Today is the first day of my fall semester. Oh, did I mention I’m also a teacher?
Which came first, you might ask? That’s easy. I was always a writer. In fact, if you count the scribbles I made in notebooks since I learned to pick up a chubby pencil for toddlers, I’ve been writing for nearly forty years.
When my family made our big move from the Midwest in the 1980s, my mom went back to school for a California teaching credential. She subbed during the day and did school work at night, on weekends and during the summer. When she was hired to teach third and fourth graders, a job she loved for more than two decades, she often brought her work home with her. After dinner, with the dishes loaded and pots drying in the rack, she spread out worksheets and teacher’s editions and a lesson planning book on the kitchen table. Sometimes I joined her there with the handwritten first drafts of my essays, the math problems that were virtually incomprehensible. It was bad enough that I had homework every night, but I couldn’t understand how my mom, an adult who presumably had other options, lived that way, night after night, year after year.
So I swore right then and there I would never become a teacher.
Fast forward to 2001, when I entered a classroom at Oakdale High School as a twenty-four-year-old who was desperately trying to look closer to thirty—i.e., an authority figure, not a contemporary of my eighteen-year-old seniors.
Fast forward again—it’s 2018, and I’ve taught eight years of high school, two years of junior high, four years at a community college, and I’m starting my fourth year at a university.
Not only did I become a teacher… I became an English teacher with a specialization in the teaching of writing. We’re a rare breed of masochists; when we escape the reading for our courses, it’s often into more reading (but this time for pleasure). When we aren’t teaching our students to write, we’re often writing ourselves. When we get together, we talk about what we’re reading, and what our students are writing. In short, we talk shop.
And we freaking love it.
In 2008, I left my full-time teaching job for a part-time teaching job and a full-time commitment as a graduate student in an MFA program. I was teaching and writing a novel, and it was busy but doable: I simply compartmentalized everything about my life. Mornings were for writing; afternoons were for teaching. I graded two nights a week and edited and revised the other nights. Early Saturday and Sunday mornings were for writing. When something happened to disrupt this plan—a dentist appointment, say, or lunch with a friend, I submitted with a sense of deep unease. Those interruptions inevitably came during writing time, and damn it, the book wasn’t going to write itself.
Fast forward again—four novels in five years. There was a sticky four months when I was teaching 18 units at two different campuses an hour apart while under a deadline for The Drowning Girls when I checked myself into a hotel around the corner from my house and a large patch of my hair actually turned white, but otherwise: doable. I’ve gotten used to the balance, which is how I’ve come to think of it—writing on one side, teaching writing on the other. Although the worlds occasionally intersect in amazing ways, I’m protective of each when I’m doing the other. I’m cautious with how I talk about my work in progress; I have a public Facebook page where I rarely mention teaching.
How in the world do you do it, Paula?
I compartmentalize. (And it’s not completely healthy.)
I’m asked pretty frequently by people who know my dual personas (or alter egos, as I sometimes think of them), if I’m going to drop teaching for writing, or vice versa. My answer is always no. Or at least: not yet. Not now. I know that I’m lucky. I’ve found not one but two things that I love. Within each profession, I’ve found a community of creative, passionate people who are forward-thinking and doers. I get to satisfy my intellectual self, the one who finds herself reading a 20-page article on teaching methodologies on a Friday night, and my creative self, who dives into this week’s new release when I’m on the treadmill.
In the Venn diagram of teaching and writing, I’m planted in the overlapping circles—and of course, I’m not alone.
Lots of teacher/writers are headed back to school in the next few weeks, if we aren’t there already. Some of us will get up early to write, or carve out time on the weekends, or late at night when the kids are in bed. Some of us will have to forego an afternoon of writing because that stack of essays (mine is an online stack, but still very real) is demanding our attention. We’ll look ahead on the calendar for those odd days off—Labor Day, Veteran’s Day, the Wednesday before and the Friday after Thanksgiving—and make big writing plans, and maybe this year we’ll even keep them.
As for me, I made decent progress on my WIP this summer, and although I’m already having separation anxiety—I’ll have long weekends, but not much writing time during the week—I guess by now I know I’m up for the challenge. My goal (official now, since I’m announcing it in writing in a public place…) is to finish that first draft by Christmas.
Which will be a relief, because the next idea is already knocking at my brain.
This week I reread my first book.
It was on my summer to-do list, but one thing or another kept getting bumped to the top of that list—a room that needed repainting, a filing cabinet full of old papers that needed to be shredded, a new shredder that needed to be purchased when the old one let out a sudden electrical-scented belch.
Okay. I was stalling. And although I honestly do love repainting rooms and shredding old files, even I could see that procrastination had reared its ugly head and was bumping up against my consciousness, whispering unhelpful things like don’t do it. And nothing good can come of this.
Occasionally when I’m in front of a room of booklovers, speaking about my writing process, someone will ask: “Do you ever go back and reread your old work?”
The answer is an unequivocal no. Not if I can help it.
I told this to a college fiction-writing class once, and I still remember them staring at me, some skeptical, some open-mouthed. Clearly some of them didn’t believe me. Clearly others thought I was insane. By my own account I had spent so many hours and weeks and months (and really, years) on the story, so how could I just abandon it? Was I ashamed of the work I had done?
No, no, I tried to assure them. I’m proud of my work. (Go buy the book! It’s great!) It’s not shame that keeps me away.
