Why are you following me?

Thursday morning a student asked, “Ms. H, do you teach 102 in the fall?”

“Summer session,” I said.

“Why not the fall?” the student asked.

I said, “Tenure-track and full-timers have priority.  I could teach eight o’clock.”

Another student said, “I’ll register for that class if you’re teaching.”

I grimaced. Why did these students keep following me from remedial, freshman composition, to introduction to literature? I had students in past semesters do the same. I’d encouraged them to try another instructor, get a different writing perspective.

Yet, many, at least 15% continued registering for my class, and showing up enthusiastically, despite my strict rules, tough grading, and excess writing assignments. It was as if we had a continuous relationship.

I confess at the beginning of each semester my introduction goes something like this: “This is a sixteen week relationship. You’ll check out my style of teaching, I’ll check out your style of learning. You will either like what happens in this classroom or despise it. Either way I don’t care. It’s possible you’ll think I’m crazy. I am. Just to clear things up, I’m weeding out the deadbeats; I dislike all my students equally. However, if you are unhappy with my technique, withdraw and withdraw early, so you can get your money back.

Later Thursday night, I metamorphosed into a student. The professor and I walked across campus chatting about the AWP Conference while heading toward her office to discuss my manuscript critiques.

One the first day of this class, Building the Novel, five out of nine students had sat under the tutelage of Elizabeth Elasmi, author of Bone Worshipping, last semester. I refused to another class with the same instructor. What more could she teach the second time around? However, nine weeks into our student-teacher relationship, Elizabeth, aka Liz, had challenged my craft, pushing me out of my comfort zone.  When I pushed back, she did, too, gingerly.

As an instructor, when students pushed back saying, “I didn’t learn that in high school.” I leaned in, not so, delicately. “Learn or stay where you are. Every class should take you to a new level.” And many rose to the task using language, crafting sentences, and researching topics they had moaned about. Simultaneously, as a postgraduate I emulated the undergrads hungry for more, energized with each comment the instructor placed on my paper. How can I improve? ( Note: this hunger applies to a small percentage.)

Liz and I convened in her office. She opened the manila folder and discussed three pages of notes regarding my manuscript. “Good structure, great tension. Description of food leaps off the page.” She talked about my characters in real time, explaining what character fell to the background, needed more development and were magnetic.

“Angela, normally a first draft lacks structure; however, your novel has structure. I suggest revision focus on craft like the pieces you’ve crafted in class.”

Her genuine interest in my project, in my skill titillated me. Previously, I’d wrestled with boredom in writing workshops anxious to bolt out the door. I enjoyed studying with Liz, I told her so. I had planned to enroll in one more class with her in the fall.

I guess this is why at least 15 percent of my students follow me from class to class. I care about how their writing extends beyond the classroom into every day life, future projects and other classes. I tell them so, honestly and truthfully. “It’s important to know how to communicate in writing.” I do not burden them with busy work, every assignment links to another assignment. I don’t teach what i think they should know, but what they don’t understand. I lift their spirits after placing a D on their essay, saying, “Next time slow down, proofread.” and asking, “What stumps you in the writing the content or the mechanics?”

When I think of them and how long I’ve wrestled with writing, I laugh at God’s sense of humor.  In the fourth grade, I dreamed of living in a log cabin and writing novels, yet, I did not plan, hope or desire to stand in front of a classroom and teach. Perhaps, this is my learning method: to teach and learn twice.

God knew I needed a double dose, after all Proverbs 16:3 and 9 states, “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans,” and “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps.”

Do you trust that God knows what’s best for you?

Monday’s Guilty Pleasure

In January, I was asked if I died of consumption who would portray me if a movie was made about my life. I had no clue then. The next question posed, reveal a guilty pleasure. Unable to think of anything, I’m basically a plain, predictable, persistent person, my Monday routine came to mind. I stay in pajamas all day on Mondays and write, only to get up from desk at the end of the night, shower and put on new pajamas.

Since that confession, there has been no all day pajama Monday indulgence. One of my classmates asked why not switch days. Not happening I have a routine and Monday was all day writing. Eleven weeks later, it seems like its going to happen. Ha. Sunday night, I install an update and it wipes out my Safari connect. I turn off the computer knowing Monday morning I’ll have to traipse to the Apple Store.

