Writing Lessons

During the summer of 2015, I was writing what I had hoped might become a collection of short stories. One day  I took a break to write a letter to prospective students of the literary arts program where I teach.  As I wrote the letter,  I was struck by how differently I taught writing then as compared with the first half of my teaching career.

That might make a good book, I thought, and I jotted down about eight rough ideas for chapters.  The next day, I typed it up and did some research on publishing houses.  I contacted an education writer friend of mine for pointers.  Then I wrote out a more formal proposal, a fleshed out table of contents, coupled with a cover letter and shipped it all off.  That was June 30.  

On July 7, my cell phone rang. It was an acquisitions editor with Heinemann Press. They were interested in my book idea.  I was completely floored.  I thought I had just sold my first book.  

Not so.

During the next nine months, I rewrote that proposal six times.  My editor was interested in my idea, but I couldn’t frame the subject in a way that convinced the marketing department. Finally in March, I was offered a contract and started the process of writing.  

During the summer of 2016, I wrote daily,  and by the time  I was ready to go back to school in August, I had a 70,000-word draft finished. I revised that draft twice, and the final manuscript was delivered to Heinemann on January 3, 2017.  

Sometime in September, I will hold the finished book, Project-Based Writing: Teaching Writers to Manage Time and Clarify Purpose, in my hands, this book that happened while I was working on another book. This is the way life works, of course.  

I always thought my first book would be either a memoir or a collection of short stories. A teacher’s resource book just wasn’t sexy enough for my inaugural foray into the world of publishing, but here it is, and I’m so proud of it and stunned by the insights I’ve gained along the way. In no particular order, here are some of those observations:

Every teacher should write a book about her practice.  Like writing, the actual moves of teaching are enormously personal and idiosyncratic. My teaching strategies are mostly of the moment. Until I sat down to try to  articulate my practice, I had no idea what elemental steps figured into my methods. Even though I daily reflect on my teaching practice, it’s often done anecdotally with friends over BBQ nachos, and not as a serious reflective endeavor. Writing this book forced me to seriously look at what I do; some of it was nice, even fun, to look at. Some of it, I realized, didn’t work, but I got the opportunity to figure that out.  

I am a first draft disaster. I have never been a writer who thinks through a logical line or narrative arc,  then commits that to an outline. I just throw a bunch of sentences on a blank page and cry for several days.  I have to write bits and halves and parts before I recognize the whole. Once I’ve discovered that, I have to organize it in such a way that readers won’t want to toss it in the trash in disgust. Organization requires looking at big chunks of writing for patterns and commonalities, then arranging those chunks in a sequential way that helps a reader see the point. So I wish I’d learned how to outline earlier in life.   

Edu-speak makes me lazy.  There were so many times when I was writing this book I unconsciously lapsed into the convenient jargon of our ilk.  When I couldn’t find the right words to describe something real in my classroom, sentences like “Students benefit from innovative competency-based practices in a data-driven environment” were always hanging around like an old boyfriend– comfortable, willing, and only a keystroke away. Ugh.  Think about how much better those awful education classes would have been if the writers had just used regular words to describe learning. Why don’t we demand better writing from the books of our discipline?  

Keeping a source list is crucial.  In college, I hated compiling the works cited and consulted page after I finished a research paper; it just seemed so unnecessary.  I wasn’t vested in the writing I was doing and the stakes were low. (This is how, I imagine, most students feel about writing for teachers.)  But during the writing of this book, I realized the stakes were much higher.  People would be reading this book, I hoped, and I certainly didn’t want to unwittingly plagiarize someone else’s language. The problem I had was 1) I don’t typically write down the sources of cool things I find in books or online, and 2) there are books, essays, and stories I’ve read so many times, they’re ingrained in my mind to the point where I didn’t know where their words ended and my words began. Two weeks before the book was printed, I was horrified to discover I had not attributed a beautiful quote from a friend of mine.  Source list:  it’s a must.

No one really knows what you’re doing.  If I mentioned to friends I was working on a book, “that’s nice” or “how interesting” was the normal response, followed by silence.  The last thing anyone wants to ask is “what’s it about?” because then they’re on the hook to act interested while I nanner on for twenty minutes about some possibly esoteric topic.  So when you write a book, you are laboring completely alone.  You are working and creating and having bad days and good days and stonewalls and breakthroughs, yet no one knows you are doing anything at all. You might as well be lying on the couch watching SVU.  As is the case with all creative endeavors, I suppose.  As is the case with research scientists too. Only after the creation emerges can it be shared with others.

