poetry, Uncategorized

Gift vs. Calling: Which is it?

giftcallingAs I am completing the final semester of the Master of Fine Arts degree program and preparing for a new school year ahead, recently my thoughts have drifted toward the contrast between gifts and callings. Some people, especially in both religious and creative circles, use these words interchangeably. I see a difference, however.

Here’s my take: We are all gifted in some way. For some of us, music or art or science becomes the field where our most innate abilities shine through, and we experience an ease and flow in those fields that is nothing short of supernatural. Others are gifted with mechanical skills, and still others are gifted with people and relationships. I give these examples to clarify a bigger picture: Our gifts are those things that are naturally easy for us, and lie in those areas where we demonstrate talent. Is a gift a calling, however?

Your gift(s) can be part of a higher life calling, certainly. For instance, as a child, I quickly learned that I had an “ear” for music. I could sit down at a keyboard and peck out basic tunes, even adding left hand parts consisting of chords. That musical ability, however, was not my calling. In high school, other students rose to the top in chorus class and in other musical endeavors while my gift remained handy for family entertainment and recreation. I knew, even at that time, that music would not be the purpose or great mission of my life. I lacked persistence, devotion, and mathematical skills — all attributes that a professional musician needs. I still enjoyed playing piano and guitar, but they would be, at the most, hobbies.

As I progressed through school, though, I felt a great urge and need to express myself in writing. At first, short fiction pieces based on spy stories or detective cases were my outlet. With maturity came evolution, however, and my writing efforts turned toward poetry. There, in the writing of poems, I felt a certain inspiration that went beyond cognition, and held a deeper significance than mere proficiency. I knew that I had to be a writer. My teachers encouraged me, my family praised my humble first efforts, and I was on my way. My musical ear contributed to my poetic sensibility, tuning me into which words were “sour notes” and which ones flowed like a symphony. My earlier gift contributed to this larger calling.

Like Moses with his speech impediment, I also never thought of myself as a people leader. The front of the classroom seemed as alien to a younger me as becoming an astronaut. Strangely, my life was allowed to proceed in such a way that I was directed to teaching — I was spit up by a whale of circumstances onto the pedagogical shore that has since become my happiest home. Teaching is definitely a calling, and it is one not to be ignored or taken lightly. Many of my other gifts play into the classroom daily — whether it’s music, creativity, literature or nature, my loves and my abilities combine inside the walls of school to give students a memorable and meaningful experience. Teaching was not my initial “gift,” but as a calling, education has allowed me to use all of my talents in an exponential way: others are equipped and prepared through the use of those gifts that seemed like fun pastimes during another chapter of my life.

Teaching and writing are both gifts and callings for different people. There are phenomenal teachers who never darken the door of the schoolhouse, just as there are diligent journal-keepers who will never see their names on the NYT bestseller list. Their gift is not their calling. We are called, though, to use our gifts in the bigger picture — that profession or vocation that we are pointed toward, where our calling waits for us to answer.

poetry, Uncategorized

Experiential Education for Writers

In the middle of the twentieth century, critical theorist John Dewey put forth his then-radical idea that experiences equal education. Dewey, considered the father of the progressive movement, posited that interaction and continuity were the two key traits that made up an educational experience. Even today, while educators use different names for those same ideas (interaction=engagement, continuity=structure), Dewey’s legacy lives on. But it’s not just for those of us in the classroom. Dewey’s experiential education model is undergoing a renaissance of sorts at the post-secondary level, with more colleges and universities touting that they believe in it and use it to provide students with memorable learning.   Even for working writers and parents, the thoughts that Dewey developed have implications that can provide lasting benefits to us in our average, non-academic lives.

