Once again, I thank all of the fine contributors to this edition. I am so very grateful to them for entrusting me with their work.
I know I give myself so much more to do by publishing this journal, and my teaching, writing, and editing deadlines often collide, but I love editing Teach. Write. It allows me to be autonomous in my creativity. I don’t have to please anyone except myself in the end.
But, of course, I do hope this edition pleases you, too.
Here is the link to the online version if you missed it!
Michele Harper is an emergency room physician, and her book The Beauty in Breaking: A Memoir reminds me of how much teachers have in common with doctors. I’ve blogged about the similarities before. Harper offers more confirmation of my perceptions, especially in “Chapter Two: Dr. Harper: The View from Here,” when Harper describes her internship in internal medicine before completing her residency as an emergency room physician.
In the chapter, she describes one of her professors, Dr. Jaiswal, a “forceful character” (33) whom all the interns feared and loathed. Harper describes how Dr. Jaiswal was particularly cutting and brutal to Harper during the author’s first presentation and in front of the patient, berating Harper for not completing a thorough patient history and for being ill-prepared for her presentation.
Some people, me included, would have been tempted to give up or simply been angry and rejected anything Dr. Jaiswal said out of bitterness and contempt, but Harper learns from the “breaking.”
“I never forgot that encounter,” she writes. “For the entire intern year, I made sure to ask too many questions of my patients….To the best of my ability, I not only read about the topics I didn’t understand, I also read around them. I reviewed the history in my head and practiced my assessment and plan, making sure the reasoning led to a logical conclusion….That was the last time I was unprepared for Dr. Jaiswal’s rounds. What’s important was that in that very long year, she helped me become a better doctor because I saw the good in her, in the value she placed on meticulous preparation and critical thinking” (40-41).
I am not advocating being “deragatory and cruel” (41) as Harper describes Dr. Jaiswahl, but I don’t mind being tough. I don’t really think I am all that tough actually, but in today’s ultra-sensitive world, I am perceived as such by some students, parents, and administrators. I wish I could help them all understand that all I want to do when I challenge and push students is motivate them to stretch themselves–ask too many questions, read about the subjects, read around them. I want them to learn how to think!
Harper offers many stories of encounters with people in her work and personal life who break her or come to her broken, in need of healing. She writes of what she learned from them and how she has come to embrace not the brokenness itself but the lessons that inevitably come from it.
In Chapter Three, Harper writes, “We had all been broken in that moment–broken open by shock and grief and anger and fear. I didn’t know how or when, but this opening could lead to healing. After all, only an empty vessel can be filled by grace; but to get there, we had to help each other rise while we shed the same tears. We had to get up and start again” (68-69).
Another chapter in the book I liked was “Chapter Four: Erik: Violent Behavior Alert.” Harper laments the bureaucratic bull that she has to put up with on her job that does little to nothing to help her patients. Man, can I relate. She speaks about a 2011 study that exposes the myth that most ER patients are uninsured. Not true according to the study. Most are insured and come to the ER for various reasons, including, she says, because they feel “so entitled from unchecked privilege that even polite questioning causes them to blow a fuse” (77). Again, man can I relate.
Harper touches on other issues that doctors and teachers, especially women, experience similarly, including the inequity in how female professionals are treated in the workplace and false perceptions of doctors, but the positive aspects of her work are similar to mine too–helping people, challenging them to take action, to move forward into a new and better life.
The Beauty in Breaking: A Memoir is well-worth the read for anyone, not just doctors and educators; we’ve all been broken, and we all can learn from that breaking–something I want my students to understand.
Harper, Michele. The Beauty in Breaking: A Memoir, Riverhead, 2020.
The next book I finished is the young adult fantasy novel Gifts by Ursula K. Le Guin. In this imaginary world, the people of the Lowlands are blessed, or perhaps cursed, with magical gifts–some seemingly benign, like summoning animals, and some dark and sinister, like the ability to twist limbs or melt flesh and bone.
Two young people, Orrec and Gry, friends all of their lives, must face the consequences when they refuse to use their gifts, refuse to take life only to help others retain power.
In the end, the true power lies in friendship, sacrifice, and love.
It also lies in storytelling.
