Seriously, guys. How do teachers do this every day?

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Boots: check.

Lasso: check.

Yodel: check.

Folks, this week, I’m back in the classroom again. Cue music.

As many of you know, I am a former full-time teacher (Middle School, natch. And I have the scars to prove it) (I’m just kidding. Middle School kids are puppy dogs with fairy wings and butterfly kisses. For real.), and now, in addition to my writing work, from time to time I return to the classroom to teach fiction writing for a week with eager, energetic, enthusiastic, and oh, good god, tiring children.

I’m so tired right now. I can barely see straight. I may melt into the floor.

With each class today, I stood in front of these kids and poured my energy out so they could pour that same energy onto the page. That’s what I do – pour and flow, crackle and burn, light the room, hold their attention in the palm of my hands, and set their stories ablaze. They were maniacs today. Story-writing maniacs. They wrote stories with spies in them and stories with aliens in them and stories with best friends in them and stories with soldiers in them and stories about jury duty and super heroes and cranial implants and stories narrated by an arthritic dog. And they were awesome.

Since this is not my regular classroom and these are not my regular kids, I can’t rely on the relational foundation that most teachers use to keep their classrooms going. These kids don’t know me. So the only way I can get them to lose their inhibitions long enough to get their stories written down is to do my little magic tricks on my makeshift stage.

“Look here,” I say. “Storytelling is ancient.”

“And here,” I say. “Stories are an integral part of your humanity. We tell stories, therefore we are.”

“Look here,” I say. “Your brain can do tricks. Watch.”

“Look here,” I say. “I can tell you words and turn them into sentences and use those sentences to make your heart beat fast and your breathing go shallow and make all of you sit on the edges of your seats. Look at yourselves! Look at how you’re gripping your chairs. Look at how your knuckles are white. Now you make that happen in your stories.”

“Look here,” I say. “There is a dragon that can fit in your pocket. And a kingdom made of cattails. And a forest with fire in its belly. Look! A witch! Look! A liar! Look! A horde of bandits, smiling in the dark.”

I told them stories. They wrote stories. They read their stories out loud. We postulated and discussed and argued and laughed and made excellent points. I think we’re all exhausted. The kids walked out holding their writing hands limply in makeshift slings.

On my way out to my car today, I literally waded through a sea of Kindergarteners. They swirled and swelled and crashed like waves. They clung to my boots like seaweed. Third graders jostled me from side to side and fourth graders shouted like fog horns in my ears. Fifth graders pulled at my coat sleeves as I left, and sixth graders called me back because I had to listen to the funniest joke. It took me like an hour just to leave.

I love them. I love them so much. But I forget how tiring this work is. I’m sitting on the couch right now and it is so much work just to keep my skeleton from turning into a puddle on the floor. I am a pot boiled dry. I am an empty husk. I am the ashes from yesterday’s campfire. I have no muscles. My skull has shattered. My eyeballs rolled away an hour ago, and I think they’re lodged under the refrigerator. It hurts to breathe.

And I just want to point out that your kids’ teachers do this every single day. Every day, they work themselves to the dang bone. Every day they pour out their love and their intellect and their training. Every day they chart a course on your kids’ learning. You are here, they say, pointing to the map. And just look at where you are going. Isn’t it wonderful?

Teachers are awesome. And I know that, of course I do. But I know it even more during my little teaching stints. Where I meet these kids and work with these kids and love these kids, and they inhale every joule of energy in me. They drain my essence. They absorb every ounce of my soul. And I know that for their teachers, this ain’t nuthin. For them, it’s just Wednesday. They pour themselves out every single day. They are inexhaustible wells. And god bless ’em.

So here’s my challenge for you: Go out and do something nice for a teacher. Any teacher. Buy ’em a latte. Give ’em a Target gift card. Write ’em a note. Do something. Because holy smokes. Do they ever deserve it.

My hat, ladies and gentlemen. It is off.

And now, will someone please bring a hose and an air machine? Because I seem to have deflated. And I need to be re-inflated by tomorrow so I may return to the classroom and teach my heart out once again. ONCE MORE, MY FRIENDS. INTO THE DEEP.

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“Where do your characters come from?”

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I’m sure I am not the only writer that gets this question. Usually it’s about halfway through the question and answer period after a reading, or during a school visit. The hand goes up. I know they’re going to ask it before they do. I brace myself.

“Where do your characters come from,” they ask. And I wince.

Because I seriously have no idea how to answer this question. At least not in a way that makes me sound sane.

