One thing I love about creative work is serendipity. What a wonderful occurrence when things just fall into place. It was last summer when I was writing every day to finish the rough draft of CAMPUS when I started doing research to find the right piece of music that I imagined would inspire a fifteen-year-old girl, uninterested in the concert of classical music she was “forced” to attend.
On the Kennedy Center’s website, I found a short article, written for young people, about The Moldau, by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana. According to the article Smetana was inspired by his love for his country and for the Moldau River that runs through the Czech countryside and into Prague.
It is a musical poem, telling the story of the river’s journey as it encounters the people and landscapes that Smetana loved. There is even a musical description of whitewater rapids! (“Down by the River”).
Being a musical novice, I appreciated the simple language of the article that explained how the French horns and trumpets could represent hunters chasing deer through the forest and violins playing a polka at a wedding feast. Flutes become mermaids in the moonlight. Below the description of the piece was a video of The Moldau being performed at the Kennedy Center.
I knew I had found the piece that had inspired my character.
But it doesn’t stop there. Oh no. Now, I had to find a recording in the public domain that I could freely use. Would it be possible? Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I support creative commons for a reason, so that’s the first place I went and I wasn’t disappointed. A simple search led me to a recording of The Moldau in the public domain provided by Musopen
I learned that, I’m quoting from their website, “Musopen is a 501(c)(3) non-profit focused on improving access and exposure to music by creating free resources and educational materials. We provide recordings, sheet music, and textbooks to the public for free, without copyright restrictions. Put simply, our mission is to set music free.” I discovered all sorts of things that will help me with this project and more. The website even has a free streaming classical radio station that I’m listening to as I write this.
But there’s more!!! I uploaded the music into Audacity (another open source that I love) and then just started reading the lyrics to my song, “The Liberal Arts.” It was such an incredible experience—without planning or manipulating anything, the lyrics of the song just seemed to fall into place with the music. Is this what musicians feel like when they are improvising? Whatever it is, it’s a great feeling.
Now, full confession—the piece was too long for my song, so I did cut some out of the middle, so I could have the ending that I love so much. Sorry to you musical purist out there, but not really. I am creating, feeling free from the shackles of having to do anything any certain way. Good or bad, this podel is mine, and I love it.
I am a Type II diabetic. My husband is a health care worker. He has been fully vaccinated for over a month but is aware that working where he does he still might be a carrier of Covid-19. I had my first vaccination, made possible by my workplace, for which I am grateful, over a week ago. I will receive the second dose on March 30.
Because of my medical condition, I have been allowed to teach asynchronous and synchronous online classes this semester. I did not request this but am thankful that the dean in my division saw to it that I, as a person vulnerable to complications of Covid-19, had the choice to telework if I did not feel safe coming to campus.
In the fall of 2020, I worked from home most days, only going onto the campus to serve an hour in the Student Success Center to relieve my colleague so that she could have a lunch break. I volunteered to go on campus for that time. This semester, I have volunteered to work two days in the Student Success Center. I voluntarily treat these days as normal work days, usually arriving around 8:30 or 9:00 am.
Yesterday was one of those days. I came in later than I usually do, around 11:00 to serve a scheduled office hour, then in the Student Success Center, then mentoring a new faculty member, grading papers, a trip to the mailroom to pick up the posters for advertising this semester’s theater production. A break for lupper (lunch and supper) at 4:30ish and then back to my office for grading at 5:20 until rehearsal for the play (I play Shakespeare and the Duke of Ephesus–you should see my costume) until around 8:00pm.
During that time, one of my colleagues, who works in marketing, came to take pictures of all of the actors in costume. I was released after I and my fellow Shakespeare/Duke were photographed. (Our director double casts when needed so all who audition can have a chance to act). Other student and community actors, crew, director, and photographer were still there. I got home around 8:35 and talked to my husband a few minutes, but he was on call at the hospital, so he called it a night, hoping not to get called in. I stayed up a while longer to do my daily yoga routine, and check student e-mail one more time. I also have decided to learn Italian! I am using duolingo, a popular language-learning ap, to do so and also use the ap to brush up on my German. (I have a degree in German, but use it or lose it, they say).
Thursday, March 18, 2021–Today is a day I telework.
7:00 am–Rise, washed some dishes I was too tired to wash last night, made breakfast for my husband and me. We were both glad that he didn’t get called in last night.
7:50am–Ate breakfast and drank coffee while my husband read the weather and some amusing news to me. We chatted and laughed some. He always can make me laugh.
