I am not that person who can sit down at the piano and play a song, or bang out a tune. I can’t play chopsticks! And I am filled with envy when other people do. I find that I’m intensely uncomfortable merely sitting down on the piano bench and facing the keyboard. I can’t remember the names of the notes. When I play, or try to, it sounds like a child’s tinkering. At my lesson I feel like such an idiot. How is it that it doesn’t come easier? The first thing, I’ve realized, that I have to learn, is how to sit with this discomfort until it abates. Just sit. Just keep tinkering at the keys.

Being back at the college this fall, teaching my one paltry section of English 101, has made me hyper aware of how other people learn, or don’t. It’s so easy — isn’t it? — to cobble together an English sentence. How is that my students can imagine that She was a lovely woman she had hair of reddish gold when she talked her voice… is one sentence and doesn’t need any punctuation? And these are students who placed in a college-level writing class, after all, not remedial students! After the first paper, I decided to spend some time on the issue, and I gave them an opportunity to resubmit a clean, corrected copy of their work. Three students took me up on the offer, none of whom had serious sentencing problems.

I feel as though I am having to learn how to teach again, how to mark papers, how to be kind in the face of mechanical error — it is another place that is not comfortable for me. By now — after twenty-five years of teaching — shouldn’t I know how to teach a group of freshman writers?

Having my seventeen-year-old daughter enrolled in Driver’s Ed. has been another source ofemma 16 enlightenment. The day we got her permit, I traded car seats with her on a back road and said, “Drive.” She jumped in, eagerly, and I gave her a very quick introduction to gas pedal and brake. She pushed down the gas, raced forward, swerved, stopped, raced forward again, and at the first turn very nearly ran us into the ditch. (“Brake! Brake!”)

I didn’t know how to teach her to drive, how to talk her through the mechanics of driving, even though I have been driving various sorts of vehicles since I was nine years old and my dad told me to climb into the tractor seat and move it ahead. (Luckily, Driver’s Ed. had an instructor who knew just how to accomplish this, and Emma is now driving.)

Similarly, I decided that I wanted to be a writer when I was seven. And maybe that has something to do with my persistent astonishment, throughout my teaching career, at how some people don’t already know how to write. The student writers who love this stuff, who can already write — they’re a cinch to work with. But teaching skills that I take utterly for granted? This is a challenge for me, and something I get to learn, all over again. What a blessing!

Radical Optimism

beatrice-bruteauSome years ago — 15 to be exact — a friend gave me a copy of Beatrice Bruteau‘s  Radical Optimism: Practical Spirituality in an Uncertain World. I have read this book several times, and when I came across it recently, I felt that the current political climate gave me call to revisit it.

What I’ve realized, however, as I’ve been rereading, is that I need this book for other reasons besides the presidential race. My underlinings and highlighting and marginal notes show how enormously helpful this book has been to me as a teacher and as a writer. Going faster, working harder may be the zeitgeist of American culture, and it’s an attitude that infects higher education, too, but we might think differently.

In that spirit, here are just a few of my favorite Radical Optimism passages:

“The most important thing is this: Don’t represent to yourself what you are doing as difficult. Don’t keep saying how hard it is, don’t remember your failures. Don’t imagine the project as a tremendous task, a huge effort. Be like a weight lifter who deliberately concentrates on the bar and imagines it to be light as a feather.” (32)

“Hearts can be hardened — or ‘tensed up’ — in the same way that muscles can…” (27)

“But the Latin word schola comes from the Greek scholé which means ‘leisure.’ What an interesting discovery! Before you can teach, you must learn, and in order to learn, you must stop your busyness and hold still for a while. You must give yourself leisure to learn.” (9)

radicaloptimismfinal300-dpi_page_1-e1425055109741“The contemplative is not a dweller in an ivory tower, cut off from the world, oblivious of the suffering of humanity. On the contrary, the contemplative is one who is devoted to seeking the way out of evil and suffering. If we can understand the roots of our distress and the secret of our release, then we can act in the world to alleviate the pain.” (73)

“We get the kind of world we ourselves create…” (134)

“One who feels this way [to be right] is convinced that the only way to be safe is to control everything oneself. This isn’t pride. This is fear. Terrible, rock-bottom, existential fear.” (83)

“You may try by sheer willpower to do something or resist something, but if you cannot convert the imagination to the desired position, you will probably not attain what you have willed.” (45)





Mucking Out

As I believe I have mentioned (probably numerous times), I have been mucking out my writing cabin. To give credit where credit is due, the idea of hiring someone to help me came from my Writing Lab friend, Lori, who is going through this process in her entire house, and then from a new book, Minding the Musewritten by the inestimable Priscilla Long.

