When summer comes, great and yawning and wide, the students go away. It is, for us college teachers of writing, an unbroken stretch of space when we—if we choose—can listen to our own voices. Finally, I have time to write. I am writing. Or at least, I should be.
As a teaching professor at a private liberal arts college, my job is, first and foremost, to teach and advise undergraduates. But I teach writing. This passion of mucking about with words and language and making sense out of the mystery of how it happens—that’s what brought me into the classroom in the first place.
Before I began teaching college students fulltime a few years ago, I wrote a lot. I was a newspaper journalist at small dailies. I will admit I was not the most prolific of writers. My editors, I know, thought I was a bit slow, a bit obsessive. I loved nothing better than to tinker with a story even as it was being laid out on a page. But in my nine years writing for newspapers, the appetite to fill pages each day was insatiable. And so I wrote more words than I ever knew I had in me. Sometimes, I would start the writing in my head, in my car on my way into the office after an interview or meeting. When I got to my desk, I could just sit down at the keyboard and let the words unspool from my fingers. It was my trick. But it was not magic. A piece of writing was like a knot, and if I worked and worked on it long enough, it usually fell into shape.
I started my novel in graduate school four years ago, where I was a student, writer, and a new experience for me, a teacher. At first, I leaned on my laurels a bit. I thought journalism was good training for fiction writing. What I did not anticipate was how lonely it can be to work on a longer project. The satisfactory circle of writing and publishing doesn’t happen when you’re wrestling with plot and characters for years on end and learning a new career that you’ve wholly fallen in love with.
I should give myself credit: I have plenty of pages, at least 200 I’m happy with from perhaps 600 or so that sit in a file called “scraps,” like pieces of pastry left over from making a pie. I’m working on a historical novel set in the Midwest during the first half of the twenty century. It’s domestic, character-driven fiction. The plot comes from the people, and on a good day, these characters are as alive to me as my husband and the 50 or so freshmen I teach each semester. On bad days, I sit at my desk and grit my teeth and feel like I am working with paper dolls. Damn you, I say to my words, why are you so flat?
It is so much easier to talk about students’ writing, to field questions about thesis statements and research questions and library databases, to sit with them together over a draft, our heads bent over their words. I am full of animated advice when my students come to me about writer’s block. I wave around handouts. I remind them of exercises we’ve practiced in class. Have you tried writing with the monitor off, I ask. Have you tried writing with a white font and then making it visible? Radically: have you tried writing with on paper with a pen? I suggest a walk, a run, a day away from the page. Often the useful thing I can do is to just listen.
“What’s the secret?” one student asked me a couple of years ago. “Secret?” I repeated blankly, and then I realized what he thought: that I’ve been tapped as the Keeper of the Keys of Good Writing. Little does he know that I’m still an apprentice, too, further along the path, for sure, but that as a writer and a teacher I never stop learning, either. That I may be in front of the curtain, but that one of my joys as a teacher is to pull it back a little and show students that we’re all just trying to figure it out it. And that is writing, too: permission to figuring things out from the glorious messes we make on the page. Permission to ask questions that might not have answers. Permission to tangle with the knot.
Then comes summer, and I am left all alone with myself.
What I need to do to write is weed the vegetable garden. What I need to do is to paint the fence. What I need to do is to wash every window, inside and out. What I need to do is plan a class I am not teaching until Spring 2016. What I need to do is order more books from the library, because if I am ordering books, I am doing research, and that means I’m writing, right?
What I need is to move all my research materials to my campus office, my lovely office, high up on a third floor in a 1960s collegiate brick building that looks like most 1960s collegiate brick buildings, with its big window and cool, blue morning light. Here, I will write this summer. A colleague drifts by in his
out-of-classroom uniform: a craft brewery t-shirt, jeans, the stubble of a half-formed beard. He is writing. Everyone is writing. What I need is tea. What I need is iced tea. What I need is iced mint tea, the kind from Trader Joe’s, organic, a “mélange” of peppermint, spearmint, and lemon grass. Ah! What I definitely need is lemon grass.
Back at home, I sit down at my laptop with purpose. I spell check my outline. I watch Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on creativity for the hundredth time. I won’t even talk about Facebook. I move to the dining room, to the kitchen table. I get up, go to the bathroom mirror to count my gray hairs. I make more tea.
Maxine Hairston, a writing professor at the University of Texas at Austin who died in 2005, attempted to diagnose the problem of writing teachers not writing in 1986. That was a lifetime ago now but she wrote with compassion, describing her own brief hole of melancholy after signing a book contract. She climbed out of it five pages a time, chaining herself to her typewriter (yes, those were the days of typewriters). “The writing teacher who doesn’t write,” she wrote, “is in no more position to diagnose difficulties and offer advice than a soccer coach who has never played soccer.”
See, I think as I read this recently. I really should be writing.
It’s hard for me to even admit that I have writer’s block or anxiety about writing, but here I go. I consider the people—generous, kind people, people much smarter than me, including from my own university—who have given me money to research and write this book. I recall the very good writers who haven’t gotten anywhere on this journey. To write does not guarantee to publish. This project, the longest I have ever worked on anything, including each of my degrees, might ultimately not see the light of day but end as a digital relic taking up space in my Dropbox account.
Anxiety in particular is not something I talk about much, but it is my natural resting state. I go back and forth between actively confronting this side of me, doing all the things modern medicine tells us we are supposed to do to fix such aliments and accepting it as part of who I am. It’s my humanness much like my dark hair and my very nearsighted eyes and my preference for red over green peppers. In some ways, isn’t it what keeps me going? Take that away, and where would I be?
The relationship between writers and anxiety is nothing new. Every writer struggles at some point with the blank page and the blinking cursor, but for someone like me who has friends and family who have jobs that don’t give them three months more or less free in one deep plunge, my inner monologue is especially self-punishing. Why can’t I enjoy this time? What is wrong with me? Why am I wasting this?
The other afternoon, I finally got somewhere. I aimed at the middle of a chapter I thought needed more substance. This was a sneaky way in, a kind of back door approach. Like a burglar, I looked for weakness and opportunity: a broken deadbolt, a cracked window, a torn screen. I’ll take it. Writing is writing, even if it is rewriting. It is slow going but words are coming out.
In graduate school, in the midst of intense thesis revising, a student asked me if I even liked writing. I remember fumbling some kind of cheerful answer. I would be more honest with that student now, and the secrets student, and all my students. I used to think I needed to write for myself. Now I know I also need to write for my students so I can remember what this—this hole, this pit, this fear, because that’s what it really is—feels like. So when we are sitting around the little square table in my office this fall, with the window open and the cool morning light shifting into afternoon gold, me offering 18-year-olds tea they won’t drink anyway, that I know, again and again and again what it is like to scuffle, to scrape, and to come out the other side.