8:03 am–Started checking work e-mail. Answered two student messages made late last night. Skimmed a New York Time’s article by Judy Batalion called “The Nazi-Fighting Women of the Jewish Resistance.” Batalion lives in London and did her research for the article in The British Library. Oh. Tie into British Literature II. Filed the article to read more in depth later, knowing that I probably will not ever have time. Until summer.
8:10–My husband read a snippet of news about a man buying a porcelain bowl for $35 and how it sold at auction for $720,000. Lesson learned–Don’t underestimate anybody’s value, including your own. Continued checking mail.
8:20–Started checking in on my professional development class–a microcredential provided by the State of North Carolina through the Association of College and University Professors to faculty teaching the new RISE (Reinforced Instruction for Student Excellence) courses. I and a colleague have volunteered to take the course. No cost to the college, no cost to us. Plus, even though the course has just started, I am learning a great deal about improving online teaching for the special demographic of developmental students that I teach.
As I started checking this course, I got the idea for this blog post, so I took the time to set up the blog post, and write up my notes so far.
9:13–Break to walk up and down the stairs (to satisfy the fitbit monster), get some more coffee (to satisfy the caffeine addiction), and do other necessary things, like get dressed, make the bed, and clean my C-Pap equipment (I have severe sleep apnea–another reason I am high risk for complications due to Covid-19).
9:31–Checking in with my prof. dev. course will have to wait, but I have completed most assignments already and have until March 21 to complete the remaining two, so all is well. Good to know how my online students feel, though.
9:32–Checking e-mail again and prepping for my co-req courses.
9:47–All seems to be in order for today’s classes. I have two synchronous online classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I like working from home on these days because I can save time not having to get ready and drive to work. Then, there are the unavoidable frequent interruptions and distractions while at work. On these days when a big chunk of my day is in the virtual classroom, it just is more efficient for me to be at home.
During the few minutes of uninterrupted time, I was able to see that we are covering how to write sentences more concisely–ah, efficiency seems to be the word of the day, doesn’t it? I was also able to send a reminder through course announcements about the Collaborate session today and what we will be covering.
9:53–Checking my 11:00am class’s grades. The course I teach at 11:00 is ENG011–Writing and Inquiry Support. This class is relatively new and part of the Reinforced Instruction for Student Excellence (RISE) program that is offering the professional development class I’m taking. I think it’s a great idea, but it is too early to tell if RISE will work or not. I am seeing good results early on. (This is only the second time I’ve taught the co-requisite class, which is a support class for first-semester freshman composition students.) I am grateful to my immediate supervisor and my colleague who is the RISE coordinator for allowing me latitude to use my many years of experience with developmental education to develop, assess, revise, and re-assess the course, using my best judgment as a composition teacher for over thirty years while in accordance with the requirements of the State’s expectations. This is the fourth redesign of developmental classes since I began teaching at the college where I now work, all state-mandated.
I see that none of my students in ENG 011 are in danger of failing my class. I have been concerned about the performance of two students, however. I met with their instructor on Monday of this week to see how they are doing and to discuss strategies for their improvement. This is a best practice, according to the RISE training provided by the RISE coordinator at my college.
10:04–Checking to be sure that all grades, including zeros for work not attempted, have been recorded.
10:10–All looked good, so I will take another short break to walk up and down the stairs and put in a load of laundry.
10:22–Checking the grade book for my other ENG 011 class that will be at 2:00pm today.
10:30-Checked and saw that two students I have been concerned about continue to struggle. I talked with the instructor of one student earlier this week. After my 11:00 class, I will check the system to see who is English instructor is and shoot him or her an e-mail to set up a time to discuss the student’s performance in the ENG 111 class. Will take one last short break before logging on to class. As a diabetic, I need to have a snack at this time to keep my blood sugars regulated.
10:45–Logging onto the Collaborate session for my 11:00am class. Some students arrive early, so I like to be in the session to greet them. This class lasts until 12:20.
12:20–Class went well. We discussed the importance of writing concisely, which is a common issue with developmental English students who are often reluctant to write and will “pad” their writing in order to meet minimum word or page numbers. I like to use a handout I have found from UNC-Chapel Hill’s writing center to aid in my instruction: Writing Concisely. Then, I showed the students how to format their documents correctly using MLA8 formatting, which is standard in our English classes at Blue Ridge. I have found that developmental students often struggle with some of the details like this because they don’t see their relevance to their everyday lives, so while I am showing them how to format, I am also giving them my explanation of how following directions precisely and paying attention to detail is an important “soft skill” no matter what courses they study or profession they enter.