I have known Priscilla for twenty-five years. This is a woman who knows how to get writing done. In Minding the Muse, she reminded me, yet again, that it is good for creators to have an up-to-date inventory of their work. And, as I have countless times before, I thought, “I can’t.” I had great excuses. I lined them all up and danced them across my journal pages. But there sat “I can’t,” exactly the words that I am always telling other writers that they must not say.

“I can’t” is not a small, harmless phrase. Repeated use of it will damage your creative life, and your life. You can, however, decide to transform it from something you hide behind like a mother’s skirts, to a red flag. When the “I can’t” flag goes up, from now on, that’s your signal to go to work.

Of course I can inventory my work. Of course I can sort through my boxes (and boxes) full of papers (and poems I’ve forgotten I ever drafted). Of course I can be organized. I have arms. My brain is still working. If I have a bad habit of letting things get away from me, it is just a habit. I can change a habit. 

I have mucked out before, but never as fully as I needed to. I tried to content myself with a stack of boxes and bins tucked in the corner. Since leaving my college office, since my mom’s illness escalated, things have gotten much, much worse. The so-lovely writing cabin had become a place of unrestful distractions.

So, not knowing where or how to start (feeling — I have to admit — paralyzed), I asked Lori for a referral to her professional organizer, and I emailed her and set up an appointment. In about 7 hours of work, I have made an excellent start. Formerly unlabeled boxes full of mixed papers and notebooks are now sorted into labeled bins (or recycled — lots was recycled). A few books went away, but it was gentle. A whole box of pictures and knick knacks went into storage (for when I have a guest room again some day). I got everything off the floor except a couple boxes of homework to accomplish on my own. It may still look messy to the neatniks among you, but it’s a big change for me to know where everything is. What felt impossible now feels possible.



What’s the Worse Thing that Can Happen?

dhAbout “dh.” I don’t know the first thing about sports, or what exactly a “designated hitter” is. But I didn’t mean to suggest anything violent with the reference. No one is hitting anyone.

It interests me, how even when communication gets strained my husband and I continue to work together and balance things out. One of our jobs, it seems to me, is to figure out how to fine-tune this balance, how to keep communicating, even when we’re busy and the lines are tangled.

This morning, for instance, I have an appointment with Emma’s high school principal. Dh thought he should go, too. He wants to tell the principal that we will sue the school district if Emma’s classes aren’t allowed.  He was leaning into my cabin doorway, his legs apart, his jaw set. I have been reading Steven Pressfield’s Left of Bang (which I found because I’m sorting through my cabin), and a little warning bell went off in my head. I should listen to that bell, I told myself, or Pressfield whispered to me. “I’ve got this,” I told my dear dh, “you don’t need to go.” So, already dressed in his gym clothes for the morning, he left to get through his workout.

Another book I’m reading is Michael Michalko’s Cracking Creativity.  Like Pressfield, he reminds me to not go with that first impression, but to keep looking, keep asking questions. To look at the problem from every angle and to be open to numerous solutions, not just the first one I find. He quotes an older book, Scientific Genius by Keith Simonton, in order to point out some word etymology that is useful here:

“[Simonton’s] theory has etymology behind it: Cogito — ‘I think’ — orignally connoted ‘shake together.’ Intelligo, the root of intelligence, means to ‘select among.'”

cabin dogwoodToo often, writing or just living (and surviving the presidential election season), we believe the first thing we’re told. When you write (or do a crossword puzzle, as dh likes to point out), it’s crucial that you remain open, that you listen for the hints and nuances that arise as you write. The first thought may be your best thought, but a character has many facets. Your job is to represent all the facets. So keep looking. Keep thinking. Keep shaking it all together, and following the fascination.