One of my favorite passages in the novel is when the narrator discusses how storytelling empowers us:
“My blindfold and my mother’s illness worked together in one way that was good: we both had time to indulge our love of storytelling, and the stories carried us out of the dark and the cold and the dreary boredom of being useless” (194).
This is why I love to write. It carries me out of the dark and the cold. It gives me purpose.
Le Guin, Ursula K. Gifts, Harcourt, 2004.
Most writers I know aren’t happy keeping their writing to themselves. That is why I started Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal. I wanted to offer a place where other writers out there, especially writing teachers like me, could share their work. Until September 1, I am accepting short fiction, poetry, essays, and more for the 2021 Fall/Winter edition of Teach. Write., and I would love to consider your work. I am especially interested in the work of those who teach writing, but I am open to all. See the submission guidelines for more information.
ANOTHER EPISODE OF MY PODEL (PODCASTED NOVEL), CAMPUS: A NOVEL THAT WANTS TO BE A MUSICAL, IS COMING YOUR WAY THIS WEEK! NOW’S YOUR CHANCE TO LISTEN TO THE PREVIOUS EPISODES SO YOU WILL BE READY FOR EPISODE 10. IT’S GOING TO BE A DOOZY!
My summertime project is to complete a rough draft of my new novel, CAMPUS: The Novel That Wants to Be a Musical. Full disclosure. It started out as a musical, but then it decided that it wanted to be a novel but one that wanted to be a musical.
I know. It’s incredibly weird, but so am I, so it seems fitting. I am afraid, too, that it might offend because it’s horribly, deliciously satiric, a social and political satire of higher education in the South.
Many of my colleagues already know about the book. Back when it was a musical, I shared some of the ideas and songs with them. I have worked on the project off and on again for several years already, especially when I became particularly infuriated with perceived obstacles blocking my path to providing my students with the best education possible.
Oh, my. I can be so pompous at times.
My attitude is changing. Perhaps it was attending the National Council of Teachers of English conference with five of my fellow English instructors, talking about our work and seeing how passionate we all our about our work, but also enjoying each other as human beings–as fathers and mothers, as friends, like family.
My attitude is changing. Perhaps it’s all the months teaching in isolation. Did it take that for me to value the roles of others in my institution? Perhaps. Not that I didn’t appreciate it before, but now, wow, I appreciate it more.
My attitude is changing.
But my convictions have not.
So the play wanted to become a novel, but the novel did not want to lose all of the biting satire of the play because it’s just so darn fun. So, it didn’t. Still a satire. A kinder, gentler satire, perhaps (It hasn’t decided yet), but a satire nonetheless. And I’m still keeping the “I want to be a Nazi” song. I can’t help it. I just want to. And it’s my book, so I will.
But you say, Katie, how can you have musical numbers in a novel?
And I say, how can I not? I know it’s weird and different and really out there. It may not work, but who cares? It makes me happy. It’s creative. It’s about work but not about work. It is helping me vent my frustrations so I will be less likely to take them out on my colleagues, supervisors, and students. Plus, it’s more than just satire. It’s also an Appalachian fantasy with gnomes, elves, the Moth Man, Moon-faced people, hellhounds, wizards, fairy godteachers (yes, really), vampires, zombies, and at least one boojum (aka Bigfoot). It’s also a love story (actually more than one) and a glimpse into the heart and soul of an aging teacher (guess who).
Can you tell I love my book and don’t care that it’s goofy?
So, I’m writing this summer, and it’s time well spent.
Here is the first verse one of the songs:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” From “Ode to a Grecian Urn”~John Keats
Truth and Beauty
That’s all there is and ever will be
I see truth and beauty
When I look into her eyes
It’s been an amazing ride
Since I’ve met her.
My world has opened wide
I’ve only just met her
The Belle dame sans merci
This beautiful lady
And her eyes are wild.
Just to have her near
Just to see her face
Just her voice to hear
Just to feel her fingers brush my cheek
Nothing else remains but she
The belle dame sans merci
Have mercy, have mercy
Help me to see
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
But I feel it, but I know
Truth and Beauty
I see it when I look into your eyes
Truth is beauty.
I see it when I look into your wild eyes
Beauty is truth, truth beauty
That is all there ever will be
I see truth and beauty
When I look into those wild, wild eyes
Are you a teacher writing this summer? I would love to read your work and consider it for my literary journal Teach. Write. Submissions are open for the 2020 fall/winter edition until Sept.1 See submission guidelines for more information.