12: 21–Checked my e-mail and answered a long e-mail from a disgruntled student. It took some time to find the right tone to rectify the situation. As always, I offered to meet with the student, virtually or in person, to discuss the situation further. I find that this is a good way to avoid the “e-mail wars.” Sent an e-mail to that student’s ENG 111 instructor to be sure all was well in his class and to inform him of the student’s issue.
1:25–Checked e-mail again. Read the newsletter from the president of the college and other e-mail. Walked up and down the stairs a few times. Put clothes in the dryer.
1:40–Texted my daughter to see if she wants to go walking at the park this afternoon since the rain stopped and the sun is out.
1:45–Launched the Collaborate session and waited for students to arrive. Prepared to withdraw an ENG 011 student who was dropped from ENG 111 as required. I’m sorry about that. I think he was getting something out of my class. He was one of my most faithful attendees. One of my student’s who has been struggling came into class first and said he was thinking of withdrawing, that he is having trouble engaging in the online format. We discussed his options. I have heard this often from my students over the past year. Online learning is not for everyone. On the other hand, I have many students who never thought they would like online learning who are thriving–one of the main perks is the flexibility. Also, because of the pandemic, students are improving the skills necessary to be successful in an online environment.
2:00–Began the Collaborate session. I only have a few students in this Collaborate class, but we had an excellent class with true engagement. All explanations were made and students completed the work during the class time allotted, which is one of the State’s requirements for the co-requisite class. I like this because the support class should not add an inordinate amount of work to students who are already struggling to complete work in their ENG 111 class.
3:20–Drove to the park to walk with my daughter. It was wonderful. She is a delight. Just the break I needed.
4:45–Returned home and checked e-mail. Returned an e-mail from a student and one from a colleague.
5:00–Called the theater instructor to tell her that my daughter had volunteered to help with some of the short videos mentioned at rehearsal yesterday. She said she was just finishing up doing some re-writes of the script to eliminate the need for the videos that seemed like a good idea but were just going to be too time-consuming. I and the other Shakespeare/Duke will be doing some of the interludes she needs between scenes. She will discuss it some more with us during rehearsal on Monday.
5:26–Checked e-mail again. Nothing new. Prepared supper–Because it was pretty out and lighter later, I grilled some chicken, summer squash, and zucchini. My husband came home while I was grilling. While he relaxed a little, I finished grilling the food and completed some German exercises on the duolingo ap while I watched over the food. John and I enjoyed the dinner and a little time together.
7:25–Checked e-mail again. Noticed that I have more notifications for postings for my professional development course. Decided to grade some papers before I look at the postings by my fellow students.
8:40–Called my mother in Alabama. She had to go to the emergency room on Friday and still didn’t have tests back when I called earlier in the week, so I called to check up on her. She is better, thank goodness, but doctors still haven’t gotten down to the root of her problems. I hope when she sees her doctor on Monday they will be able to find out what’s going on.
9:30pm–Made an appointment with a friend to go walking. Checked work e-mail one last time. No e-mails from students. Going to check on my professional development course in the morning. Tuckered out, as my Great Aunt used to say, and going to bed.
10:12pm–I lied. I wanted to finish up this blogpost, and so it is now almost 45 minutes later. I also started thinking about my podcast. I had hoped to put out an episode a week, but now that I have started the two new 8-week courses, the grading load is just too heavy for me to get the work completed during normal working hours. I know I will have to grade some tomorrow and over the weekend, but I don’t have rehearsal on Saturday, so maybe I can squeeze in working on an episode of CAMPUS and get it out by Sunday evening.
In 1983 I wrote my senior undergraduate thesis comparing and contrasting the life and works of two great writers I’ve long admired–Franz Kafka and Flannery O’Connor. Both authors’ works are unusual to say the least. Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” begins with a man finding that he has been transformed into a giant insect; Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” ends with a corrupt bible salesman seducing a strange young woman named Joy-Hulga and stealing her artificial leg.
Many question why a devoutly religious woman from Georgia would write stories with such unusual, grotesque characters and such unsettling, even shocking, plots. One person wrote O’Connor and asked her why she wrote the way she did. Her answer still speaks to me:
“To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”
CAMPUS: A Novel That Wants to Be a Musical is my attempt to follow in the footsteps of O’Connor. It gives voice to my concerns about what is happening to higher education in this country. It is not intended to be my reality, but it is representative of a reality as I see it.