It’s something more like fear, but it’s a fear tinged with a biting, hard nostalgia. It’s not the easiest thing to explain to myself, and to the dear almost-twenty-somethings in my fiction writing class, it was damn near impossible.
I’ve heard of other writers who shared this feeling, but I wouldn’t assume it’s universal. From my own life, I can say—I wasn’t always this way. I was the type of student who craved the praise of my teachers and professors, and I often reread their positive comments along with the words that inspired them, so many times in fact that I memorized long passages of my own work, that still sometimes creep back into my mind.
(Is it weird to hear your own voice quoting yourself inside your head? Sure. Or probably.)
When I began writing fiction—seriously writing it, as an adult, with no possibility of a professor’s praise—it was different. I worked tirelessly on those short stories and vignettes and chapter ones of books that went nowhere, constantly looping back to reread, to slash and cut, to switch out a word, to repeat a phrase out loud until the rhythm and sound became the particular chord I wanted to strike. I obsessed over words like a poet; I tangled and untangled sentences like the grammarian I aspired to be. I put myself, mentally, in the character’s shoes. What would she be thinking right now? How would he react to this news?
I submitted short stories for years, getting a few plum hits just when I needed them, when I’d begun to wander from my open Word doc to an online job search. Now I was writing for publication—no matter how much I wanted to keep picking at the words, when the story was accepted, it was done. It was too late to go back to a contested comma, or add in a thoughtful reflection about childhood (which an editor probably would have cut, anyway, in service of the larger story), or in fact, change anything.
That’s part of the fear, then, that I’ll pick up the story and have regrets, the what-might-have-beens for the character or the story or even, sigh, that one particular sentence.
I wrote The Mourning Hours as a creative thesis for my MFA program. Or at least—I wrote a good solid draft of the book for that program, racing against packet deadlines and graduation deadlines and perhaps bumping up against the limit of my advisor’s generosity (I went about 200 pages over the page length, but still received liberal, detailed feedback).
Then I found a literary agent, and she pitched the book to various publishers, and I was offered a two-book deal, and even though I’m summarizing this quickly because I want to head somewhere else with this reflection—this was life-changing. The Mourning Hours is associated with that for me, the time that something went from a dream to reality, that hopeful innocent time when, to bring the book into the world, I had to unwind her moorings and point her toward sea and stand on the shore... depleted and lonely.
I have reread sections of The Mourning Hours since its publication, of course. I’ve read the prologue and chapter one to so many audiences that I could probably, even today, do it off script.
But until the very tail end of this summer, with my teaching life lurking around the corner waiting to absorb my time again, I hadn’t read the entire book cover to cover. And if I hadn’t made an important decision with my current manuscript, I might never have picked it up at all.
Last December, in a post-surgical haze, I had an epiphany with my current WIP: What if the story took place, at about the same time and same location as The Mourning Hours? I loved the time period—the early 90s—and have deep roots to the place—near Manitowoc, Wisconsin—and the more I turned the idea over in my mind, the more it grew. What if the storylines ran parallel to each other? What if they intersected, with characters from my new work interacting with characters from The Mourning Hours?
The possibilities were too enticing. I kept playing with the idea, making notes, circling back, and writing. And writing and writing. And even though I remembered the story of The Mourning Hours fairly well—I knew that to be honest to both my new work and the old, I needed to crack the cover.
This isn’t meant as an advertisement for The Mourning Hours, and anyway, if you’ve read this far, it’s likely that you’ve already read the book. But here’s how it went for me:
Sunday, 8/3: Pick up the book post-run, post-shower, still sweaty, and devour the first 50 pages. Realize at some point that I’m crying. Set the book down.
Monday, 8/4: Read another 50 pages. Decide this is a sustainable pace, and anyway, after about 50 pages I’m so overwhelmed, it’s hard to read more. It’s like visiting out of the blue people I was once close to, once loved and cared about and worried over. They’ve stayed the same (I am aware, on some level, that they were never real people to begin with), but I’ve changed. I’m in a different place in my life. I’m in a different place as a writer. It’s too much.
Tuesday, 8/5: Read another 50 pages, this time in the afternoon, with a dog on my lap and a house fan trained on me, rattling the pages as I turn them. Get so sucked into the story that I forget for a moment that I know how this ends. Get so emotional that I want to correct all the characters’ bad decisions until there’s no story worth sharing. Put the book down.
Wednesday, 8/6: Read the last 200+ pages in a breathless clip. Remember everything about writing the book, all the decisions I made with characters’ names and places, the dozens of times I studied Wisconsin on Google maps, the way the title of the book came about, and how afterwards I had to find a place in the story to insert those three words. Remember writing the book mostly at The Queen Bean from early morning until the lunch crowd arrived. Remember how tentatively I shared it with friends and family members, so worried about their reactions. Ugly cry for what happened to these people, for what I put them through, and ugly cry again for the moments of redemption, some of which come too late. Set aside book and talk to dog and try to feel what I’m feeling, unmoored again, but not necessarily lost. Maybe even something more close to found.
I went back to my new manuscript at the end of this week. There’s more work to be done there, but I found I was feeling it more. The characters seemed more real, which is how I always want them to feel. And the place gave its familiar tug, like a giant magnet buried beneath the ground, pulling me closer.
And then I set The Mourning Hours very carefully back on my bookshelf, where it will be waiting for me in the future, a faraway time I can’t even imagine now, for a faraway, but still grateful, me.
Paula Treick DeBoard