Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Proper Credentials

Years ago I lucked into what I thought was one of the cushiest jobs of all time. What happened was I called the Gifted/Talented department at the local school board to ask a question, and two days later I was working as a part-time Gifted/Talented teacher for the district. I wasn’t exactly qualified for the job. I didn’t have the gifted endorsement certification required by the state, and I had never worked with elementary-aged kids (unless you counted a stray Sunday school class). But I had taught high school English for six years. And I had come in contact with some gifted students along the way. I guess I must’ve wowed the person on the phone with my vibrant personality.

Anyway, I ended up teaching gifted students, learning along the way, how. A lot of it was instinctual. I know how to talk to kids (and truly, there’s not a huge difference between surly sixteen year olds and bouncing off the wall ten year olds when it comes to classroom discipline. You need a sense of humor. You show them you actually like being around kids. And most of the rest will fall into place.) It helped that I read a lot about gifted kids and their particular needs, and how those needs weren’t always being met in the regular classroom. Also, I had great mentors in the G/T department and in the schools where I worked, who gave me ideas and shared strategies. Over time I felt I was doing a pretty good job and if you’d asked me, I would’ve told you that I knew what I was doing and it didn’t really matter that I didn’t have the proper credentials.

But it did matter to the state. A few years into my teaching stint, someone pulled me aside and suggested strongly that I do what I needed to do to get my certification. I whined a little about this (only in my head) but promised to look into it. Turned out, it wasn’t too difficult. And most of it could be done online. Three courses and a practicum that I finagled the university into letting me do at the school where I worked. It took me a year to get those proper credentials. The funny thing was that I ended up being glad I did. And not just because it made me legitimate on paper (although that was part of it). I learned a few new and useful things about teaching gifted kids, but mostly I found that the courses I took reinforced what I was already doing. Which gave me a sense of confidence that I didn’t have before, so when I worked with teachers and administrators and parents, I could say with some authority that what I was doing was a proven strategy, and not just some random lesson I pulled out of thin air. I liked that—having some outward proof (even if it was only a piece of paper with my name on it and the word “certified”).

I think about all of this because even though I have much more experience writing than I ever had teaching, I realize that in the eyes of the world I don’t have the proper credentials. In others words, I don’t have a published book. Sure, I can tell you that I have written a bunch of manuscripts, many several times over. I have a degree in writing. I’ve attended writing conferences and read books on the craft of writing and read probably a thousand more books, not just because I love to read but also because I’m interested in how books are put together. I feel like I do a pretty good job. I know what I’m doing.

But do I? Really? If I don’t have that book cover with my name on it?


It's too bad because I’d love to teach writing lessons at schools. Or go to conferences as a presenter and share with writers just starting out about the creative process and revision. If nothing else I could talk about writing for the sake of writing, since that seems to be as far as I’m ever going to go with it. I can picture the possible session topics:

Following a Dream or Chasing A Delusion: How to Write in the Face of Rejection

You Thought You Were on the Verge of Publication, but HAHA, You Were So Naive Back Then Weren’t You

Sitting Down and Writing 2000 Words a Day Even Though You Know No One Will Ever Read Said Words

The truth is no one really wants to hear a non-published writer give a talk about writing. There are stories about writers who have been slaving along for years, who’ve been rejected a million times before they finally hit it big. Those are the writers people want to hear. The years slaving and collection of rejections sound so much better in retrospect, after the book is published.

Still. It does seem a shame that all of my hard earned experience and knowledge is going to waste. Oh well. There’s always this blog.

That, and knowing that now I really do have the cushiest job of all time—sitting around in my pajamas all day writing.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Virtual Book Club

A few weeks ago I wrote about how I missed being in a book club. I liked finding books that I wouldn't have picked up on my own, and I liked the deadline idea--knowing that I had to finish a book by a certain time. Of course I also liked talking about books with others who'd read them too. Now that I think about it, that was probably my favorite thing about being an English teacher--talking about books. Not that my students always read the books assigned. But I could count on some of them. And there were usually several every year who really got into, say, The Great Gatsby or Fahrenheit 451. That almost made up for all the others who hated with a passion The Scarlet Letter. (A good book, by the way, and I feel like I can say that with confidence, considering I probably read it 25 times.)

But back to book clubs, specifically, a virtual book club. Since no one has thrown out any ideas for what we (and I use the term "we" loosely to describe the handful of my Facebook friends who happened to have clicked on this blog) should read, I'm going to throw out a few choices. These are books that happen to be sitting on my bedside table at the moment:

1. The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett. I've read several books by Patchett (Bel Canto was my favorite) and I've been meaning to read this one for a while. According to the blurb on the back of the book: "When Parsifal, a handsome and charming magician, dies suddenly, his widow Sabine--who was also his faithful assistant for twenty years--learns that the family he claimed to have lost in a tragic accident is very much alive and well." Hmm. Interesting...

