Devoted exclusively to the creative process. Here you will see photojournaling, poetry, prose, an occasional review--journaling or philosophical writing can be found on our other blogs. This is our attempt to use our imaginations. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Writing Specialist

It’s 6 pm on a Tuesday night. Also, what I’ve come to call “show time” (at least to myself). The last few students arrive, leaving behind their 9-5 jobs so they can sit through another four hours of a lecture and workshop on writing. Four hours is a long time to have to sit through anything, but especially writing, and I know better than to think the students have come to hear me talk about it because they love writing, like me, or like my voice (though I’ve been told it’s kind of soothing, much like a dentist’s voice right before they start up the drill). Many of them are wondering what they have to do to get an “A”. Some are feeling sicker than they’ve felt before a first date or big job interview, and many of them are wondering if they can do this “school thing” after being away from reading and writing and the classroom for a number of years. At home, their spouse may be waiting, their children, Survivor, or a number of more appealing alternatives.

Even I don’t like hearing myself for four hours. In fact, I don’t talk much at all. The same knots in their stomachs are also cramping my own. I can’t eat. My mouth feels dry but I can barely swallow a mouthful of water. It’s opening night and I feel like I’m on stage and want to run anywhere but here. A few things keep me here. One of them is my love for writing.

I begin with introductions, and prayer, and ask everyone to describe their enjoyment of writing, what kinds of writing they do, and one movie they like (I like movies too, so this helps me decide whether certain movies are worth seeing). Some of them say they hate writing and don’t know why they signed up for a writing intensive program, others say they really enjoy writing and are really good at it and expect an “A.” After teaching a while, I’m not sure if they’re saying this because they really do love writing or if they think that’s what I want to hear. The next few weeks will prove this as they put thoughts and words onto paper.

Usually people bring food and we have a potluck at the beginning of the night or halfway through. It feels a bit like an AA meeting, and many of my students have been to those.

In their other lives, their lives outside school, many of them are husbands or wives, moms or dads, managers, employers, sons and daughters and caretakers. Some of them are going through divorces. Some are trying to figure out how to raise their kids. Some are getting married. Others are getting ready to bury their parents. Many of my students have worked in hospitals, or prisons, are fire fighters, police officers, EMTs, veterans or social workers.
One man comes to class the first few weeks, then gets emergency orders and is shipped out to Iraq within the week. Other than the phone call telling me he is dropping the class for now, I never hear from him again and don’t know if he’s still there, is alive, or back home with his family. I think he has a young son, and maybe a baby on the way. Another woman is waiting to be shipped out soon and has to find some friends to take care of her three kids while she is overseas. She’s a single mom, going to school, and enlisted in the national guard on the weekend.

One student comes to class and announces her ex-husband was waiting for her in the driveway when she came home from school. Since then she has gotten a restraining order, but is still afraid to return home and asks us to pray for her. The next week she misses class and the week after that. The following week she calls and drops the course.

Another woman pulls me aside before class, in tears because her paper for that night isn’t done. She’s been living in a shelter the last week, lost her job, and her ex-husband has taken her oldest child until she is out of the shelter. Thanksgiving is less than a week away and she asks if she can get an extension. Of course I say yes.

We meet in banks, in business complexes, either downtown or in out of the way areas of the cities. I teach in four different cities and often my car becomes my office. In the last couple years I have logged tens of thousands of miles, have learned bits of new languages, have heard a number of books on tape, and have tripled my CD collection. Even though it’s a writing class, we don’t talk about Shakespeare, Milton, or even Faulkner, but sometimes I refer to Stephen King, John Grisham or Patricia Cornwell, Chuck Palahniuk, and even E.B. White and William Zinsser. “Writing is a conversation,” I say. “Writing is music, it has rhythm, and characters and drama, and action and personality, emotion and humor, and is above all human.” The students nod in agreement, or question this, or share their own experiences from watching Sex in the City or L.A. Law, reading the newspaper, or having conversations with their spouse about who will pick up the kids from band practice. We wrestle together, talking about, thinking about, and doing writing together.

Many of the students write about their own personal experiences. My first year teaching writing to adult students I learned a lot. I think I aged a few years in that one. Now I have a few gray hairs to prove it. We used to meet for an hour, one-on-one, to conference over their papers. I got to the point where I’d bring a box of kleenexes, sometimes for me, sometimes for them, sometimes for both of us. Some of the students wrote about getting shot, some wrote about watching their mom or dad get lost in Alzheimer’s. A few wrote about getting married or having kids. Someone wrote about losing her best friend to cancer (that was hard). Some shared how they had been abused as kids, raped, molested, or merely neglected. One in particular wrote about her miscarriage. Another told me how, when she was in high school, four girls pulled her into the back of a van and raped her. A few of them wrote about wrestling through the alcohol demons, or drugs, or coming out of a gang. Many of them as students were looking at these situations from the other side. They saw hope. They were going to kick this. Coming back to school was their way of proving it to themselves, their families, their friends, and the world.

Writing is a solitary activity; writing is a community activity. Over the next few weeks, for four hours a night we become like family. We laugh, cry, and vent our frustrations over not finding the right words, over mutual deadlines and the pressures from school and outside it. I love being in the classroom; I hate grading. I have a hard time looking at students in the eye as I pass back grades. Some have called me a hard grader. Others have called me fair. Some have even said they’ve learned a lot about writing in the process. I used to get frustrated, even angry when I talked about a writing principle in class, or spent time going over how a paper was to be formatted, only to find it not done in the actual paper. Now, on some of the harder nights, I wonder if any of it matters or if there’s any growth at all. It helps me realize how slowly I learn as well, and lessons that should be obvious to others aren’t as obvious to me. That puts things in perspective. I begin to understand why Jesus’ disciples could live with him for three years and still not understand what he was trying to tell them. I realize how we’re all slow learners in some ways.

There’s a lot that goes into teaching, and teaching writing, that I didn’t realize when I was a student and before I began teaching. A lot of it is lonely, behind-the-scenes work. Nobody told me about the hours of grading I’d be doing on my own. Some of my writing profs who had been teaching for a while also hated grading, but said I had to grade quickly, not read every word, and get at “mostly just the highlights.” Maybe that’s why we have such a difficulty with writing. I don’t spend as much time at the office as I used to, it’s hard to get work done there, at least the reading and grading, so I often grade in my living room, my bedroom, or a coffeehouse. I do like the community at the office, though, and sometimes need that just to stay sane.

The end of the night comes, the end of the course comes, and we shake hands as we say goodbye to each other. Many of the students say it was the best/worst experience they’ve had, but feel like they’ve grown and have had a world opened to them. We promise to keep in touch, though I know deep down something has come to an end. I drive home in the dark, thinking about the night—the people, the conversations, the questions, the stories—and feel both connected to something real, and also very alone.


Enemy of the Republic said...

I can so relate to this post--I think we've talked about it. When I taught onsite at different companies, I found it fascinating how the students would trust me almost immediately and unfold themselves in their writing. I remember one woman telling me: "Look, I've got something to say!" I replied: "Well, say it!"

I have papers still from those students; I asked them for copies--I grew because of them.

Thank you for this, Cliff.

Cliff said...

Thanks Enemy,

Being let into their world was . . . amazing. I often didn't feel qualified and felt pretty humbled. It also showed me how desperately we want to tell our stories sometimes, hoping someone will listen.

midsummerprism said...

I read everything. I teach as well. I wish however that I could have the chance to join a class such as yours.

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