Friday, July 26, 2013

Writer's Block; or, doctor heal thyself

Currently, and for the past five years, I have earned a living (sort of) by teaching writing. The irony of this is not lost on those who know me because, when I was in college I was a struggling writer--I don't mean struggling writer as in a writer who is poor and trying to get published--I mean I would struggle to write my essays.  I was a bright student who had a lot to say. I could, as they say, talk a good game, but my essays were always a little disappointing. Part of my problem was that I was really good about talking about literature and ideas, so when it came time to write about it my professors (all good writers themselves) expected great things. And really, I delivered average things. But for the most part, the problem was that I didn't know how to become better.

The struggle to become a better writer was made worse for me though, in that I cared--really cared--about what my professors thought of me. The essays I was turning in were not just assignments, they were litmus tests of my abilities, a tangible measure my self-worth right there in black and white. To exacerbate the issue, I was in a field--English--that valued writing above all else. It almost didn't matter how brilliant the ideas and theories were when I shared them verbally, they were not brilliant until I could write them down. My desire to please and because I wanted to go on to graduate school, I would take critiques of my writing very seriously. When a paper came back to me with a litany of failures, I would go to the teacher's office and ask for help. The thing is though, I never really got any useful advice. I mean they would try, but in reality they would just end up diagnosing my ills without being able to offer any cures.

There were professors who were better at helping than others. There was one who was a big help, but he got a new job on the East coast and moved away. Another who likely would have been amazing, but I was intimidated enough by her to be too scared of accepting her help. Of course, in one of my many lapses of judgment the professor I chose as my mentor was particularly inept at teaching writing. He was great at other things--like being charming--things that would be of little help in my career, but writing, not so much. He was quite good at identifying errors; he would point to my flaws and say, "There is your problem." I would ask how to fix the problem, and he would just repeat that it was wrong and needed to be made better. I remember one tearful conference where he just kept repeating all the things that were wrong and I would say, Okay, but how do I DO that? Finally, he just slammed my paper down, shouting, "I don't know, you just have to figure it out!" and walked away, leaving the paper on his desk. Now, years later, I can accept that I was asking him to do something he couldn't. A pattern in our relationship that would end with a similar conversation, with much higher stakes, that would lead to him walking away from me for good.

There was a level of shame to struggling with writing that led me to believe that there was something wrong with me. I was convinced that there this was magic thing out there that some people had and some didn't: And I just didn't. Then one day I was talking to a friend who was a couple of years behind me in school. She was frustrated with her writing. She showed me her paper and told me that her teacher (my mentor) just kept telling her all the things that were wrong with her paper, but he wouldn't tell her how to fix it. I looked at her paper and I saw the errors, but for some reason I could also see what could be done to make it better. I think it was because it was a level lower than me, I was able to just *see* how to revise it. I gave her a couple of real, practical solutions for ways to rewrite the essay. The light bulb went on: There are tricks to this. A couple of days later when I saw her again, she told me that she had done what I suggested and that her paper was better! I felt so good about helping her that day, that it felt a little like I had helped a younger version of myself.

As I continued through school, I would pursue writing instruction whenever I could. Now that I teach writing for a living I have learned to separate the task of writing from the value of the ideas, and from the value of a person. I tell my students that writing is a communication tool, and it can be learned. When my students come to me and they ask me how to fix their flawed writing I have tangible practical ways to teach them. Some of these tools I learned from taking classes in teaching composition, but many of them I have developed on my own. My favorite days are those when I can hand back an essay to a student and they can see their writing has improved. It is such a rewarding feeling

It likely does not take a psychologist to know that as I teach these struggling writers, I am teaching my past self. I am erasing my own struggle one student at a time. The reality is that I am a better writer now, nearly ten years after I graduated from college, than I have ever been. In learning how to teach others, I have taught myself. Sometimes, I think about that struggling writer I had been, and I want to sit my younger self down and show her a handout on topic sentences and paragraphing. A handout that has her name on it, because she wrote it.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Money; or, freedom quantified

It seems a little silly, but I have had an epiphany about money. Mainly, that if I had a lot of it, my life would be better. I know, I know, what kind of epiphany is this? Is it really just a fancified version of common sense? Well, yes, but really, isn't that what epiphanies are? Common sense all gussied up? At its core, my epiphany is that I need money, but more than that, it is that I *have* money, I just keep spending it all. So, the plan, as it were, is to save my money. All of it. Seriously, like ALL of it. When I have enough then I can afford the freedom I crave. The freedom that I buy in tiny amounts each year. So, the plan is essentially, to buy my freedom.

