The Power of Just Shutting Up

I have spent the last two days not speaking to my creative writing class.

I’m not giving them the silent treatment; they just don’t really need me.  You would think that this would make me feel bad.  After all, if they don’t need me, then what exactly am I being paid to do?  But what has happened in room 411 these past two days is exactly what teachers should be paid to do.

I have now taught a creative writing course for a total of five years–two, many years ago, and three cumulative years now at my current school.  I have dreamed of recreating what I experienced a lifetime ago in workshop classes I took in college–the camaraderie that comes with baring one’s soul with strangers.  But after all this time, I had resigned myself to accepting something reminiscent of that world I left–the world that has become little particles of me that I carry around on my fingertips and in my hair.  Because once you have experienced what is possible in a creative writing workshop, you can’t deny its awesome power to transform everyone who walks away from it.

But I finally accepted that high school kids just can’t get there.  They’re too self-conscious, too anxious, too immature.  I thought I could just expose them to the amazing world of their own imaginations–the world they lost touch with somewhere around the time they started school–and that would be enough until they found their own voice and their own love of the written word then had a cathartic experience on some lucky poetry professor’s watch somewhere down the line.

I cannot believe how wrong I was.

I gave my students an experimental assignment–no real direction, no explicit instructions, no standards, no rubric.  I simply told them to take a song they loved and create something inspired by it.  That’s it.  I wanted to see what would happen if I just gave them the space to create, so I gave them three days to work on it.  Some of them cranked something out quickly and worked on math homework on the last day.  Some listened to music on their headphones the whole time and never wrote a word during class time.  Some sought feedback for their ideas from me and from their peers.  Some wrote, scratched it out, started over, wrote again.  Someone else might have entered my room and at first glance, thought it was a complete waste of academic time.  It did not look the way we as educators have come to believe rigor should look.

In fact, just last week a colleague pointed out that, “no offense, Ashley, but if we took away these electives, you could have another English class and all of our class numbers would be lower.”  She has a point, really.  Many of our core classes are overcrowded, and it is truly hard to reach each and every one of those 31 minds and hearts and bodies sitting in our classrooms every day.  I don’t fault her for her opinion; it’s the opinion of most people who know a thing or two about education, and even of those who know absolutely nothing about it at all.

But here is what I saw these past two days:

I saw kids come into our room, happily put cellphones away, and start sharing and responding to each others’ work without any direction from me whatsoever.  I actually had to interrupt them to take attendance.  I don’t think they even knew I was in the room.

I saw each and every student in our room show up with a piece of writing that they had spent time crafting.  No one forgot it at home.  No one had excuses about why it was incomplete.  No one asked how many points it was worth.

I saw a room full of teenagers raising their hands to comment thoughtfully on the work of their peers.  They weren’t raising their hands for me to call on them; they raised their hands to be called on by each other.

I saw one hundred percent engagement.  Every person in our room shared; every person in our room responded.  I didn’t require it.  I didn’t even ask them to do it.  They just did it because they cared about the work being done.  And they cared about work of their community, not just their own.

I saw students who had taken every AP class in the book, students who could and might go on to Ivy League colleges interact respectfully and intelligently with kids who had never set foot in an advanced class of any kind–kids who had failed classes, been labeled as “lazy”, heard every label in the book as a reason for why they just didn’t get it.  I, nor could anyone else, tell the difference between these students.  And neither could they.  Or if they could, they certainly didn’t care one way or another about it.  They respected each other as intellectual equals.

And, truly, the most amazing thing I saw was kids sharing traumatic experiences, feelings of waiting, feelings of not being good enough, feelings of distance, heartache, funny stories, imagined worlds, and images so clear and so perfectly placed that in the span of 48 hours, I lay with them in hospital beds, felt bored with them in high school classrooms, fought battles with them, desperately tried to put the pieces back together of a broken heart with them.  There was no mumbled laughter.  No awkward silences.  No one slunk out at the end of class embarrassed, hurt, or ashamed.  In fact, they bellowed, “no!!!” at the bell that ended our hour together.

So in response to the world who peeks into a classroom like the one I got the good luck to inhabit and believes it should be replaced with a core class, or more rigor, or more standards, or more assessments, or all the mores that are plopped onto kids and teachers and schools these days, I would like to politely disagree.  Instead, I would like to offer you a seat in our circle because I wish that every student and every teacher got to do every day what I got to do these last two:  Just shut up for a little while, and let kids show you what they are capable of.


Why every writer should hang out with kids

patched face

Image found on Google Images.

