April 18th–High Water, Low Ebb

Slant-rhyme, half-riddle;
Half-open, half-closed,
New bud, old growth–

Fast ebb, oblation:
Old banks, new flows–
My river,


Middle April is always good for a flood. Winona, a sand-bar peninsula in the Mississippi, is warming up to her title as the island city. We shall keep our heads above water, however, as we have done since the flood stage of 1899…

Of course, here in academe, this is high-water-mark of another sort. Students are scrambling to turn in their final projects, each marvelous creation another drop in a rising tide of work for the professor treading water. There seems no way around it, really; the whole of the semester ramps to this point: This is the denouement, the pinnacle, the critical moment. We cannot flag now–but alas, high water always seems to pair unfortunately with a low ebb of energy and that nagging, niggling lethargy (due, I think, to our spirit’s sense that summer is just round the corner).

And for me, the problem is made a touch worse by my choice of boatswains: phenomenal overestimation of facility and stupendous underestimation of time. I’ve spent the spring preparing for a month-long overseas tour, wherein I will be giving two lectures (one in Dublin, one in Manchester), researching a book project at the Bod in Oxford, and setting up a summer-course plan in Paris (for 2012). BUT, lest I have a moment’s rest, I am also contracted to write a book review for the journal I manage–and of course, to get two more issues out in the meanwhile. Let us not forget the SCBWI, either; their summer conference is in August and I will have to get moving on that if I want to attend…And speaking of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, I have revisions on my YA novel to finish. And a book club to start. And a screen play to write. And–oh goodness–classes to prepare for, lest I forget my “real” job!  I will be teaching creative writing again, and am considering re-tooling the course for more of a mixed-media focus… I used to be a free-lance web editor (still am, I suppose; I am building the website for the Winona Fencing Club as we speak).

HIGH tide, indeed.

But what else is there to do in April–or any other time of the year–except to dive beneath the waves and kick yourself to the furthest shore? It’s in my nature to over-do. I have tried for years to settle this Ahab-chasing-white-whale-drive, but in the end you shake hands with your other half and get well over it. If I am truly honest, it isn’t the high tide that worries me at all–only the short window in which to funnel that water someplace useful. Heave-Ho, maties, forget the sand bags and set sail instead.

March 15, 2011–Initializing

Teaching an introductory creative writing class is a fascinating (and often humbling) experience for a writer. The often abused adage, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” truly gets things the wrong-way round. After all, teaching the can-do is often more difficult than the doing itself. What do we say when a student asks, “how do I make this amazing?”

Amazing. Well. How do we make amazing? It puts me in mind of the tragically unhelpful Supreme Court justice who could not define pornography but “knew it when he saw it.” As an instructor of creative writing, I find myself in similarly troubled waters–not because I cannot define good writing, but because the only way to really be a good writer is, well, to be one. That is not to say there is no process involved, of course. We spend long hours doing exercises, building characters collectively and individually, practicing dialog and revising…revising…revising… But the truth of the matter, and one occasionally admitted even by the authors of popular fiction textbooks (Ostrom, Bishop and Haake of Metro to name a few) is that we author-teachers are really like coaches encouraging more line-drills. It is our job to inspire, to drive, even to cajole when necessary… but we are, for most writers new and old, simply the means of creating a deadline with some urgency to it. I create hurdles for them to leap over. When that gets easy, I make the hurdle higher. We create boundedness; we give them a rabbi, a cowboy and a lawyer and ask that they write, not a bad bar joke, but a story. We get them to compose sketches about worn out sofas, about broken pencils, about the mundane and about the trite–and about the cosmos, too. Why? Because those who can know how hard it is–know how wonderful it is–know how necessary and vital it is–

And we know, too, that the path to amazing writing is through the rather unapologetic and unspectacular task of more writing. No magic wands required.