2. Zadie Smith's On Beauty. Not sure when I picked up this novel, but I've heard that the writer is good. On the inside flap it says: "What are the truly beautiful things in life and how far will you go to get them?"

3. Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins. Okay. The funny thing about this book is that my son had to read it last year for summer reading and he literally hated every minute of it. Really. He moaned and complained and read lines out loud disdainfully and I couldn't help being curious. How bad could it be? The better question might be, why was this lush-looking, literary novel assigned to 17 year old boys? Says the snippet of review on the cover: "One of the most suggestively original love stories in our current fiction..." Yeah. Someone didn't think this choice through.

So here are the rules for our online book club: Read one of these books. Or read all of them. Now that I've taken the time to actually look at them, that's what I'm going to do. Let's set a deadline for ourselves before we check back. Say, two months from now. Which should give us plenty of time. For the record, all of these should be easy to come by in paperback or at the library. Mid June, I'll post my response and anyone who wants to can chime in. Maybe someone can bring a bottle of virtual wine. Someone else can sign up to provide cheese and crackers.

Should be a blast. See you then.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Another Beginning

The way I work is I start, and then something starts to happen. In other words, I have to mechanically, intentionally, and willfully begin. –Kay Ryan, US poet laureate 2008-2010.

Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would not otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man would have dreamed would come his way.—Steven Pressfield, The War of Art

I have started another book. It’s an exhilarating experience to have an idea, to begin putting words down, to watch the idea develop into a story that never existed in the world before. The past few days I’ve gotten back into my writing routine. I sit down each morning after sucking down several cups of coffee. I scroll through emails. I write in my journal. I talk on the phone to my writing friend. And then I begin. My goal is 1500 words.

I go easy on myself in the early days of a book. I let scenes unfold the way they want to unfold. I step back and let the characters say what they want. I’m curious. What are these little people going to do? Where are they going to go? What’s going to happen to them? I have a general idea at this point, but each day there are surprises. I don’t know the actual story yet. I don’t know the end. I’m writing the book to find out. It’s kind of scary.

Writers have a saying: Trust the process. I heard Printz Award winner Libba Bray say something like, “step off the cliff and know that the bridge will be there for you.”

I believe it. I’ve done it before and I trust that I can do it again. I know that I can write this book. I know that I will finish it. I know what my process will be along the way.

In the beginning I’ll be excited. I’ll have all these potentially cool ideas bubbling up out of my subconscious. I don’t necessarily have to know what the plot is or where it’s all going. I only have to write one scene at a time. The answers I need will come when I need them.

I know that inevitably I will write myself into corners. I’ll be trapped and think there is no way out, but then I’ll wake up one morning and it will all be clear. The answer was there all the time just out of reach, and I’ll marvel that it seems so simple and so right that I should’ve been able to see it.

Somewhere in the mushy middle of the book, I will lose steam and think the whole thing is crap. It’s the most bizarre thing I’ve ever written. No one will ever want to read it. It’s pointless what I’m doing. I will keep writing anyway. But it will be hard. There will be days when it’s excruciating to write one sentence. I’ll sit staring at the computer, bleary-eyed, unable to string two words together. Then I finally will string two words together and end up deleting them. There will be other days when it all flows effortlessly. Scenes scroll out like a movie. When I go back to read my work I won’t remember which parts were hard to write and which were easy.

I know that at some point toward the end, I will become manic, waking every morning with the day’s writing pressing down at me so I can hardly wait to start, to just get it out of me before my head explodes. I’ll want to do nothing but write, past dinner, past bed time. I’ll forget to change out of my pajamas. I won’t shower or make dinner or clean the bathrooms. I’ll go to bed with dialogue spinning and perfect lines popping up out of nowhere. I’ll be in the grocery store or driving carpool or sitting in a doctor’s office and I’ll have to scrounge around for a scrap of paper to jot down words that are writing themselves before my eyes. People will think I’m a lunatic. I know that when I finished the day’s writing I will feel like I’m stepping out of a trance. I shouldn’t operate heavy machinery during these times or have important conversations with my husband.

I know that several months from now, it will all come together. I will write the final words and feel wrung out and exhausted. I will think it is the best thing I’ve ever written. I will send it out to friends. I will eagerly await their responses. While I scrub my neglected toilets, I’ll imagine six figure book-deals and movie rights and awards and critical acclaim.

None of that will happen. But it will be okay. I will take a rest. Then I will start to write another book.

“Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic and power in it. Begin it now.” --Goethe