Friday, February 21, 2014

Why I Decided to Go Back to School

As a college writing teacher, I often exhort the students in my classes to be disciplined in their writing practice. We look at quotes from famous writers and less-famous writers who teach writing. Every quote trumpets the virtue of establishing and maintaining a consistent writing discipline. Don't wait for the muse, they say. Instead, establish a time every day when you will put your butt in the chair and write! We all nod our heads gravely as we read these quotes by famous writers because we want to be disciplined writers; we really do. We pray to the god or goddess of our choice: please, please make me a disciplined writer. Please.

But I suspect most of my students know as well as I do that tomorrow is likely to be no different than today. There will still be twenty or thirty pressing things that need to be done, and we will keep delaying that writing time and delaying it until we look up at the clock in a Facebook-induced haze and realize it's too late to start writing now. Oh well, there's always tomorrow, we say. And then tomorrow comes, and it's no different than today or the day before. And so it goes.

Last summer, when I actually had some time to write, I took Anne Lamott's advice and began writing everything I could remember about my childhood. My initial plan was to write a few hundred words per day, at most. But once I got started, I found myself writing twice that much, then three times, then four times that much and more per day.

I wasn't sure how to account for this sudden spurt of productivity. Maybe, as Flannery O'Connor said, anyone who survives childhood has more than enough to write about. At any rate, I figured there must be some stuff from my past that was wanting to get said, so without thinking too much about where this might lead, I kept going to the well day after day, and my writing bucket kept coming up filled to the brim and overflowing.

As fall semester began, I was hopeful I would stay on a roll, that my writing discipline and productivity would continue in the midst of class preps and grading and committee work. Alas, they did not. Almost before I noticed, the semester was half over and though I'm sure I composed some killer e-mails and writing prompts during those days, my 1000-1500 word days were a distant summer memory. Ubi sunt, I exclaimed. Where are the words of summer?

As I pondered my writing problem, I thought maybe what I needed was some accountability. I had joined a writing group, which was helpful, but even this had not provided enough motivation to reclaim my writing discipline. Then I remembered an offhand comment my colleague and fellow writing teacher, Melanie, had made over the summer when I was telling her about my Lamott writing exercise. "You could always sit in on my Creative Nonfiction class this spring," Melanie said. So that's what I decided to do.

For six weeks now, I've been making like a student, showing up for WRIT 250 at 9:40 on MWF. And not only have I been showing up; I've been turning in all my writing assignments on time. It's been great fun. Sure, I got a few quizzical looks the first day, especially from students that had had me as a teacher. One student asked if I was co-teaching the class and another if I was observing Melanie teach. But most seem to have accepted me fairly easily as part of the class.

I've enjoyed sitting in on the class a lot. For one thing, as a teacher, it's just interesting to observe other people teach. A strange fact about college teaching is that we seldom get a chance to see our colleagues practice the art of teaching, so when we do, it's intriguing. I suppose it must be similar to a musician watching another musician perform. She can appreciate the performance perhaps more than the non-musician because she knows the degree of difficulty involved. Fortunately for me, Melanie is an excellent writing teacher, so I'm able to pick up a new tip almost every class period that I can use in my own teaching.

Another benefit of going back to school is that I've been able to consider the teacher-student transaction from the student side of the desk, and I think it's making me a bit more aware of some things. At least it's giving me a greater ability to empathize with  my own students.

At times I've misunderstood an assignment or class activity and had to ask one of my fellow students for help. I try hard not to dominate discussions in the class, so after feeling I talked too much one class, I resolved not to say a word in the next one. Of course, that was when the teacher called on me to respond! I've sometimes had to rush to get an assignment printed and ready to submit only a few minutes before class. I understand better now how a student who's juggling assignments in five classes or so can sometimes experience problems in getting everything in on time and with high quality.

Fortunately, I don't have to worry about my grade. Since I'm not taking the class for credit, Melanie and I decided we would avoid the awkwardness for both of us that could come with grading. But I'm grateful for the time she takes to read and respond thoughtfully and helpfully to my writing.

The most important benefit of taking this class is the incentive and opportunity it's given me to work on my writing. Having deadlines is essential. The assignments have been broad enough that I've been able to tailor them to fit my own writing project. I've been able to take the storehouse of stories and memories I wrote down this summer, select a few, and fashion them into short essays, some of which might become chapters in my larger project.

Oh, and at our Valentine's Day class meeting, I even won the prize for the best short essay on a romantic theme. My wife got a good laugh out of that one!