RIP Prince

Decades ago when I was an undergraduate trying to figure out what to do with my life, one of my professors gave me a terrifying bit of advice. Instead of quickly settling upon a major and then promptly getting down to the business of fulfilling my academic requirements, this professor said I should wait until the last possible minute to declare a major. “Keep your options open,” he said, and it’s a bit of advice I’ve always remembered even though at the time I didn’t follow it.

Wall at Central Square

Unlike many of my peers, I didn’t waver or waffle much when it came to choosing an undergraduate major. After initially declaring as a biology major, I switched to English before setting foot in a science class, and I remained faithful to English as I pursued my bachelors, masters, and PhD. But now after what seems like a lifetime of taking and teaching English classes, I think I understand what my undergraduate professor meant. When you rush to label yourself and your interests, you potentially miss out on other, seemingly unrelated influences that don’t fit your immediate goals.

Wall at Central Square

In retrospect, for instance, the most helpful class I took as an undergraduate wasn’t a literature or writing class but one that was completely tangential to my major: Group Voice for Non-majors. Group Voice was a singing class for non-musicians, and I took it only because I thought it might help me feel more comfortable teaching. If I could stand in front of a group of my peers and sing, I reasoned, then standing in front of a classroom of students would be no problem.

Wall at Central Square

I ended up taking Group Voice for Non-majors several times: it was a one-credit class that promised an easy A to students brave enough to participate, and I came to enjoy the break from my lit class it provided. While I was driven to do my best in the literature classes that counted toward my major, it was elective classes like Group Voice where I could simply try something new without worrying about my future, my GPA, or my eventual career. At the time, taking a class that taught me terms like “castrati” and “bel canto” and required me to sing at least one song in Italian didn’t seem to have anything to do with my career path, but in retrospect, learning how to sing (poorly) in front of a group gave me a confidence I rely upon every single day.

The spot I hit

Today I remembered this advice to “Keep your options open” as I struggle to set my summer expectations. I finished the last of my semester tasks on Tuesday, so now I’m decompressing, trying to return to life outside the academic year. Friends who have retired describe the unsettling sensation of no longer having a set schedule of external expectations, and when you live an academic life, every summer is a miniature retirement. Once your grades are submitted and your other obligations are met, you wake to the simple but disarming question, “Now what?”

Wall at Central Square

I know I want to spend a lot of time writing this summer; I know I want to spend a lot of time reading. I know I want to spend more time walking and taking pictures and being creative, and I know I want to catch up with sleep, meditation, and the other healthy things that unfortunately fall by the wayside during a typically hectic semester.

Wall at Central Square

But apart from simply showing up at the page and waiting to see what words appear, I don’t have any clearly articulated goals for the summer. I have the desire to write, but I haven’t yet decided upon a definitive project. If anything, I’ve been trying to avoid the impulse to settle on a project too soon, just for the sake of settling: I want, in other words, to keep my options open. Because I’ve been writing long enough to know the stages every project goes through, I know there will be plenty of time later to get sick of (and need to stick with) whatever topic I choose: the dictum “Marry in haste, repent in leisure” applies to hastily chosen writing projects as well as mates and majors.

Wall at Central Square

I’ve been writing long enough to know that whatever summer project I settle upon, there will be plenty of time to solidify and reshape it later, but right now at the outset, absolutely anything is possible. Before you start, you can do anything, but once you begin, your options shrink: by going down this road, you eliminate the options of the other, alternate roads. So for the next few days, I’m trying to show up at the page without expectation, hoping the words themselves will tell me where they want to go. “Keep your option open” is a daunting bit of advice, but it is also an alluring invitation to obey your curiosity.

Blue spruce & moon

Some days the only thing that brings me to the page to write is a sheer stubborn commitment to the ideal of writing every day. I don’t come to the page with something profound to say; I come to the page because I’ve trained myself to think that “coming to the page” bears its own reward. On days like this, what I write is almost beside the point, which is good since what I write on days like this is neither interesting nor inspired. On days like this, the quality of what I write is secondary; what is primary is the simple act of showing up and putting in my time, with writing seeming like a kind of prison sentence where you get points for good behavior.