Wide awake, six o’clock. Maybe if I call telephone support technician for assistance. Ha. Instead I have a 10:15 a.m. appointment with a Mac technician. Not amused. Revisions on my mind: characters, conversations, and scenes. All week I’d been trying to cultivate what Richard Bausch calls tidal patience – “Don’t let yourself set page goals, or think in terms of what gets done in a given session of work. Spend the time – the session is what counts, the time. The goal should be two hours, or three, or four, however many. Did you spend the time? If the answer is yes, no other questions. Cultivate patience of the tidal kind. This day’s work. It doesn’t have to be especially productive – no matter how well or ‘not well’ it seems to go in a day, it is always going well if you’re working, if you’re making the time. The good things will come if you’re making the time.”

Although this wave of writing ebbed and flowed, I desperately needed my Monday. And if you noticed, patience is not one of the P’s that describes me. (I’m working on it.)

One writing tool

One writing tool

It’s nine o’clock when I make the appointment. The ride takes thirty minutes. Before, stumbling out of bed, I say, “Lord, what am I too learn on this trip.” Otherwise, I’ll be cantankerous. I shove my laptop into its red pouch, and then into my purse. I dress, eat yogurt, make tea, procrastinate. I just filled my gas tank, and an all day Monday in my pajama means saving gas.

Inside the Apple Store, the man holding an ipad checks off my name and directs me to the technician. I explain the problem. As the Apple guy fixes the problem, he says to avoid the clash between Safari and Verizon, he pays his bill using online banking service. That’s a good idea. Then I ask about upgrading the Mac. He clicks a few buttons, say I have enough memory for an upgrade, points the mouse to Applications button showing exactly what to get. “Twenty dollars,” he says asking if my information is back up.

“Nope,” I say adding that I have a Time Capsule that’s still in the box, which I bought two years ago.

He clicks the mouse, drags an icon to my menu, and offers more instructions. Use the Time Capsule as my router or plug the Time Capsule up and it will automatically connect to my wireless router. Second option. I smile. I’m elated.

At the door, I decide to indulge, buy white chocolate mocha, get a table and writing. I stop at the Love Sac and fall onto a ginormous cushy square pillow. Then spend fifteen minutes chatting with the representatives about redecorating my living room and a bedroom. I’m jazzed.

Writer's mall inspiration

Writer’s mall inspiration

I find my spot and before I know it, I have fifty tightly revised pages, put some scenes, backstory and characters in my grave document and it’s three o’clock. Four hours writing. Patience cultivated in the tidal.

Perhaps, Monday writing should move to the mall.

A Writer’s Buffet

A Writer’s Buffet

Sometimes you have to step out on faith and out of your comfort zone. That’s what happened this past weekend as I packed my suitcase, filled my gas tank and headed to Boston for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference and Book Fair.

Although excited to attend, trepidation set in days before departure. How should I strategize? What was my purpose? In September, I attended a conference strictly for fiction writers—I planned two novel pitches for editors and agents, signed up for workshops, and paid for scheduled meals. However, 12,700 people versus 700 made a vast difference, as well as more than 100 panels to choose from and 700 exhibits to visit. At AWP, once you registered, you go where you want when you want—a writer’s buffet. (And buffets are my least favorite eatery, too many choices that aren’t always appetizing.)

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The week before my adventure, my professor said, “I’m excited you’re going to the conference.  That type of setting is too large for me. I heard there’s lots of information that you will come home with.”

Later, a classmate said, “Be careful, you’ll spend all your money on books.”

The following Tuesday, two days before the conference, I queried two colleagues about AWP. One suggested attending the readings and another advised networking at the book fair.

Thursday morning, two hours before leaving, I tweeted AWP for first timers. Advice: don’t attend too many panels, get out of the conference hub and see the city sights, have a purpose.

Armed, I headed off sans expectations, unlike the September conference in which I expected to garner a book contract, rub shoulders with agents, and increase my writer’s circle. (I spent an entire rent check on that conference.) My goal spend no money, collect information regarding teaching, publishing and connect with black writers. As Rev. John Simon said from the pulpit, “When you have an opportunity be prepared although it’s preferably to be prepared even if there is no opportunity.”

And in three days, I did just that. At the teachers and women’s caucus I met creative writing program directors of two-year colleges, collected business cards and potential teaching positions. I also learned that two colleges are implementing AFA writing degrees.

