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.

 

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Why I Have No Favorite Books

A friend recently challenged me to name my ten favorite books, and I am ashamed to admit no such list exists for me.  Even though my reading past has been deep and wide, I have no favorite books.

The first book I knew was a small green Gideon’s Bible. I was about three.  One of my older brothers or sisters might have brought this home from school, and somehow I found it.  Even though I couldn’t read, I’d hunker down in the corner of a closet, run my finger over the tiny pages and whisper things in the dark.  This position of closet hunkering and prayer whispering has remained with me as an adult, my one nod to suburban mysticism.

When I was enrolled in Mrs. Blanton’s first grade class at Clintonville Elementary School, I recognized she loved reading, and specifically she loved Judy Edwards, whose grandmother had taught her to read. Judy stood up in front of the class one day and read a book to us.  I was floored. And jealous.  The next day, I stood up with a book I randomly pulled off the shelf and read it, making up elaborate subplots and tricky character developments based on the pictures on the page.  Mrs. Blanton sat at her desk and grinned.  (That day, in addition to discovering my affinity for prevarication,  I pledged my undying love to all those who teach and don’t tell.)

In elementary school, I plowed through Nancy Drew’s mysteries, Anne of Green Gables, and Heidi. I read to escape boredom and my fundamentalist pre-occupation with hellfire.  By sixth grade, Clintonville’s damp, basement library held nothing more for me.  My sixth grade teacher gave me James Michener’s Centennial, a 1000+ page mass-market paperback that crossed my eyes for the three weeks it took to read it.  I never picked up another Nancy Drew.

During the summers, Mom took me to the Bourbon County Public Library to check out books. The library was as sacred as the books it held – the air-conditioned shush, the musty smell, the severed elephant foot that served as an ottoman in the front hall.  I was not allowed in a certain section of the library.  I had been satisfying myself with the soft-core romance thrillers of Victoria Holt, but one day the librarian was at lunch, and a hippy intern was behind the desk.  My mother was in the car. I slipped into the adult section and pulled the first book I could find off the shelf. The hippy checked it out to me without question and stuffed it into my bag.  At home, in my room, I peeked at the book cover.  A half-naked woman chained to an iron bed frame.  Irving Wallace’s rape fantasy book, The Fan Club.  I read it front to back, twice, completely scandalized and hooked on trashy fiction.

In middle school and high school, I read books, wrote book reports detailing the plots of these books and got an A back for my efforts.  I read whatever I wanted.  Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Richard Adam’s Watership Down, Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, John Irving’s World According to Garp. I read and book-reported on dozens of books. It was a perfect arrangement.

As a junior in high school, I went to a summer program for nerds.  Every morning for four weeks, I met with a college professor and 10 other high school students to discuss Heart of Darkness and Tender is the Night.  At Bourbon County High School, my peers had little interest in discussing mutability or verisimilitude. (One of my favorite memories of high school English was Ms. Carter yelling at the back row of rednecks, “Sit back there and wear your dummy badges!”) In the summer program, we explored, discovered beyond-the-plot dimensions, and analyzed things that didn’t even exist on the page.  I’d never had a conversation about a book like that before.

When I enrolled at UK in 1985, I declared myself a bonafide English major and read the British-American canon with gratitude.  In a Southern Lit class, I encountered Alice Walker, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Reynolds Price, and Eudora Welty.   My senior year, I took a Kentucky Literature class with Gurney Norman and read James Still, Bobbie Ann Mason, Jim Wayne Miller, Ed McClanahan, Wendell Berry, and Breece D’J Pancake.  That there was poetry in the world written by tobacco farmers and short stories written about Wal-Mart was as big a revelation in my reading life as any other discovery I’d made. This discovery lead me to read with the desire to discover how the narratives were built, how stories worked, how I might learn to write from reading books written by people just like me.

From the Bible to mainstream romance to the canon to books written in my backyard, I have read for a variety of reasons, but basically, I just like to read.  Whether it’s Jeff Guinn’s Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde (which I finished last night) or Zadie Smith’s NW (which I am starting tonight), I am addicted to the decadent pleasure of lying on my couch and being somewhere else at the same time.

Reading is discovery, and as such, no book is any more of a revelation than another.  When I said at the beginning of this blog I have no favorite books, I should amend that to say: every book is my favorite.

Whatever book I’m reading at the time is the best book ever.