My freshmen are writing short stories right now–flash fiction, actually, which has been quite an interesting challenge for them.  But what has been the best part of teaching them how to do this, is hearing their ideas.

Man, they can come up with ideas that make me what to kick myself for not thinking of them first!  This is why it hit me today that every writer should find a writing group of kids.  It would be pretty easy even if you weren’t a teacher–just pull up at a park and offer pizza to the ones you find there.  It would be a great session until the police showed up.

Yesterday a student told me that she wanted to write a story about a girl at school who kills other girls and wears their skin (we read a lot of Poe, don’t judge).  Her original idea was that this Carrie-like outcast would one by one pick off the popular group of girls, but they wouldn’t know what was happening although the outcast would be showing up to school in these skin clothes. I knew that would be a lot to deal with in 500 words, let alone suspending disbelief long enough to make it work. But we starting talking about building to tension peaks before the ultimate climax, and we came up with the idea that the outcast comes to school with strange bandages every day, meanwhile the girls in the popular girl group are having attendance problems. Ultimately the climax is that the final girl is left at school and the outcast pulls off the bandages to reveal that the girl’s friends’ skin has been slowly added to the face/body of the outcast.

The student got a mischievous grin at the end of this conference and my skin crawled. It was a great idea for a story and we both walked away knowing it. I couldn’t wait to see what she did with it, but I found my fingers itching to write it myself. This phenomenon happened conference after conference. They had unbelievable ideas that just needed a bit of tweaking, questioning, or guidance. Ideas that could turn into stories that Stephen King himself would be pissed he missed.

I guess the muse speaks louder to kids. All of my “experience” that I’m using to help them is nothing without that raw idea that they sit down so jazzed to tell me about. I miss those raw ideas. I don’t get them as much as I used to, but like I’ve said before, I’m grateful that I get to hang out with young writers long enough to find them where I can. I can only hope the muse whispers loud enough while I sit beside them, and every writer should be lucky enough to do the same.

Acceptance at last!

857772_10100506771932164_221268741_oYesterday will go down in the history of my life as the first time I received an ACCEPTANCE letter.  Critical rejections, I’ve had.  Personal, encouraging rejections, I’d come to kind of enjoy.  But an acceptance was new and thrilling.

Except that it was also kind of scary.

I found myself immediately starting to doubt.  If this magazine actually accepted me, it must not be a good one.  Or don’t get too excited, lots of writers better than you are getting accepted left and right all the time.  It’s funny how I have been putting such an optimistic spin on rejection, but hand me the first acceptance and suddenly I can’t see the good in it.

I turned to a handful of other creators–a professional writer I’m acquainted with, the art teacher at my school, the playwright teaching my creative writing class–in an attempt to pacify my spinning mind.  They all told me essentially the same thing:  This is an opportunity to let go of old work and make room for the new.  Because the bottom line is that it’s all about the work.

A similar illuminating moment came this summer when someone suggested that I quit worrying about the outcomes and focus on the process instead.  She was referring to teaching at the time, but I have turned those words over and over in my head when it comes to teaching, writing, marriage, motherhood, friendship, and the list goes on.  I find that it soothes just about any anxiety I have in most aspects of my life because as cliche as it may be, life truly is a journey, not a destination.

So I woke up today with the plan to celebrate my acceptance.  I told a couple of people at work about it, even though I usually try to keep my writing life and my teaching life separate.  I replied to the acceptance email with gratitude and wrote the “third person bio” to include with my piece (a truly strange experience).  And I made a (gluten-free) chocolate cake after dinner tonight and stood in the kitchen with my husband eating it with my hands.

A small celebration for a small–but really important–moment in my writing life.

An open letter to my writing self…

Dear Writing Self,

Here are some things I’d like to say to you:

1.  Get off your ass!

2.  Quit making excuses!

Oh yeah, and:

3.  I love you.

I guess I didn’t exactly do a great compliment sandwich, but that’s okay.  Sometimes you just gotta tell it like it is.  And it is like this:  To be a writer means to write.  Period.  And a person either does it or she doesn’t.  There really is no gray.

Here’s the thing, I often don’t when I should.  And sometimes I don’t when I really want to.  I just can’t think.  Or I’m tired.  Or I’m lazy.

