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It was the end of the first week of school. Students in my creative writing classes had been pounded all week with Strunk & White, William Zinsser, and the thousand and one unofficial “rules” of good writing. It was time for expression. It was time to put the “creative” back in creative writing.
I thumped a load of TIME magazines down on the table at the front of the classroom along with scissors, glue sticks, tape, and construction paper. Then I began explaining found poetry: that crazy-but-sometimes-deep hodgepodge of discovered, connected everyday language. My challenge to this group: “Take seemingly disparate words and phrases from these publications and bring them together in a way that appeals to your mind.” No limitations other than that. Just cut and paste. Form something that makes a semblance of sense to you — that’s it.
Then something magical happened. Students began to string together words and phrases in unexpected ways, forming verses about topics ranging from racial prejudice to missing class because of nature’s call. Some were expectedly cliche, but others struck a nerve, both in their authors and in me as their teacher. It was splendid. It was creative. It was (pardon the triteness) inspiring.
This was not the first time I’d seen the “cut and paste” exercise used — teachers have known about newspaper poetry and similar tricks for years. And of course, I’d been fortunate enough to have a grad school professor who encouraged us to use this exercise to loosen up our own creative muscles before. But when these high schoolers were set loose on the project, there was an unusual fervor in the air — it was as though they were finding treasures that would help display their souls. After a long week of reading the advice of the old, the dead, and the mundane, found poetry was just what the doctor ordered.
For us as writers, the occasional dabble into arts and crafts can likewise be a refresher. When faced with being stuck, the switch to tactile-kinesthetic arranging of words like refrigerator magnet poetry or word tiles can allow another part of the brain to do the work for a while. And sometimes, when monotony brings us down, colorful paper and scissors and paste can also remind us of a simpler time — one that perhaps inspired us to undertake the writer’s journey in the first place.
Recently, I’ve been consumed by one mistake that I’ve made throughout my writing and teaching life. In some ways, this error is stereotypically American: When I feel the need for change, instead of choosing something different, I just pile something else on. It’s a childish mindset really — I’m unhappy with the one thing, but if I had two things, I’d be happier. Fallacy, fallacy.
When I was a young man just starting out, I didn’t make much money. Oh sure, I’d been to college and done my part to begin a journalism career, but a fresh degree and limited experience meant a meager income. My solution was always working harder, not smarter. I’d take on extra jobs until my every waking moment was consumed with responsibility of one form or another. And when you’re just setting foot into “the real world,” being industrious is admirable. But I found out pretty quickly that burnout is very real, and being obligated non-stop is a great way to compromise your health.
The lesson didn’t stick, though. When I changed careers about four years after getting my bachelor’s degree, I began to repeat the same mistakes in education: “Oh, teachers don’t make much? That’s okay. I’ll just take on more duties. I’ll tutor after school and pick up some freelance gigs on the side.” By this time I was married, and the incessant lesson planning, grading, and researching were all taking their toll on the homefront.
I added titles to my own job description, becoming a technology guru, a committee and department leader, a curriculum developer, and a professional development coordinator. My writing, of course, was taking the back burner to my overwhelming career roles, all because I assumed that if I had more to do, I’d somehow be happier. And granted, the experiences I earned while tackling these titles proved valuable. I know about a wealth of fields that make me an asset in the workplace. But meanwhile, I still wasn’t content.
The truth was, I needed something different, not something more. One more graduate degree wasn’t the answer, despite my 4.0 GPA. One more assignment wasn’t the panacea to discontent.When you’re tired of digging ditches, buying more shovels isn’t the solution. I needed to work smarter, not harder, and I needed balance.
By shouldering more and more responsibility outside my home, I’d minimized the time I had for my family life. I had become that workaholic husband and father who can’t show up to his kids’ birthday parties, and writing? What was writing? Certainly there was no time for such frivolity. Our bank account was steadily reaping the benefits of my overexertion, but the price beneath my roof was far too great. It was time to restore some sanity and clarity to every part of my life.
I began cutting back on extra teaching opportunities, and started riding my bicycle again, for starters. I took a more active part in church life. My wife and I were dating again. I flew kites and threw Frisbees with my sons on the weekends. This was different, and it was good. Our financial situation was okay, but we still weren’t rich. And for one time in my life, I didn’t care. Money, I found, was reciprocal: we received what we gave, and often, we reaped more than we sowed, to use some biblical terminology. My new quest for balance and “smarter work” was paying off. My new and more flexible schedule now included a daily writing routine during the early morning hours, and soon, I had a thick volume of work. The MFA became not “one more degree,” but a natural outcropping from my own talents and interests, which my re-balanced life had shown me.
So now, as spring break draws nearer and the end of another school year will follow not long after, I feel another mile marker approaching. Change is coming in my professional life, and this time, my hope is that I’ll remember the lessons of my personal history. Work smarter, achieve balance, and don’t mistake more for different.
