What are you writing?

by B. Lee Miller

 

I teach writing and the teaching of writing. And one of the things I often talk about with students who will one day teaching writing is the importance of their having their own writing life if they are to ask, or invite, students to do the same. What sense does it make, I will suggest, for someone who doesn’t write to teach writing? And I’m not suggesting that a person has to publish, or even be a very good writer, to teach writing and to teach it well (conversely, just because someone writes well doesn’t mean they can teach it well). But I do wonder how well a person can comment on students’ struggles with writing when they do not themselves know those struggles personally. That I write – a fair amount – and may even someday have a few publications to my name (I’m working on that one…submitting stuff for publication is time-consuming and boring…I’d rather just start writing something else), allows me to talk with my writing students about the processes and road blocks and strategies that are involved in writing. So, with this blog post, I share what I, a writing teacher, am working on, right now (which is to say, I’ll leave off the projects that I’ve just begun, or that have a long way to go, focusing only on those that I am close to sending out for rejection, er, possible publication).

Black Belt. A little under five years ago, I began to study Tang Soo Do, a South Korean martial art. A requirement for the advanced belts (green and brown series), at least in my school, is a series of papers in response to prompts – one for each belt level. As I approached the time when I would test for my black belt (last December) I began to read back through those papers and consider whether I could pull them together (including the paper for my black belt test), shape them into a unified essay, and submit them somewhere for publication. It’s an English-professor-gets-a-black-belt essay entitled “Black Belt” and awaits my taking the time to send it out somewhere.

A Time to Gather Stones. The first time I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I drafted a novel that had been knocking around in my head for several years. I wanted to transplant plot lines from the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob narratives in the biblical book of Genesis to the mid-to-late 20th-Century American South, the narrative infused, or informed, by some ideas found in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes, but also in Buddhism. I titled the resulting draft, A Time to Gather Stones. I still have a couple of chapters (the opening and closing) to draft, and a third major round of revisions, but I hope to float some sections for publication soon. An excerpt:

From “Spring, 1946; Habersham, Georgia”

Ka-thunk, pf. Ka-thunk, pf. There was a certain rhythm to the hard thud of the small round ball bouncing off the wall. Isaac threw the ball with his right hand, caught it with his left. The sound echoed through the empty corridor. It would be some time, he knew, before another student showed up for school. Most kids, he figured, were still sitting at the kitchen table eating eggs and bacon and toast with jam. These days, Isaac got to school early. As early as possible. Not that he liked school. He didn’t. Too many people telling him what to do. He got enough of that at home. But at least at school, if he stayed out of the way, he was mostly left alone. He liked that.

So, each morning, as soon as the rooster crowed, Isaac would throw on his jacket and run out to the chicken coop and the barn. By the time he returned with eggs and milk, oatmeal would be on the table. It would be dry and salty, but he wouldn’t say anything about it. He said nothing to his father that he didn’t have to. He just poured warm milk on it and ate. He then grabbed the lunch he had made the night before – always a sandwich and a piece of fruit – and darted out the door, running until he was off his father’s farm. It would not be until he slowed to a walk that he would notice the sun just beginning to emerge from the horizon, just beginning to shed much welcomed warmth across his body.

40. I wrote a lot of really bad poetry in my late teens and early 20s. A comment from an English Professor where I went for my undergraduate convinced me to stop writing poetry. I’ve long told students that I really don’t get poetry. Regardless, as I approached 40, I found all the poetry I had written during that period (and a few poems since) and began to transcribe it for posterity’s sake (why, I don’t know…partly because my daughter was learning to write). I got the idea, at one point, to see if I could find any snippets – lines, phrases, stanzas, perhaps even an occasional poem – that I could revise into a series, or book, of 40 poems in which I would examine my own growth as a human, a writer, and a man, in particular, a man staring 40 in the face. I’m ready to send out several series of poems, and one long poem, for possible publication. Whether anyone will ever want the book I have imagined, I don’t know, but if not, I’ll self-publish. An excerpt:

40

Stop shouting at me, and

        let’s pour a drink.

Let’s mix up our words until they

                                                     fall to the floor

        and whimper

                       their fear of absence and forgetting,

        and the moon slips away

                       into a thousand still moments.

Let’s feel the waves of molecules

                                                     pushing and pulling,

        demanding, flowing,

                       our drink slipping us into

        the rippling water

                       as it reflects

                                      a watchful moon.

And let us be careful —

        if we dare —

        lest we reach for the moon

        and fall in.

With Woman. My wife and I have for several years involved ourselves in the world of birthing rights and midwifery advocacy. I’ve long wanted to write something about it, so, in addition to one long poem, I am now writing an essay that I have titled “With Woman” that will examine birth, as well as stages in women’s lives, but from the perspective of a husband and father – me – as I continue my long examination of masculinity, or how I understand what it means to be male (as social gender). My hope is to finish a first draft by the end of this semester and then revise and submit it somewhere by next summer.

Something Like Winter. Finally, several years ago, I began drafting what I think will end up being a novella. I began writing this only to have something to offer at our Sigma Tau Delta English Honor Society writing workshops and open-mics. The surface story is of a mixed-race couple, with the woman’s young son (from a previous relationship), who is obsessed with the movie “Snow White,” hitting the road to go visit the man’s parents in a suburb of the Dallas-Fort Worth area for Christmas. Along the way they pick up the man’s best friend, who is studying English literature in grad school, and the woman’s grandmother, who raised her. The provisional title is “Something Like Winter.” It needs another major revision pass and then I’d like to send it out this winter for possible publication in a print or online magazine that accepts long fiction.

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