And lament it.
No, the campus in my novel is not representative of the campus where I work or any campus where I have ever worked or studied. The characters, even the human ones, are not descriptive of any person I have ever met. They are symbols only, but they serve my point and they speak for me.
They give me a voice again.
And it’s kind of a funny voice, I think.
The newest episode, that you can access at this link, introduces the fairy godteachers Belinda McBride and Brian Teasdale and features a song with music written and performed by Curtis McCarley, my good friend, former student, and composer for our play A Carolina Story. I had fun singing backup.
About about ten years ago, sitting next to my husband on a trip returning from a visit to see his family in Pennsylvania, I came up with a crazy, crazy idea for a play. It would be a social satire set on the campus of a school in Western North Carolina, but it wouldn’t be your typical campus, oh no. This one would have your typical students and faculty with typical failures and successes, typical red tape binding them all; however, although some would be humans, others would not.
My campus, I thought as we rode along, would have fairy godteachers and gnomes, elves and trolls. There would be creatures of Appalachian lore, including devil dogs, moon-eyed people, and boojums (kind of like Sasquatch). My play would be a musical, and on that trip, I wrote the lyrics to several songs, including “The Enchanted Campus,” which is sung, sort of, as part of this week’s episode.
But the musical was not to be. The reasons are too numerous to bore you with here, but I couldn’t shake this idea and wanted to do something with CAMPUS. I just didn’t know what. Then, November 1 of 2019, I impulsively decided that I wanted to participate in NANOWRIMO, National Novel Writing Month. You can find out more about it here. I had worked on other novels and successfully written over 50,000 words in a month and wanted to try again.
Yes, I know. I teach English at a community college, and I wrote over 50,000 words in a month WITHOUT short-changing my students. Amazing what a writer can do when motivated.
But I didn’t have a project idea in mind. That’s when I thought–CAMPUS–Why don’t I turn it into a novel and see what happens? So that’s what I did and at the end of November 2019, I had over 50,000 words of my newest novel attempt, attempt being the operative word. However, the novel wasn’t finished, but I had plans to finish it in the coming months.
Then, in March, the pandemic hit, and I could not have worked on the novel even if I tried. My students’ needs had to come first, and their needs were many. With all my classes moving to online and many students disliking, loathing might be a better word, online learning, I had to spend my free time grading essays, writing emails, sending messages, and holding conferences. I took a couple of weeks off in May after classes were over. I started reading more, writing on my blog, and taking better care of my health. But I was restless.
It was then that I decided to start work on the novel again, but I knew to finish it by summer’s end, I would need to write every day. And I did, recording my word count on one of those free yearly planners we all get so many of in the mail. By the time classes began in the Fall of 2020, I had a rough draft.
Considering how incredibly strange my novel project is, I didn’t see it getting a traditional publisher, so I started thinking of how I could share my writing with the world through some other means. My daughter had introduced me to the podcast, Welcome to Nightvale, several years before, and we had enjoyed listening to the quirky tales of life in the strange town of Nightvale. The producers of Nightvale have put out several Nightvale novels. I also thought how much I love acting and working with Curtis to write music.
That’s it, I thought! Why don’t I turn things around and turn my novel into a podcast that has musical elements? I even made up a a word for it–Podel. It means podcasted novel.
I shared my idea with the people who get me the most, my husband and daughter. I also shared it with my friend and former student Curtis McCarley, who wrote the music for my musical A Carolina Story. Curtis is working on music for future episodes of CAMPUS, you will be happy to know.
Then, for Christmas, guided by the advice of my daughter, a recent music technology graduate, my husband gifted me with a podcasting microphone and headphones–terrific! Then, my daughter gave me a book about podcasting, Podcasting for Dummies, and I discovered this great free app called Anchor that has made podcasting possible, even for a novice like me.
I’m 60. I’m nearing the end of my career as a teacher, a career that has been, at times, like any work of value, incredibly frustrating, but more importantly, it has been immensely satisfying. I have been able to help people be better communicators and better thinkers. I have been able to become a better writer myself and launch another career as a writer and editor, one that goes hand in hand with my teaching. Makes me a better teacher, in fact.
I know my podel is rough. I have already made mistakes and will make many more. But, I ain’t, as they say, getting any younger, and this dream has been deferred too long.
I have written a crazy book called CAMPUS–A Novel That Wants To Be a Musical. Okay, so written might be a bit misleading. I have the first draft of a crazy book.
