This column explores the myriad ways we can — and maybe should — engage with our creative process beyond actively writing.
After returning to the States, I ran head first into virtually co-teaching a group of middle and high school students. It was through my graduate school’s writing institute, and I fulfilled the role of assistant to both a writing and theater teacher. The days went for six hours, with 50 minutes for lunch. It was exhausting and at times boring and ultimately one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done in a while and I cried, alongside my lead teacher, at least three times on our final day. Cried each time our brilliant students opened their mouths and read their work.
But here’s the thing: teaching is tiresome. It’s also something a lot of us folks trying to live a writerly life have to do (or want to do) at one point or another in order to (barely) pay the bills. And I say this as someone already fearful of what adjunct teaching four entry-level writing courses at two different colleges starting August 22 will do to my writing practice.
A few years ago, I was a long term sub. And I heard other teachers tell me to write when they’re reading. Write when they’re writing. Write whenever you can. At first, I tried. The students I subbed for were in middle school and I made morning free-writes an integral part of our lessons. Soon, it became their favorite part; these students who never considered themselves writers were finding safety in their own words, and when invited to share, many did.
Eventually, though, I grew, for lack of a better word, haggard. Those brief breaks during my work day were few and far between, and when they did happen all I wanted to do was take a deep breath and stare into the void ahead of me, only jostled back into reality when a student called my name or the alarm on my phone went off. And that’s okay. I also would stumble home, my feet nearly bleeding in their shoes, and chuck my body into the bath. It took whatever remaining energy I had to make myself dinner, and I spent the rest of it turning on a streaming service before everything in me was exhausted.
The guilt of not writing for weeks at a time came easily, as it always does. And I tried to find opportunities in my schedule to meet myself on the page, but I also had to take care of myself. To get dressed, brush my teeth, eat breakfast, and drink enough water. That was laborious in itself. Teaching young students who were so excited in a way that remained both exhilarating and draining was both privilege and chore. It took away what little time I had for anything else.
Yet I love teaching writing to young folks. Especially — to my surprise — middle schoolers. There’s something so unabridged about them. They take risks, share with abandon, and aren’t yet so worried about how others perceive them. At least, in my experience it had been, until teaching this group of seventeen year olds.At the risk of sounding like a walking cliche, their bravery and thrill and innovative sparkling unbeatable intelligence reminded me why writing is such a gift.
Meredith Talusan, author of the memoir Fairest and all around wonderful teacher and friend, gave a virtual talk during the week and with three words, stunned us silent: “Writing is sacred.” She’s right, of course. And it shouldn’t come as a shock. But to be reminded just how lucky we are to have the tools and knowledge and information necessary to express ourselves in this way, to comfort and care for ourselves and those around us, is lucky.
Writing takes community. While teaching may seem like all it does is eat up our free time to write (and often it does), it also teaches us things. We learn from the students, we learn by searching for new stories and essays and poems to teach. If we’re doing things right, we will have created a symbiotic environment that feeds and devours and divests those nutrients around. I didn’t do every prompt with them — not even close. But some days I was so inspired by how I was seeing them meet the page and computer screen each day, even when they were tired and bothered. They turned in to our group and jumped in without abandon. Sometimes I simply couldn’t disappoint the expectation we had built.
So I wrote three poems. I haven’t written poetry in years, probably since high school. I wrote poetry because these students reminded me it was okay — encouraged — to take risks. And they reminded me because they took my words and turned them into action, then shot them back at me. The poems may not be good, they might never go anywhere, but they reminded me I was capable of writing poetry to begin with. They reminded me teaching is an ebb and flow, a give and take, and if I give both it and myself patience, there will be time for everything.