Write Through It.

This week in my newspaper class, we’ve been refocusing a bit. Recently awarded the status of “All-American” by the National Scholastic Press Association, we celebrated Monday by reading through the judge’s comments and suggestions. We discussed how to make the paper better. Then Tuesday, we tackled our website. Wednesday and Thursday, we dug into a journalism writing book and talked about our writing and our story ideas and how we can improve them.

It’s been a delightful week with my staff, a week that I’ve been able to remember why, 17 years ago, I took a hard left with my career path and said, “I want to be a newspaper adviser.”

It’s also been a hard week, as I’m adapting to a new schedule, one I’ve never had before–I am teaching 4 different classes back to back and it is messing with my brain. I’m exhausted. By Wednesday I realized I needed to recalibrate my ambitious schedule for the week and allow myself some downtime (nap, clear out the TiVo, watch basketball) lest I suffer a meltdown at an inopportune time. Knowing a meltdown was imminent, I also knew writing would help.

I’ve opened a post here on my blog every day this week, and haven’t written a thing. Just stared at a blank space, checked Twitter, stared at a blank space, checked Facebook, stared at a blank space, checked Instagram…you get the idea.

During our discussion about writing, my newspaper staff wanted to know how I get over writer’s block.

“Write about the writer’s block,” I told them. “Just write nonsense until it starts making sense.”

Funny how I’m able to give advice so freely that I don’t take for myself.

 

A Bit of Writing Advice.

Many people have asked what my next book will be. The assumption that I’m worthy of writing a second book took me a few months to accept as a compliment, but I wasn’t all too serious about writing a second book. The first book, I figured, was like the 5K I ran in 2011–good to know I could do it, good to know I finished not last, never gonna do it again.

(Except for that one time some former students convinced me to do the Color Run with them. That 5K doesn’t count, right?)

Anyway. I started thinking about writing a second book and how ridiculous it sounded, because I had nothing else to write about. I tried for six months to write about this project I’m doing with my parents, to collect their life stories. My parents are pretty great, and in the beginning months of interviewing them, I started to realize we have more in common than I thought. It could be a bit of a riff on “Tuesdays with Morrie,” I thought.

So I set about to write a draft. And after six months of half-hearted writing, I stalled out at 3,300 words.

Two things to note here: first, six months is a long time. Second, 3,300 words is not a lot of words. I wrote the first draft of “Lies Jane Austen Told Me” in 30 days. It was 50,000 words. So the writer’s block I’ve been feeling this summer reached acute status last week.

On Sunday, I sat at church, half-listening to talks about family councils, when I thought a better use of my time would be to write anything. I took out my journal and started scribbling my frustration with not being able to write, and in the middle of that rant, a sentence of a daydream I had months ago came back to me.

In the dream, I am telling a story at a Moth StorySlam. I love the variety of stories I hear at The Moth, and I’ve even heard single Mormon women tell stories on this show. But all the stories I’ve heard on The Moth are about how these women left the faith. Never stories of how they stay. And in the daydream, I take the microphone and I say, “I was 19 the first time I tried to leave the Mormon church.”

That’s as far as I got in the dream. But Sunday, that sentence struck me again, only this time an outline came flooding after it. I scribbled and scribbled in my messiest handwriting, trying to keep up with my brain, and by the time I had to play the closing song on the organ, I shook with adrenaline and excitement.

“I think I have my next book,” I said to myself as I played.

Since Sunday, I’ve written 3,500 words–200 more than six months working on a story that wasn’t going anywhere.

So here’s my writing advice for today: sometimes, a story isn’t quite ready to be told. And you can power through and try to find a way to tell it, and maybe feel like a complete failure with the accompanying writer’s block, or you can try to figure out if there’s a different story that needs to be told first.

I think I found my story.

I think I’ll be able to hit 30,000 words before school starts, if I focus and work hard.

I think I might be a writer.

Existential Dread.

I’ve been in a complete writing slump this summer, not blogging, not working on a book, hell, I’m barely composing text messages and emails these days. The words just aren’t happening. A couple of weeks ago, someone at church asked me if I’d spend some time during a lesson talking about examples of greatness in my life.

“Because you are so good with words,” she said.

I laughed nervously and replied, “Not lately…”


I had an appointment today and someone asked how I was doing.