But it shouldn’t sound insane. Not really. This is something that we do – all of us, all the time. We create characterizations out of nothing. We see people walking down the street and we make thousands upon thousands of assumptions about them, without even realizing that we are doing so. Our brains are built for narrative. We think in narrative, understand in narrative, process memories in narrative. It is the structure in which we organize information and construct truth. We may be walking down the sidewalk and see a broken bottle in the grass, and then go a little bit farther and see a cast-off shoe, and then go a little bit farther and see a bare spot in the boulevard, or some trampled flowers, maybe, and we start to connect the dots. We start writing a story. We can’t help it.  It’s our brains, you see?

Similarly, if I sit down on the bus, and the man who sits down next to me has a very long beard and very callused fingertips and hand-patched jeans and a tattoo that says “meat is murder” with a drawing of a pig wearing a crown of thorns (this happened to me once; I stole the tattoo and put it in one of my books)? Well. I start inventing all kinds of stuff. It’s a long bus ride. What else am I going to do. And by the time the bus ride is over, I already know that a woman named Elsie broke his heart and that he plays his guitar every night, trying to find the memory of her voice in the harmonics between the strings, and that his grandmother always called him by a name that was not his own and never explained why and that he hasn’t spoken to his mother in six years, even though she leaves a message on his phone every single day that says the exact same thing, “I’m just thinking about you and I love you. Call when you have a sec.”

He hasn’t told me any of these things, of course. And the character in my head isn’t him. Of course it isn’t. It’s just someone like him. It was my brain connecting the dots. It was my brain doing the work it is built for, which is to say, stories.

“Where do your characters come from?” they ask and I always want to shoot back, “Where does anyone come from? Your teacher, your friend, the guy who opens your drains, the meat inspector with the limp, the check-out clerk at the gas station with a wad of gum the size of a golf ball. Where do any of them come from?” And how can we separate what we know about the people we meet with what we invent? I don’t think we can. I think the creation of knowledge requires imagination. And that the world that we live in is largely imaginary. We invent the world around us and the people in it, again and again. We weave the known and the unknown into an experience that is uniquely ours. And we don’t even know that we’re doing it.

Instead I just say that I go fishing. I cast my nets into the sea of the mind and pull in a character. I don’t do this at all, but it is a quick and easy way of answering the question.

I get asked a lot which character is me. “Are you Jack?” they ask. “Are you Wendy or Violet or Cassian? Are you Ned or Aine or the horrible King Ott? Are your Sister Witch or Uncle Clive or Aunt Mabel? Which one are you exactly?”

The answer, of course, is none of them. And all of them. But mostly none. These characters have elements in them with which I identify, but they are not me. They are themselves. I met them one day and I got to know them, and I lived with them for a while. And I loved them. Each blessed one. They were like those roommates that you have in the crazy living situations that you get into those post-college ennui years when your life hasn’t quite found its feet. Those people that you stay up with until the sun rises talking about books or politics or music or whatever. Love. Loss. Love again. And you love them. Profoundly. And then their lives take a turn, or your life takes a turn, and they slip into the wide world and do not look back.

All you have then is a story.

The fact is, the world is filled with deeply interesting and broken and brave people. I have never turned anyone I’ve met into a character in my book. But I have honed in on the strange gifts of Self that people offer to me. I have kept little bits with me from my conversations and connections that never go away. For example: Once, when I was in my early twenties, I worked at a coffee shop in Portland, Oregon. It was a great job for an insomniac because I had to be there at quarter to five in the morning, when I was already up and fussing, and it gave me something else to fuss about. And I met a lot of interesting people in that job. For example:

The city inspector who would get really mad when people would ask if that little child was his granddaughter. He was sixty. His wife was twenty five. Every time someone said “granddaughter” his face would go red and his lips would suck in and he would hit the nearest table with his fist.

The lady who insisted that we call her “Mrs. Q” – I never learned her actual name. She was incredibly old – a body diminished to sticks and feathers and rice-paper skin. She had deep folds above her copper-colored eyes. She came in every day for a decaf latte that she would never finish. And every day, she would take out a yellowed sketch book. She never drew. She just looked at the pictures. I never knew why.

The guy who sold his zine (remember zines?) every Saturday from one of the back tables. No one bought them, so he started handing them out for free. He had been born a girl, and his wife had stayed with him loved him through his transition. I had never met a transgendered person before, though I know many now. I remember reading his zine – and he was very frank in his discussion of the trans experience, as well as his call for trans acceptance and the rights of all individuals across the gender spectrum – with a hunger for understanding. It’s not every day that someone gives you an open door to their experience, you know? He loved old band tee-shirts and he had very small feet, but large hands. He also had begun to lose his hair – an effect of hormones, he told me. “You don’t know before you start all this if you’re the guy who’s gonna go bald,” he said sadly, running his hand through his thinning hair. I told him it made him look distinguished. And I meant it.