 

American Road Trip

I was invited, along with two colleagues, to join 60 teachers in Denver, Colorado, for a National Writing Project professional retreat last week.  Even though we live in Kentucky, we decided to drive instead of fly. We wanted to see the country and knew we could get a lot of the preliminary work done on our project in the car during the 1200 mile jaunt.

We arrived on Monday evening at a lovely Hilton resort, which was to be our home for the next five days. The first night we met other teachers who had been invited to do similar work:  developing instructional resources, from teaching argument writing in the science classroom to sponsoring school-wide family literacy nights.

As educators, we shared many of the same concerns about our students and the future of the country.  It didn’t matter where the conversations started around the buffet tables, they ended up political.  Jennifer from Mississippi told me about segregation academies, private schools in the South established by white parents in response to desegregation in public schools.  Nicole from California talked about “dog whistle” words, coded messages that are only heard and understood by a particular segment of the population.  Victoria from Oklahoma filled us in on the nearly criminal cuts in their state’s education budget.  

One night after dinner, we watched a seven-minute trailer for a documentary featuring a cross-section of Americans talking about their conception of America’s “creed.”  The trailer was slick and well-done, featuring veterans and authors and teachers, different races, different ages. Words like “freedom” and “diversity” were featured equally. I was crying by the end of it.

I may have been crying because of the relentless nature of the week’s work or because I hadn’t been sleeping well due to Denver’s altitude.  Or it may have been because I desperately want to believe what the film was tilting toward:  that even though Americans are deeply divided, there are basic values we all hold dear–family, safety, education, freedom, equality.  

I want to believe this, but I’m also fairly cynical.  Freedom doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone, and the equality of one group is a threat to another. I know many people in my home community who would see the film as left-wing brainwashing, an attempt to force political correctness and West Coast liberalism down their throats.

After the viewing, we discussed how we might use it in our classrooms to start a conversation, but even the term “start a conversation” seemed vexing to me for its coded progressive intentions.  The only people who ever want to start a conversation are those who think they know better than you:  teachers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pampered Chef consultants.  

Finally, a teacher from Montana remarked on the enduring complexity of humanity, and we nodded sagely and shuffled off to our individual hotel rooms.  

At the end of the week, my Kentucky team struck out for home on I-70. The scenery through Colorado and Kansas was crushingly, achingly beautiful. The deep blue skies, white clouds layered over golden prairies. We passed combine convoys headed toward the summer wheat fields, and we passed fields of soybeans, corn, and pasture land, dotted with white-faced cows.

Somewhere we stopped at a Pilot Travel Center to fuel the car and get a sandwich. The Travel Center was packed with families of every color, class, and age, all of them hungry and tired, cautiously herding their children into the bathrooms, waiting in line for a burger. A Little League baseball team came in.  An elderly couple dressed head to toe in black. A middle aged woman in a pink tank top with a pistol strapped to her waist. SeaHawks, Broncos, and Steelers fans.  

We spent the night in a Holiday Inn Express in Topeka, Kansas, ten miles away from the national historic site of Brown vs. Board of Education.  In the lobby, there was a man in the corner reading a Hebrew Bible. In a circle of chairs, a self-help group gave each other hugs and offered words of encouragement.  In the elevator, we met some little girls who were staying at the hotel because their mom was in a powerlifting competition.  The next morning we had breakfast with bikers, a church choir, and an elderly couple on their way to see a new grandbaby.

I understand public policy is not made at Pilot Travel Centers and midwestern Holiday Inns, but in many ways, we’re all just dads and moms, sons and daughters trying to get home from a long trip. I’m disheartened we are so polarized by politics.  Most of us can agree with each other on a basic human level, but when we approach each other with buzzwords and ideology, the humanity falls away, and the labels become both a target and a launch pad.  We may be unwittingly creating our own segregation academies, dog whistling unconsciously.  Maybe if we could avoid talking about America as a grand ideological subject, and instead talk about ourselves and others in small, specific frames, we might discover a common moment, a shared feeling, a sensible creed.