“Just as the difference in point of view between your eyes allows you to perceive depth, multiple perspectives about your subject deepen your understanding.” (Michalko, Cracking Creativity)

Most of all, stay open to those intuitive hints. (And check out what you hear in the media about your candidate at






Too Many Irons in the Fire?

directionsI don’t know how I let ELEVEN days get away from me, without blogging. Oh, wait, I DO know:

  1. First week of teaching a class at my old college.
  2. Daughter number 1 moving back to Bellingham.
  3. Daughter number 2 working temporarily down at Pike Place Market and bumming rides from me (and her dad) while she figures out the buses and timing, etc.
  4. Daughter number 3 taking Driver’s Ed.
  5. Meetings FOUR evenings this week (including my very last curriculum night!).
  6. A professional organizer taking my writing cabin in hand (3 hours Wednesday morning, plus homework).
  7. A church committee (I know, “What was I thinking?”)
  8. The September Sendout of poems.
  9. My dh (dear husband or designated hitter) deciding to paint the entryway and hallway of our house.
  10. Mom’s seizure yesterday morning and appointment today with an ARNP.

I could list a few more, but I’ll stop there. And, anyway, the class is going swimmingly (and it’s easy-peasy, only two mornings a week); my daughters’ schedules are calming down (no evening meetings at all this coming week, and daughter #2 has mastered the art of the bus pass); plus, I have wisely put my September Sendout on the back burner for a few days.

A friend called me yesterday afternoon — we had made plans, because she had an errand to do regarding her mother’s recent death, and I wanted to be supportive. “I’m not as busy as you are,” she said. “And I’ve got this. You don’t need to come.” Had I not been juggling my mom’s needs, too, I would have gone anyway. But it felt a bit like divine intervention. We had a good talk on the phone, and then I turned my car toward the ferry, and I’m here now (in Allyn). A restful evening. Reading, watching some TV. A very small glass of wine. A much needed good-night’s-sleep.

What I’m thinking this morning, however, is that I do not have more to do than anyone else. ALL of us have too many irons in the fire. It’s become our way of life. A former student — now a friend — recently told me that she is writing some character sketches, pretty excited about the work, but she keeps asking herself, “Do I have time for this?” One could argue that my friend, the one who called yesterday afternoon has more time than the rest of us, and fewer excuses: she’s single, her children are young adults who are (theoretically) on their own. But I know that she has just as long a list of “stuff to do” as I have. Connections to be made, housework to keep up (and no dh to step in where needed), errands, meals to shop for, oh — and a job (that!), a commute five days a week, a car to keep maintained…well, we all know. My former student, the one with the character sketches? She cannot wait to write until her children leave home .

None of us have any time.

Perhaps I’ve told this story before, but when my older daughters were about two years old, I told one of my sisters-in-law that I thought I would put off my dissertation until the girls started school. “It will be easier then.” She had three grown children, and was a Ph.D. and a teacher herself. She looked at me, eyes wide, and said, “It will not get easier. It will be different, but it will not be easier. Write your dissertation now.”

That advice proved to be a huge gift. I wrote my dissertation that year and defended it when the girls were three. We moved into a bigger house; I got a full-time, tenure track teaching job; we added a third daughter to the mix. At some point in there, I realized that if I wanted to continue writing, I was going to have to keep following that advice. Do it now. Write today. You can negotiate with it. You can limit yourself to a two-hour block, or one hour, or fifteen minutes. If life crashes around you, you can pull out a notebook and write a short description of it, five minutes.

This is your life.

I’ll be back (soon) to let you know how the organizing is going — and helping.




5 lessons I learned while submitting to literary journals

As you know, I’ve been sending work out this month. So, in that light, I thought I’d reblog this very useful post from Dear Reader: A Writing Life Beyond the Page. 


Dear Reader, What a wonderful way to spend a Saturday afternoon! The national organization, Women Who Submit, organized a national Submission Blitz on Saturday. Blitz as in everyone get in Formatio…

Source: 5 lessons I learned while submitting to literary journals