But I do find solace at least in what Stephen King says in On Writing about the only job he ever had when he couldn’t still write was when he was teaching.  That makes me feel like it’s not just me and I’m not just being lazy.  Yet, the notion also depresses me.  It means that I have to choose.  Teaching is such a giving job, and if I’m going to give to you, I have to choose between you.  True, I can still write.  I can sit down and put words on a page.  But how can I get lost in a world I’m creating?  How can I know what my characters do when I’m not writing them?  How can I lose track of time and forget where I am because you have taken over my brain and heart and physical body so that words gush from me onto the page?

I can’t really invest fully in you when I’m giving so much of me away all the time.

But I am lucky.  I do get to teach other writers and that is energizing.  For that hour each day, I may not get to invest in you particularly, but I get to at least invest in your colleagues who live in my students.  That’s something.  And I’ll try to take that something and turn it into something else that resembles you because I need you so much.  And I am blessed and cursed with two life’s passions.  I don’t think I can choose.

So here is what I’m going to promise you:  I won’t write every day, but I will write consistently.  I will sit down with you even when I’m tired or overwhelmed or frustrated.  And when I can’t sit with you, I’ll sit with your friends who live in me too–the artist, the thinker, the tinker, the dreamer, the observer.  I’ll ask them to be there when I just can’t bring you along.  I’ll ask them to be there so that I can walk around with bluebirds and drumbeats and chorus lines and crazy Aunt Fayes making a home in my head.  I’ll make it real cozy for them–a warm house with layered shag carpets and lamplight and baking smells coming from the kitchen–so when you decide to come and visit, I can sit down with you there and have something to say to you.

Be patient with me.  Don’t leave me.  Come visit the home I’ve made for you and stay when you can.  Because without you, I am an empty house with one sad light shining from the window.



Update: Happy rejection becomes ecstatic semi-acceptance!

I wrote earlier this week about feeling happy even while being rejected by literary magazines.  As it turns out, positive thoughts can lead to positive events.  I received this email today:

Dear Ashley:
Thank you for submitting. I liked this story well enough to pass it on to our senior editorial staff for further consideration.
Thanks for the read. You can expect to hear back soon.
So not quite an acceptance, but thrilling nonetheless.  And the best part is that it was my long shot magazine choice–they have a 1% acceptance rate according to Duotrope.  Even if another email follows announcing an ultimate rejection, I got far enough to keep going.
Kind of like Forrest Gump:  “I made it this far so I figured I might as well keep running.”
You bet your ass I will!

Tales from a Happy Reject

rejectionThe irony of rejection is that sometimes it can actually make you really happy.  My new year’s resolution for 2014 was to write more short stories and start submitting them for publication in literary magazines.  I would say this is the first new year’s resolution that I have ever kept.  And it feels really good.

It even feels good when I get the letters rejecting those stories that I worked hard to craft because with each one of those letters, I get closer and closer to an acceptance.  But the reason I love those rejections so much is more than just that I’m closer to finding acceptance.  I love them so much because they represent me being vulnerable and taking a risk when it actually means something.

Writing has always been a part of who I am–even when I don’t actually do much of it.  I have always written stories in my head and sometimes on paper.  When I think about life as a writer, I can actually feel my eyes welling up with tears.  I have physical reactions to the idea of a life of writing.  So when those rejection letters come in, it means that I’m trying, and there’s really not much more that an aspiring writer can do.

The first letters I received were informal, impersonal, and generic.  I interpreted those as we’ve got so much going on, that your piece didn’t even catch a second glance.  I can handle that.  There are lots of amazing writers out there and who am I to presume I’m better than all of them?

Then I got one not-so-nice letter that was pretty critical of the piece.  I would be lying if I said it didn’t sting when I read it.  But my husband reminded me, “Isn’t that something you can learn from?”  And I pulled my head out of my ass and got real.  They probably had a point.

But just the other day I got the best rejection letter of all.  I’ll share it with you here:

Dear Ashley ,

Thank you so much for your submission.  We enjoyed reading your work but ultimately decided not to accept this particular submission.

We hope that you’ll send us more of your work in the future. We really do. Your prose style is quirky and engaging.

We’re sorry we don’t have the time to explain the reasons why we reject submissions.

Best of luck to you!

They didn’t accept the story, but what does that matter?  Magazines receive hundreds of submissions all the time.  The possibility of getting a story in one is truly slim, and when that day finally arrives, I’ll be thrilled.  But the fact that someone at this particular magazine took the time to thoroughly read my work, understand what I meant to get across, and respond personally to me means the world to me.  Someone gets me.  And isn’t that a writer’s goal in the first place–to find another soul in the world who understands your message?

I have arrived.


Image taken from Google Images.