Before I was a full-time instructor, over twenty years ago, I presented at my first national conference–the National Conference of Teachers of English. It was in Denver that year, and I paid for the conference myself because I craved professional development, even though I was a lowly adjunct, only teaching three or four large college classes each semester.
In a round table session, I presented an exercise that I had created for my developmental English courses called “The Art of Writing.” The students took a reproduction of a famous piece of art (I had many pictures for them to choose from) and told them to brainstorm about what they saw, using a handout I gave them.
One side of the paper was marked “Concrete,” where they wrote what they saw in the picture or what they could imagine that they could experience with their other senses. On the other side of the paper, I wrote “Abstract,” where students wrote words and phrases that represented how the painting made them feel or what memories, or thoughts in general, the painting helped bring to the surface.
After they brainstormed, the would develop some sort of prose writing based on the art and their brainstorming, combining the concrete with the abstract. I used as an example a short piece I wrote that was based on the iconic painting American Gothic by Grant Wood. Here is the painting and the creative piece I wrote based on it:
I remember marrying him. We stood together in the country church, farmer’s son and farmer’s daughter, too poor for ought else–too much a part of the land anyway. My family sitting on those hand-hewn, hard-backed pews, witnessing.
That night I didn’t utter a word or a cry. Closing my eyes, I imagined I was lying in the distant fields of my home, daises tickling my face and hands and feet.
I worked hard, learning not to expect any praise for the clean floors or hearty food. My greatest joy, to get all of the chores finished in time to head for the fields, to hold the soil of our land in my hand, to feel its moisture and smell its mustiness.
He did praise me once. After three daughters, who were mine to raise, to teach, to find husbands for, I bore him a son. I sweat and strained and screamed no less, but somehow it was different, and he thanked me. Then, my son was gone, no longer mine. So soon he learned not to cry. So soon he became a man.
Now, in that same country church, as my youngest daughter gives herself to a farmer too poor to leave and too much a part of the land anyway, I sit in a hand-hewn, hard-backed pew, witnessing.
I quite like this little character study, which went on to be published by the way, but more importantly, the piece inspired my developmental students for over a decade. Some of my students’ writing was published in our yearly literary magazine–one even winning a cash prize as the top fiction piece in that year’s journal.
Another student picked a famous photograph of an American flag on a front porch and wrote an amazing creative non-fiction piece about the meaning of liberty. That student was attending our school under the GI Bill, having served during Operation Desert Storm. I’m telling you, he had a heck of a lot to say about liberty that the younger people in the class needed to hear.
Were they inspired to write or did the assignment just help them feel free to use their creativity? Did the painting give them something to write about, a story already there that they just fleshed out? It was more than likely a combination of things, but whatever it was, many of my students, developmental students, did their best writing when writing about art.
In recent years, the state where I teach has discouraged creative writing or the study of literature in writing classes, especially in developmental classes. The trend is towards more “practical” writing, utilitarian, without flair or heart or life. Surprise! I am bucking that trend. I don’t use my art assignment any more, but my students engage with and write about music, film, theater, literature and art, and their writing is better for it. They are better for it.
In 1938 Winston Churchill, said, “The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due.”
Maybe the State, as well as college administrators and curriculum developers, should listen to him.
If you are, or were, an English composition teacher, do you have a writing prompt that you have used in class and would like to share like I did at the conference? If so, I would love if you would submit it to my literary magazine Teach. Write.
In the magazine, I have a feature called “Write Your Own” where you do like I did and write your own creative piece using a prompt that you have once given your students. Accompany your piece with a brief explanation of the prompt or the purpose for the assignment.
I am also accepting general submissions of poetry, flash, short stories, and essays through March 1 for the spring edition. Click for complete submission guidelines. I look forward to reading your work!
A few months ago I was interviewed by flash fiction author Jim Harrington for his blog “Six Questions for…” which is focused on picking the brains of writers and editors to aid fiction writers in composing, revising, and marketing their work. Many thanks to Jim for the feature and for his interesting and informative blog.
The interview is now appearing on Jim’s blog. Hope you will take a look, and if you are now or have ever been a teacher of writing in any capacity, then please consider submitting to Teach. Write. Submissions for the spring edition are open until March 1.