And Horst. Oh, Horst! I’m pretty sure he was in the country illegally. He had been a student at the University of Oregon, but that didn’t work out, so he moved north to Portland. He always paid in cash, and said he avoided bars because he “didn’t believe in photo identification”. Horst was in his late twenties – blond, tall and narrowly built. He had high cheekbones and profoundly blue eyes. He asked me out every single day. Sometimes more than once a day. He knew I had a boyfriend (though I never said boyfriend. I said partner, because we were modern and forward in our thinking. And then people played the pronoun game, trying to pin me down as to which kind of partner I had exactly.). Horst was always cheerful about his lack of chances. “Make sure to tell me the second you’re single,” he’d say, giving a gentlemanly bow. The last time I saw him, it was December, 1998. I was twenty-five and recently pregnant, though I didn’t know it yet. Horst shows up in a long wool coat, covered, I remember, with tiny drops of rain, each shining like a jewel. He removed his hat. He had a purple, handmade scarf wound many times around his neck, and his face was so pale, as though he was made out of milk. He bowed again.

“I must bid you farewell, dear lady,” he said. He was always talking like that.

“Where are you going?” I said.

“I am taking my Volkswagon and traveling the width and breadth of you nation. By this time next year, I will be taking up residence in the desert, where I will prepare for Y-2k.”

There were a lot of these in Oregon at the time. Doomsdayers. Survivalists. My partner-soon-husband had just gotten a job with the city helping them with Y-2k readiness. People thought their microwaves would explode and their computers would melt, and that there would be utter anarchy.

“Why do you need to be in the desert to prepare for Y-2k?” I asked.

“You see, dearest,” he said, “we are entering a new phase of the human experiment. Currency as we know it will cease to exist. And good riddance. Numbers as we understand them will also cease to have meaning. Good riddance to that as well, I say. We are entering a time that we have been destined to enter since we first climbed out of the trees and learned to work together. Kindness will be our currency. Love will be our numbers. And an age of blessed one-ness will descend upon us all like sunshine.”

“Really?” I said.

“Most definitely,” he said.

“And the desert . . .”

“Oh,” he said with a casual wave. “I just like it.”

And then he bought a cup of chamomile tea. He paid for it in cash. And he foisted a fifty dollar bill in my hand as a tip. “Make sure you spend it this year, though,” he said. “It will just be paper soon.”

 

I have never put Horst in a story. But I think about him all the time. And I like to think that he is in the desert somewhere, staying in an old trailer, or a small cottage atop a small rise so he has an unobstructed view. And I like to think that he still has that scarf because the desert gets cold at night. And I like to think that he is paying for things in kindness. Because he is kind. And why not? And I like to think that he is meeting people and talking to people and that they are creating and storing stories of their own. That Horst exists in the narratives of people all over the country. And that he is everywhere. Perhaps in a story that you are writing, right now.

 

 

First Lines

Just a quick post today, as I hurry out the door to conduct my very last story-writing workshop at Chanhassen Elementary. But I wanted to share with you just a tiny bit of what these kids are doing.

I like to start my residencies with a workshop on First Lines. I do this for a number of reasons – firstly, because it’s a very non-threatening place to start for the possibly-reluctant writer. (“Hey!” I tell them. “We’re not writing full stories yet. Just a sentence. The first sentence of a story that you would like to read someday.” See how tricky I am? And see how I educate these children in the fine art of Self-Delusion, so necessary for a life built on fictions and lies.) Secondly, because it is the first line that sparks our love in stories. It is the first line that draws us in. It’s the first line that knocks us out of balance and forces us forward in our search for equilibrium.

The first line matters.

So I put the kids to work. And holy heck, do they ever produce. And they produce material that is so much richer so much more authentic than any worksheet or teaching aid that I could produce. This, of course, allows me to be lazy, which I appreciate.

Here are some of their first lines:

-It was never my intention to rule the world. I didn’t even want to rule my own town. But now I’m stuck with it.

– It is coming. Fast and faster than I could run.

-When I woke up, I was in jail.

– Nobody knows that I’m an alien.

– My mother is a dancer. My father is a dance. I have been dancing since before I was born.

– Do you know what an ordinary Saturday is like? Well lucky for you, because I don’t.

– He heard the hunters getting closer. He checked his watch. “Perfect timing,” he said.

– In the darkness, the white willows shone like ghosts and the moon shone like a shield.

YOU GUYS. These kids are amazing, and I will miss them.