If my loyal readers will allow me, I would like today to take off my “poet’s cap” and put on my teacher’s mortarboard instead for just one post.
As summer draws to its end and a new school year eagerly waits right around the corner of the calendar, I feel the need to post something here for all you newly hired teachers and professors. I, too, was once that first-year teacher. Now I serve as a mentor to up-and-coming educators. In that capacity, I have composed a brief address to teachers new to my school. I feel that this address would benefit teachers in any school, but especially independent schools like my own. Here, for your encouragement, is that short speech:
ADDRESS TO NEW VANGUARD TEACHERS By John Davis Jr., educator and poet
Before you lies an incredible journey. You have the chance to truly and positively change lives if you take advantage of this moment in your career. At Vanguard, you can teach as you have always wanted to teach, and you can become the servant leader that American education so sorely needs today.
Here is the place where your grandest experiments and classroom daydreams can come to life, if you let them. Now is the time that all your compassion, all your patience, and all your skills will be needed daily. You will have to hug children that others have found unlovable, and you will have to give structure to students that have never known boundaries. You will need to prepare your best advice for broken hearts, best-friend betrayals, and even divorces and deaths. These students need your voice, and they need your shoulders.
They will seek you out to tell you of all their firsts. When they pass their driving exam, compliment their shiny new permit photo. When they lose a beloved family pet, put your arm around them and console them. When they fail at anything, encourage them. When they ask you the hard questions, be honest with them.They’ll respect you more for the truth than for some typical grown-up cliché. And at the end of the day, real life is really what they need to hear about the most.
They will bring you food they have cooked in culinary arts. Eat it enthusiastically, even if it’s horrible. They will show you pictures of what they plan to wear to prom. Tell them that it’s incredible, even if it’s hideous. They will proudly exhibit their latest woodworking project for you. Tell them how artistic it is, no matter how loose-jointed and awkward it may look.
Dress like you’re the boss, but be prepared to get sweaty, dirty, and even occasionally bruised. But know above all that the labor, the grit, and the pain are all worth it. You will become to these students a parent, an older sibling, and eventually, a fond remembrance. Even when they go off to college, they’ll spend part of their break coming to see you again if you’ve done the job right.
And when they have long since graduated, found their way, and started adult lives of their own, rest assured that you will be a main character in the stories they tell their children. Your advice, your lessons, and your every idiosyncrasy will be recounted for another generation, not because you are a sage or a superhero, but because at one time in one child’s life, you cared.
Give them your 100 percent every day, even when you feel like you only have 10 percent left. Laugh with them, share with them; invent new games with them. The greatest stories of your teaching life are ahead of you, educator. Be prepared.
In looking back over my site here, I noticed that last year I also posted on my birthday. I thought that by doing so again this year, it might make a nice little tradition of sorts. I promise, however, not to wax eloquent about my resolutions or grand goals for the year ahead. That’s what New Year’s posts are for, after all.
What I do know is this: Having made it through well more than a third of a century now, I feel an increasing compulsion to strengthen my legacy. An awful lot of my writing heroes were far better known and more respected than I before they were my current age. But with that said, an equally great number of authors I look up to weren’t even map dots on the literary landscape until they were much older. I’m increasingly thankful for those men and women who “bloomed late.” Their stories are consolations and reassurances when I, like another poet, find myself “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.”
In my twenties, I still didn’t possess the maturity and experience necessary to produce respectable literary work. Plenty of great writers have produced meaningful literature in their twenties, but I hadn’t even begun figuring out life. Even if I had attempted a graduate-level program or “the great American novel,” I probably would have done the bare minimum to get by, and spent most of my time dwelling in pseudo-angst that I associated with “the writer type.”
In other words, I would have adopted the persona of a writer — some weird hybrid of Edgar Allan Poe and Ernest Hemingway, no doubt — and become a self-fulfilling prophecy of bad habits and dramatic life choices. I would have been concerned with acting out a tragic and memorable biography rather than the actual writing of excellent work. In some ways, I did exactly that: During my post-college years as a journalist, I sought out dangerous assignments, got shot at, had broken bottles hurled at my head, drove through a wall of fire, and gained my fair share of other brushes with mortality. I felt like I had something to prove. My lifestyle made for great coffeehouse stories, but I wasn’t making any real difference. Police scanner on my hip, the only thing I sought was juicy headlines and personal adventure. My time in journalism was devoted almost exclusively to my own selfish desires. Employers were merely means to the end of front-page byline glory.