Here’s the thing–I teach English full-time and online at a community college during a global pandemic. This next semester, I will teach three accelerated composition classes (16-weeks of material in 8-weeks), two 16-week composition support classes (I have only taught them once before; they will again be synchronous online because of the pandemic), and one 16-week British literature course, maybe. I have very little time to do the necessary revision, editing, and, most time-consuming, marketing that it will require. Plus, I have no time to get together with my composer to write the music for the book. You read that correctly–this novel wants to be a musical, so music there will be–one way or another.
Here’s the other thing–I’m 60-years-old, and I’m a darn good writer, in my mind, but I’m not much of a business woman. I don’t know anything about marketing and don’t really trust people who do. I’m not sophisticated or wordly-wise. However, I’m not naive enough to think my book will be published traditionally, especially not with times as they are, and I’m not interested in self-publication, not in book form anyway.
So what’s a busy old teacher to do?
Since my specialty is 19th Century British literature, perhaps it is appropriate that I have decided, like Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and Wilkie Collins, to serialize my novel; however, my satirical novel in parts will have a 21st Century twist. It will be a podcast….
Maybe it will be a blog or a vlog or something else entirely. I hope it will eventually be housed within a parody website. Oh, I have ideas, but not much of anything solid yet. All I know is that cutting the project into small bits, like I suggest to my students all the time, will allow me to pour my heart into teaching like I always do, but also make it possible for me to work on revising and editing the novel a little at a time and not wait too long to share it with people. Wait. Will anybody want to read it?
I’m the only one who needs to because within this world that I am going to create, no one gets to tell me what it looks or smells like, what the people in it need to be or think or feel. No one can criticize, ostracize, or minimalize me on this campus.
What happens there will be completely of my making, for good or ill.
Merry Christmas to me!
Note: If you would like to follow me on my little adventure, I hope to air the first chapter of CAMPUS on Sunday, January 10. More details to follow after Christmas.
Starting this new project does not mean that I have abandoned Teach. Write. If you are interested in submitting something, you can read submission guidelines here. The deadline for the Spring/Summer 2021 edition is March 1, 2021.
For finding my passion early. I have wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. As a child I would use small books to make desks for my stuffed animals and cut out tiny sheets of paper for them to complete their assignments. I would stand before them and teach them, and they always listened, never looked bored. For that
I am grateful.
For teacher-parents. Both of my parents were educators with long careers in private and public education. They brought their passion for teaching to raising their children. We traveled widely all our lives, and my parents would find teachable moments every chance they had. Dad would stop at most historical markers he saw and read them to us. He would tell us more about the area if he knew anything. Once, when we took a long trip across the country, every time we drove across a state line, Mom would read from a big book of states that she purchased just for the trip. When I attended the school where Dad was principal, I remember how he arranged for the older students to attend special opera and light opera performances. Mom bought little paperback art books for us. There was a whole set with artists from all different eras represented. I still have a few of these books over 50 years later.
Oh, so much more I remember, but I will just say,
I am grateful.
For a marvelous education. I attended public and private schools and universities in different areas of the country. Dad was in the military for much of my childhood, and we moved frequently after he left, so I went to school in Alabama, Georgia, Maryland, Illinois, Oklahoma, and North Carolina. The wide variety of educational experiences taught me adaptability and widened my perspectives. At every school, I can remember at least one teacher, and usually many more, who was exceptional, who had a passion for teaching. Mrs. McBride, Mrs. Lewis, Mr. Fisher, Mr. Hill, Mrs. Riskind, Dr. Walker, Dr. Heit, and his siblings Brunhilda and Karl, Dr. Epperson, with his deep, comforting voice, and dear Mrs. Hovelman, who taught humanities and expository writing and said to a shy high school senior who was going to register for study hall her last semester, “How about being my assistant for the semester?” For all of these marvelous teachers…
I am grateful.
For a long career doing what I love. I began my teaching career formally in 1983, but my education provided me so many wonderful teaching opportunities. While studying in Tulsa, Oklahoma during the oil boom, I tutored students in the writing center in undergraduate school and through that job was hired to teach English to two elderly Iranian ladies who only spoke Persian. A Cambodian couple woh served at the Chinese restaurant where I worked hired me to tutor them in English when they found out I was studying to be an English teacher.
Upon graduation, I was hired to teach English and German at a private Christian school in Aliquippa, PA. I loved much of my teaching there and had many wonderful experiences, the best was meeting and falling in love with the man I have been married to for almost 32 years, but I didn’t make enough money on a private school teacher’s salary to afford to live, so I headed back home to attend Auburn University.