To begin, experiences form the foundation upon which all truly great literature is built. Even if those experiences are imagined or exaggerated, they nonetheless constitute the building blocks of fiction, poetry, and plays around the world. For those of us in the everyday world, the small experiences can generate great writing.

bikeThis summer, I’ve been riding bikes with my sons. We started small, with a few laps around our block here, and recently, we sojourned to their grandmother’s house about a mile away. The bike riding sessions have given rise to those metaphorical, time-transcending conversations that parents have always found meaningful: learning to ride a bicycle safely is a parallel to one’s larger life, after all. Lessons in persistence, balance, confidence, care, and initiative can all be heard when one is teaching others about basic cycling. Uphill grades can’t be conquered without perseverance, and the reward is always that downhill gust of face-breeze. Bicycles and their allegorical implications have been used by writers for years, and so, I haven’t bothered to write a poem about this experience yet. I feel that it’s been covered entirely too well by others before me. The poem that this experience generates will probably not be the old cliche about “letting go of the baby bird” or some similar tripe, but I sense that something from our time together will mold itself into poetry before the summer’s out. It just needs some time for creative gestation.

kayak 1Last summer, my oldest son and I spent almost every day kayaking. There are lakes all over our town, and we would set out on Lake Martha, carving a trail to the park across the lake from our launch point. The park made for some great play time, and afterward, we would paddle back. This experience also bore a number of universal lessons that later worked themselves into poetry — the landmarks around the lake were particularly symbolic of different stages in life: the park being childhood, the high weeds being adolescence, the tall offices being adulthood, and finally, the hospital just before home. As you might have guessed, the experiences of our kayaking journeys lent themselves toward poetry.

I relate these two examples to reinforce the larger point: Yes, experience equals education, but more than that, experience equals life equals literature. Only by living can we truly write in a way that will relate to others. Until next time — to write great, live great.

poetry, Uncategorized

A Writer-Teacher’s Birthday

typewriter-cakeIn 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.

poetry, Uncategorized

Pick Five: A Burnout Prevention Strategy

handfiveIt’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.

poetry, Uncategorized

A Chat with Mildred Greear

Mildred Greear
Mildred Greear

Once in a great while, a poet has the chance to meet with someone who has “been there, done that” many times over. Such was the case over my recent spring break. My family and I had gone to north Georgia to visit my dad’s sheep farm and do the tourist routine. While there, my father suggested we visit with local writing legend Mildred Greear. I must admit, I was hesitant about the engagement. Stopping by the home of an 87-year-old woman wasn’t really on my itinerary amid mini-golfing, mountain climbing, and snowball fights, but I figured, what the heck — vacation means no real schedule, and who knew? It might turn out a piece of writing or two.

As it turned out, Mildred’s home wasn’t too far away from where we were staying; just “up the hill,” to be exact. My father and I arrived and were greeted at the door. Mildred offered to put on some coffee for us, but we had just gone by the Sweetwater Coffeehouse and were good to go, we replied. So we sat down at her big dining table and began to talk literature. Mildred was especially interested in my literary endeavors, and asked if I’d ever submitted to the Atlanta Review, in particular. I told her I’d sent them a few pieces many years ago (pre-undergrad, let alone MFA), and she encouraged me to submit again.

“The editor there,” she said, “always sends back the most personal responses. Even if he rejects your work, you can expect to get something from it.”

Then she began to speak of her work in the local schools: “I get the boys and girls to think about Emily Dickinson,” she explained. “We look at poems and ask three questions — What, so what, and then what. Every poem has to answer those three questions, and the boys and girls really like it.”

So far, I’d gotten pieces of valuable advice for both of my fields of expertise: writing and teaching. But she wasn’t done yet. The next lessons were the best of all, as they dealt with literary life in general. Like me, Mildred self-published some years ago, and was disconcerted by the work’s treatment by others in the poetry and book community.

“They’ll say, ‘it’s not a real book,'” she recalled, “but you and I know different. Our books are better than a lot of that stuff (traditional publishers) publish.” She looked over a poem of mine from my first volume, Growing Moon, Growing Soil: Poems of my Native Land, and gave it both praise and refinement. “These words — isolation and anticipation — they throw me off a little,” she stated candidly. “Everything else is so peaceful and beautiful, and these words are jarring, kind of out-of-place.” She made me wish I’d met her before I went to press with that first volume back in 2005. Even at 87, her editorial eye hadn’t faded a bit.