Moon with FSU sign

About a month ago, the simultaneous start of three separate semesters interrupted my daily writing practice, since I teach in the mornings and don’t have time to write then. Instead, during the academic year writing is something I do at odd times here and there, often when I’m likely to be tired, discouraged, or distracted by a particularly busy day. I might write during slow office hours when no students show up with questions, or during the sleepy lull between my morning and afternoon classes, or after I’ve gotten home from campus and want nothing more than to curl on the couch for a nap. On days like this, the only thing pushing me to the page is my own commitment to do it. I don’t write at the frazzled stub-ends of days because that’s when I do my best writing; I write then because that’s the only scraps of free time I have, and it’s either then or never.

Hole

I’ve learned from days like this that inspiration is optional. It’s fun to write on days when you’re surging with energy and ideas, your every thought seeming brilliant and original. But even on days when writing feels like slogging through sludge, it’s still possible to put in your time, pound out some words, and find yourself (at last) at the other end of an assortment of sentences, each word faithfully following the next. Sometimes when I go back and re-read the things I wrote at the waning ebb of inspiration, I’m surprised to discover what I wrote isn’t as bad as I’d thought. Some days, producing a perfectly serviceable piece is simply a matter of lowering your perfectionist standards, and there’s nothing like a busy schedule and inspiration-ebb to do that for you. Today’s writing has been a slow slog through afternoon sleepiness, my mind on my to-do list and my body craving caffeine. At the end of an inspiration-deprived hour, however, I still have something to show for: not anything spectacular, but something good enough.

Dew on changing leaves

And just like that, the month of November is over, and with the advent of December comes the end of both National Blog Posting Month and National Novel Writing Month. During the month of November, I managed to post at least a photo–most days, nothing more–and to write 50,042 nonfiction words, just as planned. As always, it’s been a fruitful exercise, one that has taught (or reminded) me I can maintain a regular writing, photo-snapping, and blog-posting practice, even in the midst of a busy semester.

Dried hydrangea flowers with fallen leaves

This past month felt a bit like a writer’s retreat that I attended in the midst of my mundane life. My emphasis wasn’t on product (that is, the quality of the stuff I was writing and posting) but on process (that is, the mere fact that I was writing and posting). Posting a photo a day wasn’t too challenging, but writing toward my 50,000-word goal certainly was. This past month, I learned (or remembered) several important things about myself as a writer:

  • I can, if I put my mind to it, write between 1,000 and 4,000 words a day, but only if I write whatever appears.
  • If I sit down with the goal of Writing A Book, I can’t write. If I sit down and write whatever appears, I can write anything.
  • Like Thoreau, I write best in the mornings, before afternoon sleepiness intrudes.
  • Like Thoreau, I write best when I keep a journal in which I write whatever appears and then cull and revise the best bits.

Dew on changing leaves

When I started both NaBloPoMo and NaNoWriMo, my goal was to kick-start my blogging (which has been lagging this past year) and work on a book-length nonfiction narrative I want to write (which has been lagging my entire adult life). On both counts, I feel happy with what I learned and accomplished this November. Did I write an entire book, or even a draft of an entire book, this past month? No. Did I get a good start toward writing a draft of an entire book, and did I learn a technique (that is, “Write whatever appears”) that will fuel my ongoing work on that goal? Yes, most definitely. And that realization alone is worth a month of diligent effort.

Glass globes with shop window reflections

It’s Finals Week at Keene State, so after holding one last round of office hours last night, today I’ll collect two batches of student essay portfolios, followed by a third on Thursday. Although I complain every year about my paper piles, I actually like Finals Week. After three months running myself ragged commenting on endless piles of student drafts, it’s nice to have an entire week devoted to one last read-through of final papers. Everything my students and I have been doing for the past three months culminates in these final portfolios, which represent a semester’s worth of procrastination, sweat, and tears.

Horse and Buggy Feeds with tree-shadow

One of my favorite pictures from this year’s Boston Marathon shows someone holding a hand-lettered sign at the base of Heartbreak Hill: “Get to it and do it!” Runners train for months, if not longer, for any given marathon, and runners training for the Boston Marathon steel themselves for the series of four hills they’ll face in Newton, approximately 16 to 20 miles into the race. Heartbreak Hill isn’t steep, with a vertical rise of “only” 88 feet, but it comes right at the moment when many runners are starting to lag. The mental challenge of any marathon is to get to any obstacle and do it, even (especially!) when you’re feeling the most tired.