While working on my second degree in English Education at Auburn, I did my student teaching at the same high school where my mother was a librarian and taught under the tutelage of another great teacher, Mrs. Claire Fields. It was rough being a student teacher, but it did not deter me from wanting to teach.
After graduating from Auburn, I taught English and German for Floyd County Schools in Rome, Georgia, then married and moved to Canton, Ohio. Even though I didn’t formally teach in Ohio, I got a position as a job trainer for Goodwill Industries and continued to use my teaching skills helping differently-abled people develop soft skills and learn various trades.
When we moved to North Carolina, and I couldn’t get a teaching position right away, I went back to school, receiving a graduate assistantship at Western Carolina University. I tutored in the writing center for the first semester and received the Kim L. Brown Award for Excellence in Tutoring. For the following two semesters, I taught freshmen English. My last semester, I received the Theodore L. Huguelet Award for Outstanding Graduate Assistant, which was an honor made even more special because Dr. Huguelet, who taught Milton, had been one of my favorite professors. I graduated summa cum laude and was inducted into the teaching honor society of Phi Kappa Phi. For one year following graduation, I taught tenth-grade English at a local high school. I won’t lie. That was a difficult year. Nevertheless, for all of my early teaching career and higher education
I am grateful.
For my current position. Since 1995, I have taught English at a community college south of Asheville in Western North Carolina. For six years I was an adjunct, which was perfect as I had plenty of time to be with my daughter while she was little but not have a big gap in my career. My experience teaching most English courses offered at my college and receiving positive student evaluations led to me being offered the full-time position that I continue to enjoy. For this
I am grateful.
For all the College’s employees and stakeholders. One thing that the pandemic has made abundantly clear is that everyone who works at a college is in some sense an educator. I am thankful to have the support of so many who truly care about the work they do. We don’t always agree, but we must remember that we all have different work to do, and that it is all important. We can disagree and still work together for the good of our students.
I am grateful.
For our students. Expressing my gratitude to them exceeds the time I have this Thanksgiving morning. My daughter is on her way to help us prepare our Thanksgiving Feast, and my little family deserves some gratitude heaped on them this day. Because for them, for my life as teacher, daughter, wife, mother,
So don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. Okay, enough with the Fleetwood Mac allusions. I’m getting a little bit punchy. It’s been a whirlwind start after a quiet summer without the usual activities. Sad? Yes, in some ways. I miss being with my friends and extended family but also very healing–a time to focus on exercising, cooking, reading, and writing–for myself!!!
I did work a great deal on my classes, taking my knowledge of new technologies and integrating them into my already strong online classes. (No brag, just fact) Our distance learning staff has been doing a lot of course redesign training, and I am trying to put their ideas into practice. So far, students seem to be responding well to the changes.
Speaking of students, I need to get to it, but I will leave you with a link to a great article from Inside Higher Education about the positive side of remote learning and the incredible job some inspired faculty with a passion for education, like the people I am blessed to work with, are doing.
This summer continues to be a time of renewal for my spirit, but it hasn’t been easy. My reading adventures, working on this crazy satirical novel , and being alone so much have led me to confront many uncomfortable realities about myself–I have lacked resilience and settled for mediocrity much of my life. I’m often petty, self-absorbed and self-righteous, easily angered, hypocritical, thoughtless, vain, jealous, etc., etc.
Oh, don’t worry, I continue to love myself. That’s kind of the problem. I think of myself more highly than I ought, methinks.
Many of the books I’ve chosen to read this summer have helped me to see some of my many weaknesses, and also, thankfully, validated some of my strengths. As always, the two are inextricably bound to one another. But the book I just finished has not only convicted but also bolstered my spirit and renewed my resolve.
The book is Real Christianity, a paraphrase (by Bob Beltz) of William Wilberforce’s A Practical view of the prevailing religious system of Professed Christians, in the higher and middle classes in this country, contrasted with real Christianity written in 1797. The title alone explains why I read the paraphrase, but someday I will read the original.
William Wilberforce was an abolitionist and member of parliament who helped to end slavery in England. His book, however, never explicitly mentions the battle to abolish slavery, and it addresses, as the original title suggests, the middle and upper classes of the British Empire.
But it didn’t take long at all for me to see myself and my country in the pages of this modern paraphrase, written in 2006 by the man who was one of the producers of the very good biopic Amazing Grace, that tells the story of Wilberforce’s twenty-year fight. More about the movie later.