She spent a little time recalling her science professor husband Phillip, bragging on his groundbreaking work regarding walnuts and other topics. Her pride shone behind a great smile as she thought of walnut trees returning all over the nation, largely because of Phillip’s influence and experiments. Modern scientists use much of his research even today in modern laboratories, she bragged. Yellowed articles about Prof. Greear’s work were pinned to her wall nearby, lasting reminders of an academic life well-lived.

My father spoke with her a little about local politics and old friends, and Mildred had opinions on all, of course. Asked about legendary north Georgia poet Byron Herbert Reese, she recalled the day of his death: “He was supposed to come by here for dinner,” she remembered. “I’d made fried chicken and we had several people over. … The time passed, and he hadn’t shown up. I just suddenly had this feeling that he wasn’t going to make it. … Somehow I just knew. I had set the table, and I told (someone in the family), ‘you can take that plate off. He’s not coming tonight.’ A moment later, the phone rang, and we found out that (Byron Herbert Reese) had shot himself.”

The memory of that night still haunts Mildred Greear. A pair of boys, Reese’s pupils, had stopped by minutes before his death, and Byron was playing a sad song on the Victrola in his office, the story goes. He seemed very depressed, and the students attempted to cheer him up before heading out. As they proceeded down the hallway, they allegedly heard Reese’s fatal gunshot. The boys ran back to find their good professor dead. Mildred said she encountered one of the young men years later and asked him if he was one of the students who visited Reese that infamous evening. The gentleman she inquired of, now a full-fledged adult, said he was indeed. They consoled one another all over again, remembering Reese’s spirit and work.

Mildred, my dad and I talked a little longer, mostly small, innocuous chit-chat, and then she completed our visit with a hearty thank-you to both of us for stopping by. She wished me well, and implored me to keep in touch. She also asked for a copy of my book, which I’ll be sending soon. Mildred, like so many other elder writers, offered me a keen sense of what value can be added to a life by simply “sticking around.” Her history, her perspectives, and her sound sense of good writing made our visit not only an unexpected pleasure, but a real privilege as well. Thank you, Mildred.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

One writer’s addiction

It isn’t alcohol. It isn’t drugs. It isn’t even something more abstract like attention or recognition. No, it’s office supplies. That’s right — stores like Staples, Office Depot, OfficeMax, and the wealth of other such outlets are my Achilles’ Heel.
As I’m beginning to prepare for my next residency in the UT MFA program, I have now the perfect excuse for going on huge buying sprees at my local office supply stores. “I just know I’m going to need these (whatever they are that is usually unnecessary).” My wife, bless her heart, has endured my office supply addiction now for the last eleven years. She’s very understanding about the whole thing.
I think there’s a combination of factors working against me in stores like Staples: 1. I’m a very sensory person (see “poet”). The smell of fresh paper, pencils, pens, notebooks, and other such items brings back a range of pleasant memories, and for me, those happy recollections are absolute kryponite.
Next, there’s the happily-colored environment that makes you feel like you will have such great fun if you just buy one more ballpoint pen. Of course, you get the thing you bought home and inevitably, it isn’t the party that was promised, but you still have something tangible and enjoyable.
Finally, there’s genetics. My family line, consisting of professors, teachers, and writers, has always been one drawn to office supplies. My father collects fine writing instruments, and my mother will buy almost anything in “cute” packaging. So, from a hereditary standpoint, I guess I’m disadvantaged also.
This time around, I’m avoiding the big office supply warehouses. I have accumulated everything I need to be the student and writer I have envisioned myself becoming, and I know that, should I need another index card/binder clip/printer cartridge, those things will be available. Hopefully, my budget and my brain can begin to heal from this endorphin-crazed pattern of behavior. Pardon me while I go sharpen a fresh box of No. 2 pencils. More to follow…