In order to save money, you have to make money. I have a job. That is the good news. The bad news is that I am part-time and really don't make all that much money. Well, at least not for the amount of work that I do. But, again, there is good news in that I love what I do. So, that is more than many people can say. I don't make a lot of money, but I am not destitute either. I am not sure I want to talk about exact numbers here, as that doesn't seem wise. But, I am above the poverty line. So, that is good. So, I do have money coming in. I could also be doing other things to make more money (tutoring, freelance writing, editing, get another part-time job).

The second part of saving is managing how much money goes out. I don't have too many bills. I have some accrued debts. Credit cards and student loans. The credit cards need to be paid off ASAP, but the, student loans just need to be managed.  Something that I haven't really been doing. I have been sort of taking the ostrich approach and pretending like they don't really exist. Doing just enough to keep out of trouble. The reality is that I will never pay them, but still, it hurts my credit rating to ignore them. The credit card bills can be paid off in a couple of months as long as I don't charge more. That is the key right? Don't spend. Okay. So, that will be new, but I can do it. I need to buy a car, so that will add a payment, and thanks to Obamacare I need to find some sort of health insurance. What I don't have to pay right now is rent, electricity etc. Anyway, boring discussion of the minutiae of my spending aside, once all of this is managed, I figure I will have about 1000 dollars left over (most months). A little more or less in others.

To save this money will take discipline. I have already decided that the number one sacrifice in spending will be my precious vacations. I travel about four times a year. The trips range from visits to see friends, to short car trips, baseball vacations, in locations near and far, from Vegas, to NY, Europe, and more. This is the biggest budget buster, so it will have to stop. At least for now. I realize that the reason I travel so much (besides my natural wanderlust) is that I don't like my life much. I don't have my own place, so I have to share with other people. People I don't like all that much all the time. Today, my brother and his kids came over for breakfast. He comes over when he doesn't have the money or the patience or the desire to feed them. So, they were here for two hours. In that time, I cooked breakfast for 7 people, entertained a 10 year old, and a three year old, watered the garden, took care of the dogs and cats, and more. Within 20 minutes of their visit I was fantasizing about getting away.

But here is the thing. The Payoff. If I can save at least 1000 a month for three years I will have nearly 40 thousand dollars. If I can save more I could have 60 or even 80 grand. With that kind of nest egg, I can do what I want. For a very long time. This is the big picture. I hate my life. But because I don't have any money I am stuck here. So, in trying to take little escapes (travel, shopping, gambling) and other expensive coping strategies I am guaranteeing being stuck. So, small sacrifices now will payoff big later. At least that is the plan, for now. I may find myself deciding after one year, to take the money and run. But, at least if I haven't spent it already, then I can.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Return; or, writing is hard.

Writing is hard. Anyone who writes, and many who don't, know this is true. I know it is true, but I also know that it is my calling. Well, at least people keep telling me it is. When I talk about my life, my journey, my wandering through wildernesses, my struggle, people listen for a while, then they say, "You should write a book." In my dark times, and I have plenty, I imagine this is a polite way of telling me to stop talking. But, usually, I think, they mean that I have something to say. And that I should say it.

Yesterday, I was talking to a student who has returned to school because her marriage had fallen apart. Well, technically, it was torn apart and then crumbled from underneath her as her husband left her for a younger, slimmer, more successful woman. She was talking about how hard it was to get used to the idea that she just wasn't good enough, young enough, enough enough to keep a man who had committed to love her no matter what and as she spoke she was near tears. As we talked and shared our experiences she said to me, "You know, this class saved my life. Actually, you did. You should write a book, you have things to say, things that people need to hear." Ignoring her would be hard.

Yes, writing is hard. I know it's hard because not only do I dream of writing for a living, I currently teach others how to write. And they tell me, pretty much daily, that writing is hard. But, you know what? Being poor is hard. Teaching writing is hard. Having less independence than I need is hard. So, maybe, just maybe, writing isn't as hard as not writing.

When I was in my early teens I kept a diary. I poured my heart into it; sharing all my secrets, dream, and adolescents fears. One day, I found out a family member had read it. Not only had they read it, but some of the things I had written about were against our family's rules and I was punished. In my mind, I wasn't punished for sneaking out of the house and attending a junior high dance. I wasn't punished for slow dancing to Journey with that boy--the one that I would have risked more than being grounded for the precious few minutes spent in his arms--no, to me, I was punished for writing. And so, I stopped keeping a journal. But, I couldn't stop writing. I would write stories and secrets on scraps of paper then destroy them.

Life is hard. It is the lesson we all learn. It is repeated by children and adults this idea that life is hard. So, if life is hard, then writing about life just might be the most difficult task imaginable. But, again, for me, silence is harder. I try. I try to not write, but life is hard and I need to have a way to deal with the difficulties of life, and  more specifically, the difficulties of my life. So, not writing makes my life harder.

So, here I am. Full circle. Writing again, because it's hard, but because it's harder not to.