For example, here is a quote from early in the book:
“We must remember that almost any ideology can be distorted and misused to bring misery to multitudes or justification to the most bizarre behavior. Nothing is more dangerous. That which is intended to motivate goodness and restrain evil actually can become the instrument of that which it intended to restrain. History is full of examples of how virtues such as liberty or patriotism become twisted when separated from a healthy and authentic faith. Twisted men in every generation and occupation have twisted whatever they must twist to get what they want. Why should we expect that some within the Church would not be guilty of the same actions?” (46).
Wow! See what I mean? And it was written in the 18th Century! Wilberforce himself struggled with the same issues he writes about. He is remembered for being a force for good, for valid reasons, but, of course, he struggled and failed miserably at times, especially in allowing slave labor, thinly veiled by the concept of “apprentices,” to continue in the abolitionist colony of Sierra Leone. See this interesting article on the subject in The Guardian.
See what I mean? Conviction and renewal. Convicted by Wilberforce’s words and renewed by the knowledge that his failure was, and mine is, inevitable. Renewed? How does being reminded of failure possibly revive my soul? Another paradox of my faith, I suppose. I see that the answer is not abandoning my faith or ceasing to struggle to do good, but knowing that I can ask for and WILL receive forgiveness, I can continue striving to do some good in the world.
Not a bad lesson to pass on to my students, is it?
Here’s another one:
“Money and ambition have become idols in our time, especially for individuals in the business and professional worlds. Disguised as common business practice, these forces are allowed to gather great momentum in our lives. Arguments about being diligent at what we do, becoming successful in our profession or providing for our families seduce us so that we no longer have a clear sense of judgment about these issues. Our work consumes us” (73).
It is important to keep in mind that he is addressing Christians here, not people who do not claim to be believers. Knowing that, these words strike me to the core. I have let my work consume me. I have become as data-driven as the rest of the world. What is my retention rate? How many students passed that essay with a C or better? Let me check how many hours I spent working on the LMS. Look at those FTE’s, will you?
I am convicted, but I am renewed because, since March, I have been working from home, so thankful that I have been forced to concentrate my efforts on the people who need me–my family, my friends, and, my students.
It’s about time.
If you want to know more about Wilberforce and the battle to end slavery in the British Empire, I highly recommend the film Amazing Grace. Strong performances, especially Benedict Cumberbatch as England’s youngest ever prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, who was a great friend of Wilberforce’s.
Wilberforce, William. Real Christianity. Revised and edited by Bob Beltz, Regal, 2006.
After November’s National Novel Writing Month (NANOWRIMO), I had about 26,000 usable (rough draft usable) words of my new satirical novel about higher education in the South called CAMPUS: The Novel That Wants to Be a Musical.
I am happy to announce that since May 19, I have written 38, 173 more words! I know to some of you out there this is no big deal at all, but to me this is major as I have never before been able to adjust to a daily writing schedule (I do take one floating day off a week, which has helped greatly). I have exceeded my quota each day, which more than makes up for the days off.
I have also participated in craft lectures (via Zoom) by the North Carolina Writers’ Network and the Dramatists Guild of America. All have been useful, but this past weekend I was able to join 11 other writers for an extended workshop with Bryn Chancellor, author of Sycamore, which is now on my reading list. It was the first online Squires Writing Workshop, a program of the North Carolina Writers’ Network.
The emphasis was on the opening of a story or novel. We looked at just the first 1,200 words of the project. To begin with we looked at and shared examples of strong openings. Then, we did some writing exercises and shared. The next session we did another exercise and then had a fascinating and informative lecture about openings. The final three sessions were inspiring and helpful. We had all received each other’s work ahead of time, and all were faithful to read and comment on each person’s manuscript. I got so much out of the critiques, even when my work was not being discussed. It was a wonderful four days, and well worth it.
Look into the North Carolina Writers’ Network–a valuable organization for any North Carolina writer. We have members outside of North Carolina, too, so check it out!! ncwriters.org
And my reading continues–
Here are the goodreads reviews of the latest three:
MOO by Jane Smiley, 1995
***Spoiler Alert*** Perfect timing for me to read this satire about higher education as I work on my own novel with a similar theme. Full disclosure: I participated in a writing residency at Brevard College, studying under Jane Smiley, and she was a fabulous instructor, so I am partial to her work since that time. One of the things I like about her work is its variety. I also love her ability to portray the inner life of animals so that we can relate to them yet still see, smell, feel their animal nature. In this book she gifts us with the tragic character of the hog, Earl Butz, whose “job” it is to stuff himself. Oh, my, what a wonderful and compelling character. The most sympathetic of them all, which, I think, is Smiley’s intent.