There is a distinct benefit in having more life behind me: Having evolved into a husband, father, educator, and community member, I’m able to see my place in the universe with a little greater clarity. Selfish concerns over identity and others’ perceptions are subordinate to the demands of family, work, school, and faith. Living through most of my thirties has allowed me to gain richer exposure to the world, and to better understand what it means to earnestly make a lasting impact. Maybe my writing won’t be the major part of my legacy; it could be that the students I’ve engaged are a bigger part of my future memoirs than my experiences in the literary realm. And I’m okay with that. In fact, more than okay. I’d like one day to say that I’ve measured my life, not in coffee spoons like Eliot, but in student successes (excuse the cliche). And if my poetry and my other words happen to find a place in the public consciousness while I’m at it, then so much the better.
Sure, I’m going to keep pushing my writing. Absolutely, I’m going to continue to submit and publish (hopefully) with regularity. Whether my printed words or my classroom creativity will become my greater contribution, I don’t know. And for right now, that’s perfectly fine. The next chapter is still waiting to be written.
This past semester, I admittedly struggled quite a bit in my Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing program. I attempted an essay I cared little (if any) about, changed directions two or three times in regards to the essay topic, and constantly received negative feedback on poems that I thought exceeded standards. Now that this past semester’s experience is over with, I do have one positive take-away from the whole experience: I know exactly who my audience ISN’T.
That being said, I hadn’t given a great deal of specific thought to my audience prior to this point. I always kind of thought that I wrote for the masses; people who work 9-5 shifts in average jobs, and who pretty much represent the American status quo. This semester, however, I figured out the precise people for whom my work is truly intended. Here they are:
I write for high school English teachers around this country. This notion is a bit selfish, perhaps, as I too am included in that demographic. But whenever I write something, I find myself giving it the English Teacher Litmus Test: If this piece were being taught to a group of 11th or 12th graders, would the teacher be able to point out interesting and relevant material? Would there be literary devices that the teacher could elaborate upon, imagery that is striking enough to deserve comments, and maybe some ambiguity that the students could be left to figure out? If I can picture teachers I know really delving into the poem and engaging in Socratic inquiry about it with their students, then my job is complete. Hopefully, the poem can be taught similarly at the college or graduate level with equal dexterity, just with slightly different vocabulary and greater critical analysis.
Had I not been forced to write for someone that disliked my work and often disparaged it adamantly without concrete reasons, I would not have been able to pinpoint the other side of the issue — that is, my truest target audience. People who know and appreciate the classics, people who have advanced understandings of the great literary traditions, and people who admire work that values history and beauty will probably enjoy the poems I produce. Proficient English teachers, those who love the language and its literature, fill this bill well. As a new semester is about to begin in just a matter of weeks, I look forward to writing for someone else who may or may not be my biggest fan. Either way, I expect that the feedback I receive on my work will help make my work stronger. Derogatory comments will be validated by credible, experienced, and informed perspectives rather than personal tastes and whims. Expectations will be communicated with explicit clarity and specificity rather than vague notions and glittering generalities. And maybe, just maybe, this mentor will see my work through the lens of my real intended audience — that 21st Century educator who really GETS poetry, and who equally inspires students to love it, as well.
It’s that magical time of the academic year when teachers and professors are thoroughly sick and tired of everything school-related, and unfortunately, that also sometimes includes students. I know, I know. Those in the pedagogical arts are supposed to be compassionate souls who never tire of their charges — that doesn’t stop us from being human, however. Every year about this same time, when I feel the negative vibes besetting me daily, I have a little routine that I choose to follow that also serves me well as a writer. I pick five.
Here’s what I mean: I teach juniors and seniors in high school. Among my juniors, I pick out five or so that I know I can and will make a meaningful difference to in the school year yet to come, when they are seniors. My seniors, of course, are graduating, so it becomes my priority to begin thinking ahead for the next go-round. Who among those 11th graders will I impact in a way that makes me their most unforgettable teacher? How will I reach them profoundly, leaving my impression on their future? By “picking five,” I find a reason to stick around for yet another year. Even if I’m only there for those selected few, I know I will have achieved a purpose that is greater than succumbing to my stress and shucking the whole thing in favor of real estate sales or marketing (not that there’s anything wrong with those professions; they’re just the first couple that sprang to mind).
For writers (and poets especially), this strategy requires a little tweaking: Pick five writing goals that you haven’t achieved (realistic ones), or choose five poetic forms that you haven’t yet mastered. I’m still trying to write a reasonably decent villanelle, for example. Don’t try to force words into those forms of course — that never works — but allow those forms to become subconscious targets. When inspiration next strikes, see if one or more of those forms might be fitting for the topic. For writers of other genres, maybe your “five” can be some new narrative devices or dialogue tricks that you haven’t tried out. In any event, identifying five goals can be beneficial for just about anybody.
So, as summer vacations await and beautiful weather beckons beyond your window, don’t quit your day job. Think of five reasons to do what you do best. Maybe those five things, whatever they happen to be, will keep you in the game a little longer and preserve your sanity.