For college students and instructors alike, Finals Week is a bit like Heartbreak Hill: most of the challenge is mental. After three months of writing and re-writing (or reading and re-reading) the same semester-long projects, students and instructors alike are eager for this race to be over. But between now and the finish line are a finite number of steps, and none can be skipped: the way you surmount the heartbreaking hill at mile 20 is the same way you ran all the previous miles, one step at a time.

Alley with graffiti

Last Thursday when I gave my final set of rough draft comments to my Thinking & Writing students, I could see in their body language how well these first-year “runners” were holding up in this semester’s “race.” Several of my students read my draft comments, sighed with determination, and put their papers down with a nod: yes. Seeing the contours of this particular hill, they resigned themselves to do it, knowing this last burst of sleepless nights and early morning revisions would sail them through the semester’s finish-line.

A few other students, though, were feeling the race weigh heavy in their bones: I could see it in the slump of their shoulders. “Is this a D paper,” one student glumly asked in response to my rough draft comments, and my assurances that it could be a much better paper if she applied to it the same self-confidence and assurance she demonstrated in several in-class freewriting sessions did little to cheer her. Knowing you have an uphill climb right when you’re feeling the most tired and demoralized is heartbreaking, and it takes more than reminders to keep going to keep your spirits up. Now that we’ve entered the final push of the semester, the main thing separating the students who end up doing well and the ones who end up crumpled and cramped on the side of the road is the sheer willpower and determination to keep running, step by step and word by word.

Rose of Sharon seed pods

It’s a simple fact of teaching I re-discover every year: the semester invariably follows its own rhythms, cycles, and moods. Yesterday at Keene State, my usually lonely office hour was devoted to two students who came to talk about their semester-long research projects without any prompting from me. After eleven weeks of researching and writing intentionally messy early drafts, we’re now turning into the backstretch of the semester: time to start revisiting those messy drafts, cutting redundancies, and tightening the organization. After eleven weeks of brainstorming, generating, and accumulating, now comes the season for revising, pruning, and tidying, and that always inspires a handful of early-bird students to seek me out, nervously wondering how they’ll ever get a handle on the big ideas they’ve been wrestling all semester.

Bluish

Every semester–every writing project–follows this life-cycle, and every semester I forget the predictable pattern. Somewhere around five weeks into the semester comes the first wave of disenchantment as students want to change topics and instructors want to change careers; somewhere around nine weeks into the semester, I’ve given up all hope of ever getting to the bottom of my omnipresent paper-piles. And then right about now, Week 12, as we head into the last month of the semester, something changes. The drafts are still messy, but one by one, I see students starting to take tentative ownership of their projects. Instead of me cajoling, pleading, and nagging in my draft comments–instead of me feeling like I’m spending more time thinking about their topics than some of them are–I see my students starting to find their own voices, their own perspectives, their own ideas.

Rose of Sharon seed pod

Novelists insist that if you work on a narrative long enough, the characters take on a life of their own, and I’ve seen the same thing happen with semester-long research topics. At a certain point of the semester, my students’ topics truly become “theirs.” Instead of asking in various roundabout ways “what I’m looking for” in their papers, right about now my students are starting to get a clearer sense of what they want to say. This isn’t an easy transition: ripening is always a tenuous moment. It can be frightening to realize your writing instructor really does want you to have ideas of your own, and it can be frightening to realize your writing instructor really does want you to express those ideas. It can be frightening, also, to realize that your research, while helpful, will not give you The Final Answer to the big questions you’re pondering.

Planetree leaves

It’s easy, too, for a nervous or inexperienced writing instructor to step in too quickly, to kill a student’s embryonic ideas with over-coddling. “Here, let me show you” or “Why don’t you do it this way” sound like helpful feedback or well-intentioned guidance, but these also might indicate an instructor who’s not willing to step back and watch as a student does her or his own intellectual heavy lifting. A coach can model and reinforce proper form, but she can’t enter the field of play. Ultimately it’s the players’ game, not the coach’s, and her proper place is on the sidelines, watching and shouting and hoping.

I’ve taught long enough to know that the biggest a-ha moments won’t happen until December, when the end of the semester is just weeks (or one week!) away. So far, the seeds of the semester have been gestating in the slow, steady heat of a temperate season, but come December, my students and their ideas will bloom like hothouse flowers forced into opening, never a moment too soon.