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.
Goodbyes and hugs and Facebook friend requests. Promises to see L. and J. soon in the States. One more throw of the stick to the resident dogs.
We visited the world’s smallest train station, Will and Louise and Michael and Clare and me, and crowded onto a one-car train with all our luggage and said goodbye to Wales.
Goodbyes are funny; I would rather just avoid them. Full hugs, one-shouldered hugs, air kisses, real kisses. We would never all be together again in a castle, but that one time in that one castle was damn good.
Mom: Well, B ax had a day of not feeling too well. He didn’t eat for most of Sat. and Sun. On Sunday’s am walk, he kept stopping to [sic] pop but nothing came out. In the evening when we came home from Bible study was. Opened.
Me: Your message cut off.
Me: What was the last part, after you came home from Bible study?
Mom: Oops. We opened the door to a horrible smell. We found a very large puddle of runny poop.
Me: Oh no.
Mom: He had the forethought to poop on the hardwood floor, not the carpet.
Me: I’m… glad. How is he?
Mom: Seems more like himself today.
I’m sitting on a bit of the sea wall looking out at the beach in Manorbier, Wales. Will took a hike up to see something or other—I already forget, but he’ll tell me when he returns. The beach is covered with patches of red, blue and gray stones—I’ve sorted a few for my mom, matron of our rock-loving family.
There are dogs everywhere, on and off leash, in and out of the water. Very pale sunbathers—how will they walk away without a nasty burn?
Will is coming down now, a faint moving blur in his Last Podcast on the Left shirt, growing bigger as he approaches.
The wedding is over, although so many of us—Americans mostly, but Brits, too, are staying around for another day, so it seems like we’re still celebrating. It was the most beautiful wedding I’ve ever been to, and partly I wonder if I can now hang up my hat where weddings are concerned, if I can send regrets and just be done with it, as surely this was a high water mark for human achievements in the category of weddings.
Later, at Barafundle Bay
The fun thing—or one of—about having a bad knee is the limitations you suddenly discover.
I overheard several people saying that there was a beautiful walk to Barafundle Bay with steep stairs and a better beach view, and the scene began to play out in my head. Me walking too slowly, the group hanging back out of politeness, Will looking over his shoulder impatiently. I could feel my heart rate as I descended the steps, the fear that this would be the time my knee didn’t hold, that it would crumple beneath me and I wouldn’t be able to walk and it would take a team to carry me back to the car park (I’m even thinking in UK terms) and somehow a helicopter would have to and on this remote corner of the world, and I would have to stay in a UK hospital and then a rehab hospital for weeks (which fortunately, due to the NHS, might not cost me an arm and a leg).
So I said I would stay behind.
There’s a small, rocky beach here with rowboats and kayaks and cheerful people in wetsuits, one that doesn’t take an hour to hike to, and doesn’t require navigating steep steps. Farther out, there’s a towering seawall with a dozen or so teenagers jumping and diving off, then climbing up the tethered ropes to do it again. Their taunts and laughter float back across the bay.
Maybe there are cats tucked away indoors, unseen—one surprised me at the inn, where it glared up at me from a cat-fur covered couch cushion—but it would appear that Wales is a dog country. Everyone has one, and most are of the small-to-medium sized variety and of indeterminate breed. (The exception would be the Irish Wolfhound we saw stalking through the streets of Tenby with its scruffy-haired human at its side.) To a one, the dogs are remarkably well-behaved.
As I’m writing this, at a picnic bench in a lovely garden by the path to the bay, there’s a sweet dog curled under a neighboring bench, and the feet of a young couple eating a picnic out of a reusable bag that said I KNOW MY ONIONS, except the Os were all pictures of different kinds of onions. The dog—and its humans—looked blissfully happy.
Apparently although it is socially acceptable to visit a beautiful spot in the world and stare mindlessly at one’s cell phone screen, it is less acceptable to sit by oneself on a picnic bench writing in one’s journal. This observation is the result of several strange looks and one very pointed stare I received.
A tiny bird with a black undercarriage and yellow neck and feathers landed next to me, fixed me with a curious stare—what on earth was I doing, and why was I doing it?—and flew off.
The wedding. The wedding!
L. and J. were so happy. The weather was just warm enough to warrant the pints of Pimm’s Cup I consumed, learning halfway through what a Pimm’s Cup was: ginger ale, fruit, cucumber, mint, and Pimm’s #1 (gin). I made it through my reading without a hitch. Will engineered the sound like a champ. The service was excellent. The toasts were hilarious and touching and well-crafted. The food was great. I danced until my knee ordered me to stop and we stumbled happily back to the inn, singing George Michael.
Dad: So I got two calls from you during the night. I answered but you didn’t respond. I heard voices—one sounded lie Will—were those butt calls?
Me: So strange! I must have sat on my phone or something. Sorry! We are fine here. How are you?
Dad: Butt otherwise fine.
The wedding is a castle, and the castle has been rented for five days. During business hours, it’s open to the public. After hours, it belongs to the bride and groom, and their friends who keep trickling in from around the globe.
“We’re hanging out in a castle,” Will kept saying, squeezing my hand.
Will and I are staying across the street at an inn, which is mostly* lovely, with a group of other Americans, relatives and friends of the bride. There’s a charming dining room that serves breakfast for guests and other meals to anyone wandering by. And people do wander by—there’s the castle to see, of course, and then a short walk down to a beach or up to an ancient-looking church. From the garden of the inn, we can see visitors to the church wandering amongst the gravestones. So far we’ve been content to play with the inn’s dogs, who could literally fetch sticks and pieces of bark and tennis balls for hours.
*I set off the fire alarm at the inn by taking a shower. There was something wrong with the water controls. As I told Will after my first shower of the weekend, “Turn on the hot water and wait five minutes.” But the next day when I showered, I couldn’t seem to get any cold water. When I opened the door, the steam hit the fire detector, and a minute later, while I was still toweling off, the fire alarm started. Will went downstairs to see what was wrong and was told that someone in room 3 (me!) had let steam out of the bathroom, and voila! Piercing alarm.
The groom’s parents rented a tour bus for the American visitors (and some Brits, too) and we drove all around southwestern Wales.
We walked around Carew Castle (throw a stone anywhere and you could hit a castle. Well, not really), then were dropped off in Tenby. For some reason, we were all desperate for ice cream at the same moment, which is exactly my type of people and exactly my type of vacation.
Something happened on this trip—just a little something, ten minutes of panic, and not even to me—and sitting again in my seat in the bus, I could see it all as a piece of fiction, something I would write in a year when I was done with my current manuscript. The story unfolded in my mind, gaining characters, the moment extending backward and forward in time, the plot growing legs, becoming a story.
I promised myself to store it for later.
Some scenes from Tenby:
The day ended with the rehearsal and the following dinner, and a general sense of goodwill and warmth, partially fueled by new friendships, partially by wine, partially by weather that locals were calling “magic”—early rain gave way to puffy clouds and then an endless blue sky. And then it ended again with a trip to the pub up the street (literally everything here is just up the street), pints of Guinness, and mingling as guests from London began to arrive.
The barkeep was less than thrilled with our crowd, though—noisy Americans, drunken visitors. Every now and then I got a glimpse of him in the corner, scrolling through the feed on his phone.
Our train from Paddington was delayed by twenty-some minutes, which meant we missed the connection at Swansea to Manorbier.
“Don’t worry,” the agent told us, checking our tickets. “Talk to someone in an orange vest, and they’ll take care of you.”
We found the people in orange vests, who huddled, discussed, and herded those of us who were heading in the direction of Manorbier into two waiting taxis.
Will, in the early planning stages of this trip, had talked about renting a car at Heathrow and making the drive to Wales, and I was at turns skeptical and discouraging and firm. We’d been to Wales once before and I remembered the roads to be narrowing and winding, with towering hedgerows and nearly incomprehensible roundabouts, not to mention the added challenge of driving on the “wrong” side of the road.
Our taxi driver, in the tradition of taxi drivers everywhere, was in a hurry—he tailgated, he sped up to pass, he zipped between lanes and took the roundabouts at a speed that made me, in the backseat, long for a handful of Dramamine.
Views from the train...
On the radio:
September by Earth, Wind and Fire
Stuck in the Middle with You by Stealers Wheel
The driver’s GPS led us to Manorbier, the tiny town where we’d be staying for the wedding. He drove down the narrow road (but that describes all roads in Wales, at least from what I’ve seen of the southwest)—that lead to the train station, pulled forward, reversed, and said apologetically, “I’ll have to let you off here. There’s no carpark.”
We scrambled out and stood with our suitcases and the side of the road, just beyond what had to be the world’s tiniest train station, with the world’s tiniest platform, which was currently deserted. The driver sped off, and we looked at each other. It felt like we were standing in the middle of a road at the edge of the world, which I guess we were.
About two minutes later, a van came around a corner and we recognized Sadie behind the wheel. The van, a rental for the wedding weekend, reminded her of the A-Team. In the passenger seat was a woman with wild red curls. She opened the door, stepped out with her arms raised above her head and said (this only works if you can imagine it in a British accent): “Hello! I’m Jane!”
And we were headed toward our final destination.
(From my parents, taking care of Baxter, the beloved aging beagle and LG, the high-strung rat terrier).
Dad: Get enough rest for your knee.
Dad: LG is making a pest of herself on my lap.
Dad: Baxter concluded another walk and did not lose a shoe yet.
Dad: Hope you’re not at the Mandarin Hotel in London… because it’s burning.
Mom: We had a nice walk. The getting ready was the hard part. I naturally put LGs leash on wrong and had to redo, much to her consternation. One of Bs little boots came off on his first step onto the porch, so it was back into the house to try again. I was sweating before we left.
Paula Treick DeBoard