Thursday evening, I scoped out the conference center. The book fair was on three levels and all the panels. I’m not good with maps, so I decided to wing it. Rucksack on my back, and tote bag in hand I whizzed through the first floor book fair collecting information and observing. A good nugget is wordnik, a fun online dictionary. After the woman’s caucus, I attended a reading and discovered Word Farm a Christian Literary Publishing Company. The business manager told me about Slant, another larger company. Next, I delighted in the words of master poets Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott. I teach Walcott’s poems. Two writing tips: poems come in the silence, and let the work surprise you. I skipped the after party.

On Friday, I hit the book fair at 9:30 a.m. I pitched my fiction and non-fiction ideas to magazine editors, acquisition editors and gathered sample magazine, literary journals, press guidelines, and catalogs.  This time my aim was to see if these outlets were a good fit for me. I learned that at the September conference—an editor, agent and publisher have to be a good fit for writer. I was not shy about asking for complimentary items. So many good books to buy, but I had to say no. Throughout the day, which ended at 10:30 that night, I prayed, “Lord, where do I go next.  What do you have for me here.”

In the hallway, I bumped into a young woman I had met at the Women’s caucus, we exchanged emails and she encouraged me to join VONA/Voices, one of the first writing workshops for writers of color. Another writer said at VONA they get us. No explanation needed. I took her card.

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By three o’clock, I had a swollen head, one editor remembered an essay I had submitted two weeks earlier, and another editor requested a query. Now, nothing may come of it; however, the mere fact they were willing to listen and not brush me off was sensational.   While eating my homemade sandwich, I met Michael Warr, black poet from San Francisco. He’s working on a fabulous project about poetry and justice.

At 7:30 p.m., exhaustion kicked in. I exited the conference center and got on the Boston train. I had planned to walk the cobble stone streets, but the early morning snow morphed into slippery slush.

Saturday morning, I packed my suitcase, checked out and got lost driving to the conference center. A good thing, I ventured through the financial district, hit the seaport, and spotted a larger than life bottle of milk.

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I returned to the conference. This time, I’d had enough. Three hours at the book fair and no panels was my limit.  Just like a buffet, there’s only so much you can digest.

This conference set this writer on fire.

The Return of Angchronicles

ImageMy mother taught me that if you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all. Hence for a few weeks angchronicles has had nothing good to say. Not because life is not good. I wake up every morning, sometimes later than I should, have food to eat, not always what I desire, and have real friends who love me.

Having true friends is important. The type who are honest, make me think about my actions, and are sometimes more enthusiastic about the things in my life than I am. And lately, I have not been enthusiastic. If you’ve every met me in person, you would understand. For instance, I responded to a Facebook message regarding an online women’s fiction group. When I spoke to the woman on the phone, she immediately said, “You’ll be great, you’ll bring so much enthusiasm to the group.” Here the kicker, she and I met once at a conference during lunchtime, 45 minutes. I was floored; didn’t realize my excitement rubbed off.

But lately, I have not been high-spirited simply because I seem to take two steps forward and three steps backwards. Ever been there? And although, I am a praying woman, righteous only because of Jesus, I trust that these obstacles are God’s way of showing me he’s in charge, not me. Despite whether I’m on the mountaintop or in the valley I have to trust him. I do. Yet sometimes my zeal wanes.

When my zeal wanes, I keep a low profile. Those true friends, I try to limit my conversation with them. They will detect my vanishing fervor. They will try to encourage me. Sometimes, I don’t want to be encouraged. I want to waddle in my self-pity. Have a pity party. Woe is me. However, if I can’t be revived, then how should I expect to revive others with my words? Hence, no blog post on angchronicles, which saddens me.

And God’s been dealing with me because even if one person likes a post, I have lifted someone’s spirit. That’s my call, that’ my job, that’s my ministry with my words. After all, I am a literary artist painting pictures as a writer, speaker and workshop leader.

But I did not come to the conclusion without introspective musing. From the reflection of the devotion “The Place of Exaltation,” I discovered sometimes I cannot and will not be on the mountaintop. Those mountaintop experiences are for inspiration, moments when God builds and mold my character. Upon my descent, into the valley where ordinary things happen, I must prove my stamina and strength that is the true test of my character. In which, I should have something good to say at all times even if I took three steps backward.

So stay tuned for angchronicles weekly Tuesday post.