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.
Another episode of CAMPUS is now available!! Click here to access all six episodes!
I wasn’t sure I was going to get out a new episode this week. I got kind of discouraged, feeling kind of down about the music part of this crazy podel project I’m doing. I have visions of what I want it to sound like, but I don’t have the musical ability or technological skills to make it happen, so Sunday, my normal day to publish a new episode, I just sort of gave up.
But yesterday, I had required conferences with some of my students. One young man who wants to be a nurse talked about taking difficult classes like anatomy and physiology along with two English classes AND working AND keeping his girlfriend’s children on track with online school work while she is at work. Another student works at a nearby hospital. She was tired because she had just gotten home, while her husband was leaving to go to work; he works at a hospital, too–2nd shift. She told me how she had Covid-19 a couple of months ago. She just received her second vaccine and the side effects have hit her hard. She had been told that might happen. You know, she still has gotten her work in on time and makes it to every online session that she can. Neither student has complained or offered excuses. They just keep on going.
I listened and felt ashamed. If they can persevere, then so can I. That’s why, after work, I went back to the drawing board and finished it. It’s not what I envisioned, but it’s from my heart–a heart that is thankful for the opportunity to teach these amazing people I call my students. This episode is dedicated to them.
HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY! Another episode of CAMPUS: A Novel That Wants to Be a Musical is live on Spotify NOW!! And it includes, in true Valentine’s Day form, a love story!! Click here to access CAMPUS.
I am especially excited this week because I think this is my best episode ever! First of all, my daughter Hannah, who is a recent graduate of UNC-Asheville, earning her second degree, a BS in Music Technology, arranged, recorded, and performed Gabhaim Molta Brighde in Irish Gaelic for this week’s episode. Her BA was in Music with a Voice Concentration from Converse College’s Petrie School of Music. The value of her education, one in classic music and the other in advanced music technologies is truly apparent in her recording. I know what you’re thinking, but a mother gets to brag on her daughter on Valentine’s Day, and every other day, too, for that matter. Oh, by the way, she has a job IN MUSIC during a pandemic (not teaching), doing what she loves and was trained for. How do you like them apples?
I’m also hyped because it has been so much fun playing around with the technology that is making this dream of mine come true. This week, with the help of Audacity: free, open source, cross platform, audio software, I was able to record two songs and alter my soprano voice to sound first like a tenor and then a bass. It is a little freaky but totally cool. The second thing I did was download the sound effect of a shower running from freesound.org and add it to one of my recordings. I also laid down background music provided by Anchor, which calls itself the “easiest way to make a podcast,” and I believe it. Anchor is provided by streaming music giant Spotify as an open source podcasting platform. All of my episodes are published immediately on Anchor and Spotify as well as numerous other podcasting databases very easily and at no cost to me.
CAMPUS is my passion project, and I am doing it for fun, but I can also see all sorts of educational applications of the open source technology I am learning to use. I hope you will listen and tell others about my podel (That’s my word for podcasted novel.)
Don’t think I’ve forgotten about the other ongoing project I love, my literary journal Teach. Write. I have already accepted some incredible poetry and flash fiction for this issue, but there is still time to submit for the spring/summer 2021 edition. Submissions close on March 1, and the journal will be published on April 1. See the link above for submission guidelines.
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.
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!
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.
I have decided to teach an eight-week freshman composition course this summer that began yesterday. People have said it can’t be done, and perhaps they are right. Perhaps it is simply too difficult of a course to teach in eight weeks. We’ll see. However, I think it is worth trying because many of our stronger students could benefit greatly if they could get both freshman comp classes completed in one semester.
Despite taking on this experimental course this summer, I will still have some extra time that I hope to spend productively. First, I have been working on a novel for several years now and am determined to finish the rough draft this summer and have the work edited and ready to go out in the world to seek fame and fortune (Ha!) by the end of the year.
Second, I want to revise, edit, and polish some of my short stories that I have not found a home for yet. Last year, I totally reworked a story that had been rejected numerous times, and it soon, after some revision suggested by the editor, found a home with the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable. It’s called “Pilgrimage”
Another goal is to continue seeking and reviewing submissions for my literary journal Teach. Write. When I first started the journal, four editions ago, I only accepted work from teachers of writing, but now I accept work from students of writing as well.
If you are interested in submitting to Teach. Write. then see the submission guidelines for more details. You can see the latest edition by clicking here. I love to see stories about teaching composition and learning to write, but I accept short stories, poetry, and essays on a variety of topics and themes. I would love to see your work!
As usual I keep busy, but never fear–I plan to do a great deal of sitting and reading on my deck with my feet up, sipping iced tea with lemon.