“Oh fine, just the regular existential dread,” I responded.

He laughed uncomfortably, and I don’t blame him–what is the retort to ‘existential dread’?

When I shared the dread with my parents later in the day, especially concerned that within the next year I will lose my job and the entire U.S. infrastructure will fail, leaving me homeless, my dad comforted me: “We’ll set up the Marriott tent in the backyard for you.”

(The Marriott tent is a giant two-room tent, in which one room accommodates a queen size air bed. Not air mattress–air. bed.)

As I was having this conversation with my parents, my five year-old niece, visiting from out of town, was cuddling me, occasionally interrupting the grown-ups to tell me my eyeshadow was pretty or my lip gloss was shiny. She’s so adorable and has no idea what’s currently happening in the world to have her Aunt Julie considering Ham radio classes and beefing up her food storage.

I envied her, and worried about her at the same time. What opportunities will she have in 15 years? Will she even have access to any education beyond kindergarten? (That’s the dread speaking, not logic or rational thought.) And is there even anything I can try to do at this point?

Anyway, I am starting to realize that my writing issues this summer stem from two problems. First, I’m giving in to my existential dread. I’m entertaining my worst-case scenarios. I’m anticipating a complete collapse of the comfortable life I enjoy right at this moment. This is somewhat unlike me–at school I’m often the voice of optimism, the person who gives everyone the benefit of the doubt, the lone herald of “everything will be fine!”

Second, I’m not writing about the issues giving me existential dread. I’ve been mostly silent on Trump, Brexit, rape culture, religion, patriarchy, and a pending bond issue that could determine whether I end up in that Marriott tent.

So fair warning: in the coming days, the blog might get a bit ranty and political. You might disagree with me, and as long as you don’t troll me or tell me to leave the country, leave comments and let’s discuss (as best as comments on blogs count as discussion). But I can’t allow myself to fall prey to my existential dread for the next month, because come August, my students will deserve a teacher who isn’t quite as hopeless and cynical as she is right now.

Writing will help make sure that gets fixed.

 

 

Avoiding It.

I’ve been avoiding the blog lately. Not ignoring it, outright avoiding it. Every day I think, “I should write today,” and I start to type in the URL but quickly backspace, shut my laptop, and play Frozen Free Fall on my phone until I run out of lives.

I’m not sure why I’m avoiding it–I’ve been blogging for 12 years, so it’s not like I don’t know how to chop through some weeds and just write, even when I’m not feeling particularly inspired.

But I saw a tweet today with this advice:

When you cannot think: write
When you cannot speak: write
When you cannot sleep: write
When you cannot write: read

I’m reading–I set a goal to read 10 books this summer–so since I cannot write, I am definitely reading.

I’m speaking and sleeping fine, it’s the thinking that isn’t happening all that great right now. Perhaps part of my brain is doing the equivalent of an iOS update and system restart, now that my 15th year of teaching is in the books.

And maybe just forcing myself to write and hit ‘publish,’ even though this isn’t that great of a post, will trigger something in my brain and I’ll write again soon enough.

 

 

In My Classroom I…

In my classroom, I encourage students to take risks.

In my design classroom, I challenge them to stop centering everything and explore the beauty of sans serif fonts (that aren’t Arial, Helvetica, or *gasp* Comic Sans). They take risks as they learn to use adjacent, analogous, and monochromatic color schemes.

In my Pop Culture classroom, I challenge their long-held beliefs about race and gender stereotypes as well as encourage them to think about the media they consume instead of just passively accepting what they see and hear.

In my Journalistic Writing classroom, I challenge my students to trust that with a bit of hard work and focus, they can write. They take risks as they interview people they might not know and they surrender their egos when I ask for another draft. And another. And sometimes, one more draft, so it’s publication-ready.

In my Newspaper classroom, I challenge my students to report stories that impact the community, not just the school building.

In my classroom, I don’t challenge myself often enough. So when I saw a daily blogging challenge pop up in my Twitter feed, I decided that if I constantly challenge my students, it’s unfair if I’m not also being challenged.

So this month, every day (I hope!), I will blog about various educational topics. This timing is apt, since April tends to test my patience on all fronts. Perhaps this challenge will keep me focused on why I am a teacher, and help me see all the good things that happen not only in my classroom, but also in my building.