Smiley seems to have a bucket list approach to writing, wanting to challenge herself, not wanting to repeat the same style. This is certainly a very different book than her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres, and hasn’t been as critically acclaimed, but in some ways I like it better, probably because of the satiric wit, and her ability to meld the tragic with the comic, which is my favorite kind of writing.
Ultimately, the book is comic (the last section begins with a chapter entitled “Deus ex machina”), and ends with a wedding. Ah, I see, I guess I’m a little slow–A Thousand Acres (King Lear)–Shakespearean tragedy; Moo (Ends with a wedding)–Shakespearean comedy.
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover (2018)
This interesting memoir reads like fiction and at times the story is so bizarre and inconsistent that I think maybe it is fiction. However, I know that memory is a tricky thing, especially if you are the victim of childhood abuse, and I am convinced that Tara Westover certainly was.
I see why Westover named her book Educated, but I think it is more about Emancipation than it is Education, and I found myself wishing that she had spent less time with her highly dysfunctional family and more time with the way her education helped her break away.
I also think she absorbed a great deal more knowledge while she was being homeschooled than she gives herself or her parents for, but I certainly understand the omission.
Satyricon by Petronius (1st Century)
** spoiler alert ** Yes, it is considered to be the first novel. Yes, it gives valuable information about language and culture during the end times of the Roman Empire. Yes, it is satire, but it is also quite depraved. Basically Roman porn. I skipped through much of it because I couldn’t stomach it.
I primarily read it because I heard it was the first time the phrase “silent majority” was used, referring to the dead. I found that reference in Book 2 and skimmed Books 3 and 4 but unfortunately did see references to rape, including child rape (in book one), orgies, and cannibalism among other perversions. Call it classic if you want to. I just say Yuck!
Thanks to the pandemic, this has been a unique summer for me and almost everybody else, but not all bad. My reading continues, I have attended several interesting online seminars, and the work on my novel progresses. I am also making plans for the upcoming semester of teaching.
The big difference is not traveling, which I do greatly miss. I have family and friends in Alabama, Colorado, Virginia, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Germany and elsewhere. I like traveling to visit them, and I also like to explore within my own state, attending meetings for the North Carolina Writers Network and the Dramatists’ Guild of America as well as “adventuring” with my daughter Hannah.
This summer I am at home almost always–weird.
I have developed routines, which is actually a novelty for me–I tend to improvise, but I am doing more of the things that are good for me, including exercising, reading, and writing more than I usually do.
I have been posting about my reading, which I have really ramped up this summer. My friend Joe Perrone, Jr. (check out his blog) asked me to read and review his wife’s debut middle-grade novel, Wolfie: A Cat Beyond Time, which I was glad to do; Becky is my friend, too. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and if you have YA readers in your life, I highly recommend that you purchase it for them, especially if they like cats as much as I do.
Here is the review I posted on Goodreads:
History is best learned through storytelling, and that is why this middle- grade novel would be a good addition to any middle school classroom bookshelf or young readers’ collection. It is part historical fiction, part adventure story, and part fantasy, a compelling combination that balances fact with fiction. The two young protagonists are charming, and Wolfie, the big cat that serves as a catalyst to their adventure, well, he is magnificent. One of the aspects that I like best is the balance the book brings to the history of the Old West. We get to see the good, the bad, and the ugly, but infused with enough humor and positivity to be appropriate for the targeted age group. An enjoyable and educational read for any youngster.
I have also been writing. Boy, have I been writing–30,000 words since May 19. I have never written almost every single day, but this summer I have. The two secrets for me have been determining how many words a day, approximately, I need to write to have a rough draft of my novel completed by the time school starts in August and then meeting or exceeding my quota each day. So far I have written six days a week and exceeded my goal most days, so I am ahead of the game. I should mention that I started out with 26, 000 words already written from November’s National Novel Writing Month. ( I wrote 50,000 but only half were usable.)
Of course, a first rough draft is a long way from finished novel, but I feel encouraged because I have wanted to finish a novel for four summers now but haven’t met my goal. I am determined to this year.
I am also busy attending webinars, submitting short stories to journals, and preparing for my classes in the fall, but I will save thoughts about those activities for future posts.
So come back and check them out!!!!
Are you writing this summer, too? Do you have a poem, essay, flash fiction, short story, or short drama you would like to share? Why not submit to Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal?