One of the essays I most love to teach is “Once More to the Lake” by E.B. White. In that short essay, White recounts lake trips he took with his father each summer, and he tells the reader about his own encounter with his son at the same lake. Throughout the essay, he sees his father in himself, and he sees himself in his son. The essay is full of vivid imagery (as one would expect from the author of Charlotte’s Web), and it muses fondly without straying into rank sentimentality.
Last weekend, my wife, sons, and I went back to a lake house where I spent some summer days in my own youth. Much like White, I got to see history repeating itself. My boys discovered the joy of diving off a dock, feeling the white sand of the lake bottom against bare feet, collapsing at night in the pleasant exertion of a day spent swimming, swinging from a rope swing, and soaking in Florida sunlight.
But there were differences, too. For one, my experiences at the lake house were usually large family affairs, surrounded by countless cousins and massive amounts of home-cooked food. People were busy skiing and knee-boarding, and it was hard to find a place that was not already occupied by beloved others. As much as I revel in the memories of those large family gatherings, this past weekend had several advantages over the bigger productions of my boyhood.
We were able to connect to one another in meaningful ways since it was only us. We played card games, watched a movie or two, and the rest of the time was spent on the lake or engaged in some form of relaxation. My sons used light-up swords to “duel” each other in the evening outside. We made memories. We conversed. We escaped.
And while part of me longs for the days of yesteryear, complete with now-departed family members and the squirt-gun spirit of boyish mischief, another part is deeply satisfied with this present — a time when I as a father can watch my sons discover the new-old joys of a near-summer day on the lake, one complete with colder morning water that warms gradually throughout the morning and into the afternoon.
I get it now, E.B. I’ve stepped into your shoes a little. I’ve felt the creep of age slowly maturing me from descendant into ancestor, and I’m okay with that. One day my boys will undoubtedly have similar feelings as generations continue to unfold. It’s the way things are meant to be.
With all due respect to Marie Kondo and other “organization” experts, I’m not making my space utterly devoid of stuff. Here’s why: Stuff has history. Stuff is full of inspiration, and sometimes it can make us think in ways we ordinarily wouldn’t. And finally, stuff has meaning. If a thing has beauty as well as function, then it ceases to be what some experts would call “clutter.”
Now before you call Hoarders and report me, let me say that there’s an extent to everything. My study is not overflowing with so much junk that I can’t even move, let alone think. But I do have a number of objects that I keep because of their inherent aesthetic value. Here, I’d like to talk just a little about the items I hold dear as a writer, and how my practice might suffer without them.
Good pens are the frontline workers of the creative life. When smooth ink is flowing freely, filling good paper with artfully rendered words, the whole experience of writing is improved. I prefer old-school fountain pens because they connect me to generations of great minds well before our all-things-temporary present. Watching a crafted nib do its work motivates a writer to do his work in an equally elegant way. On my podcast, I talk about how connecting to things by touch can result in artistic revelation, thereby generating more output (writing or otherwise). Good fountain pens are probably the prime examples of this idea in action, and they’re good for Socratic Journaling, another idea explored on my podcast.
Some of the stuff I keep has sentimental value. My Great Uncle Hy was a swell guy — he was a businessman through and through, and over his lifetime, he did well for himself. One relic of his that I’ve kept is the translucent heavy green glass ashtray he used when smoking his after-dinner pipe. While I’m not a smoker myself, I use it these days to hold the aforementioned fountain pens and other office sundries. It catches the light the same way it did when I was a boy and became fascinated by its color and brilliance. The memory of Uncle Hy and his industriousness keeps me going when I feel like slacking off.
Some things call out to you when you see them. Such was the case when I saw this little faux ivory box at The Oxford Exchange in downtown Tampa. It holds paper clips and thumbtacks mostly, but it also reminds me to stay true in my direction. Its weight is pleasantly permanent, and opening it is always an experience filled with possibility, even though I’m well aware of what’s inside. There’s a kind of Indiana Jones mystique about it, so yes, it stays.
My leather briefcase was given to me by my mother after I received my first master’s degree. Over the years, it has been to Lisbon, Portugal, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and lots of other spots. It holds everything I need, and frankly, it has become an extension of me — rare is the day when I walk onto campus without it. It even smells like literature.
So there you have it — an assortment of objects and keepsakes that make my literary life a little more inspiring. Minimalists and Feng Shui practitioners take note: These items might not be totally utilitarian, but they absolutely influence my creative process. Maybe you’ll say I should be willing to part with some of what I’ve mentioned here — my reasoning is too maudlin or clingy for your taste. Therein lies the beauty of stuff: Shakespeare was right when he said, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I enjoy beholding everything you’ve seen here. End of story.
Are there things that you can’t part with? Items that you’d feel a little more empty without? Use the comments section below to tell about your most cherished or prized creative possession…
When I give readings, seminars, and workshops, I’m sometimes asked what my “process” is for writing a poem. That’s been pretty hard to elucidate until now. I just put together a new for-fun class on Skillshare here: Skillshare Poetry Class
In this course, I take students through the process of writing a poem. We begin with inspiration and how it gets generated, and then we proceed all the way through to the final, publishable draft of a poem. If you’re interested, I’d really love for you to join and be my “student.”
I’d also really like to see the poems that you create as a result of this class — Who knows? Maybe the next “Dover Beach” will happen thanks to this little endeavor…
Confession: I call my mother daily. Recently, my stepdad passed away, leaving her with an empty house, a garden, and a few civic and church gatherings to occupy her time. Sometimes we talk about my nieces and my sons, two topics that equally delight us both. Other times, we discuss politics, religion, and good literature; after all, my mother was an English teacher for about 30 years. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, just in an unexpected direction.
Yesterday as we were conversing, though, she said something that stood out to me regarding my present profession: “God wanted you to be a poet, and He knew that your current job would allow you to make a decent living and write at the same time.”
Whether you’re a believer or not, one must admit that my mother’s spiritual logic certainly adds up: I’ve been in jobs where I was so consumed (creatively and otherwise) that I had no extra energy, time, or inspiration for poetry. In those jobs, I was miserable. The intrinsic and extrinsic rewards were okay, and occasionally, I was able to truly make a difference. But the holes that those jobs cut into my literary life were deep and regrettable. A whole piece of myself was being neglected.
These days, I don’t really have that problem. My professional position requires attention and diligence, as all fulfilling careers should. But when I go home or away from my office, I am, for the most part, free of work-related obligations. There was a time when work came home with me — papers to grade, questions to answer at all hours, and, many years ago, a pager that kept me at my boss’s beck and call 24/7. This kind of devotion, I told myself, would prove my value to my employer. And certainly hard work is a time-honored ethic exhibited by everyone I esteem.
However, having a career that allows me, even rewards me, for poetic accomplishments is nothing short of miraculous. Sometimes I forget how truly blessed I am to even be alive (see prior posts for details on my harrowing journey through epilepsy and its resulting brain surgery). And then, to be in a job that really “gets” me and supports both my academic and literary endeavors? Wow — jackpot.
Mom’s right. This path I’m on is no accident. The work I’m doing, both inside and outside my office, is ordained. And it will be interesting to see how the future unfolds itself as a result.
This year, my oldest son is beginning high school. As a freshman, he has begun considering possible college majors that he’d like to aim toward. His big love is theater, especially musical theater (insert pragmatic-dad eye roll here). He is a member of the school band, and he is trying out agriculture, as our family has a long history of farming in addition to teaching and other professions.
As much as I’d like to give him the whole lecture about “getting a degree in something useful,” I’m realize in no position to advise him to be practical about his eventual course of study. I’ve done a pretty unconventional thing, earning a terminal degree in creative writing later in life, and I can’t say it has turned out badly. No matter how many guidance counselors and career advisers may say otherwise, getting a degree (or two!) in the liberal arts can in fact make life more fulfilling.
Readers of this blog know that I recently spent a week in the Wisconsin Northwoods, leading poetry workshops and kayaking the lakes of a beautiful part of the country:
And earlier this summer, I spent a week in Appalachia simply pondering how best to order my latest manuscript of poems:
Then there was the summer of my 40th birthday, where the whole family and I traveled to Lisbon, Portugal because I received a partial scholarship to attend the Disquiet International Literary Program:
And before I became an “international” poet, there was the summer I spent a week at the Juniper Writers Institute (also on a scholarship), where I explored the home of Emily Dickinson:
And the farm of Robert Frost in Derry, New Hampshire:
Oh, and then there was the time (in the middle of my MFA program) that I was kindly given a full ride to the Glen West Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This would have been in 2013:
Add to that the workshops, seminars, and conferences that I’ve been able to attend closer to home (The National Graduate Creative Writing Conference in Carrollton, GA; AWP in Tampa; the Other Words conference at Flagler College in Jacksonville, and many, many, more), and you’ve got yourself quite a travel itinerary spread out over 10 or 12 years.
Lest the audience think that I am only measuring meaning by travel, there are plenty of other ways that my liberal arts degrees have enhanced my biography. Before I entered the realm of education, I used my Bachelor of Arts degree in print journalism to report for newspapers — now nearly an extinct species. In the process, I drove through (over!) the flames of brush fires, got shot at twice, had a beer bottle hurled at my head during a riot, and witnessed life in a way that few other people ever experience.
I spoke with flood survivors, celebrities big and small, government officials, and even the occasional inmate. All these experiences expanded my lens and allowed me to view the world from a variety of perspectives. It wasn’t the liberal arts degree that provided breadth and open-mindedness about our human situation; those understandings came along well after I’d received diplomas, in fact. But I never would have had those encounters without the degrees I earned, and I absolutely would not have interpreted those encounters in the same way sans higher education.
“But what about the money?” you may ask. “Is it true that people with liberal arts degrees earn less than those with vocational and technical degrees?” While I can’t speak to the assets held by those in hands-on professions, I can tell you that we’ve always had enough. My two boys, my wife, and I have had sufficiency and surplus in varying frequency, and even during times of struggle, our scenario has been eased by the knowledge that we are not the only ones to have faced difficulty. A thorough education in the humanities provided both fictional and nonfictional examples from which to learn. Some of our Christmases may have looked like the Bob Cratchit family or an O. Henry short story, but along with that sparsity came the closeness that such stories also featured. Enduring with beloved others is its own wealth.
“What about the cost? Not everyone can afford a spiffy degree from a small, private institution, you know…” True enough. I’m well aware of our national student debt crisis, and I also know that liberal arts colleges can be expensive. For me, the payoff has been worth the initial investment. The promises made by my parents and grandparents turned out to be true: Earn a college degree/ start a career/ live the American Dream, etc. Certainly this has not always been the result for others. I’ll leave it at that.
I do know that when someone is willing to work hard and smart, when he or she gives back to the profession, and when relationships are tended with near-agricultural precision, a liberal arts degree can help make life worthwhile. Sure, there’s a Wall Street Journal article that also bears out the truth of what I’m saying, but for today, I’m speaking from personal experience.
What am I going to tell my son about earning a “useless” degree? Go for it. No, I’m not a proponent of “follow your bliss” or “do what makes you happy” exclusively, but we need at least some modest enjoyment from making our livelihood. Work is still going to be work, no matter what, but fulfillment? That can be achieved, and a liberal arts degree can serve as the welcome mat for it.
It’s that time again: Parents prepare to send their kids off to school for the next go-round, hoping that this year will be the best so far. Teachers eagerly decorate classrooms, plan vivid and engaging lessons, check class rosters, and pick apart data.
As someone who spent 15 years in the secondary classroom before moving into higher ed, I distinctly recall all the dreamy potential that this time of year can represent for parents, students, and teachers — it’s a blank slate, a fresh start, and a million other tabla-rasa cliches rolled into one. It is hope and nerves. It is the smell of paper, the satisfaction of checked-off lists, and the promise of a brightly lit, welcoming space away from home. It is its own magic.
But the real work is about to begin. The daydream of clean faces, happy chatter, and new clothes will soon be supplanted by young people facing issues from abuse to homelessness (and more). The shiny technology and glossy posters will matter less than empty stomachs and forgotten texts. Teacher, what will you do then?
I don’t mean to quell the inspiration of a new year. I really don’t. Love those new stickers for your gradebook. Enjoy the cool, smooth plastic of fresh whiteboard markers. But also understand that the highs of August wear off quickly, and if you don’t love teaching and students, endorphins and dopamine will only last so long.
Teacher, I hope you are excited by those learners seated before you. I hope you are just as passionate about your subject as you have ever been and that your passion is virally contagious. I hope you have ideas for activities, strategies, and projects that will make Disney World seem dull. And above all else, I hope that the instructional fire within you burns bright All. Year. Long.
I wish you all this not just because I’m a parent, not just because I’ve been there, but because our profession (and our youth) need you now more than ever. Amid the bickering about pay scales, the ingratitude of an uninformed public, and the ever-increasing demands of governments large and small, remember your calling. Education isn’t just grading worksheets and administering assessments. It truly, truly is touching lives, leaving a legacy, and yes, making the greatest differences.
Maybe you won’t be a movie teacher like Jaime Escalante or Erin Gruwell. Maybe you’ll just be yourself, whatever that means. But you are exactly the person that at least one student is desperately seeking. Be the calm in their storm. Be the high point of their day. Be unforgettable.
America, its children, and its future are relying on you. We know it’s hard. We know there will be days of frustration, tears, and inimitable joy, sometimes all at once. Teaching means poetry. You chose this life, and we so deeply admire you.
Greet this year with greatness, and then nurture it, sustain it. You can do it, our children can do it, and tomorrow will be better because of it. This is your time. Inspire.