I love back to school time. Really, the feeling of nostalgia for all previous first days of school in my life, the packing of lunches and buying of new clothes, of three-ring binders and dividers and syllabi: those things just do it for me. I loved it as a student, and now, in a different way, I love it as a teacher too. I enjoy the buzz of excitement (even the subdued cool kid excitement) that the students have. I’ll tell you: I stood before my class of first-semester freshmen in my composition class yesterday, and I could feel a palpable earnestness in that room. Where classes in the past have merely looked annoyed or tired or bored, these cherubs looked excited and ready. I thrive on that kind of thing as their teacher.
But this time, when I went back to school, I had just a small shred of anxiety. Doubt, perhaps. Because this summer, I managed, for the first time since graduating from MFA school, to establish a writing routine. I managed, this summer, after over two years away from writing fiction, to return to writing fiction. I let characters breathe and talk. I imagined story lines. I dreamed up setting. I set the words down on paper. I put in the time, almost daily, and I made headway. I gained confidence. I validated the work, which is something I had not done in years. I made it important, and I stopped questioning whether I could do it or not. I just did it.
And so, when time came to plan my courses, and I found each day consumed by the typing of syllabi and designing of assignments and arranging of course schedules, I thought, oh no. As I pulled my work to a close late each afternoon (and sometimes in the evening), I thought, there goes my writing routine. I thought, one step forward and two steps back.
I have been fortunate to have a lot of external encouragement from friends, from Amanda. I have a friend who is in the same stage of writing as I am, and each month, to keep each other accountable and to celebrate each other’s work, we send chapters to each other, not to workshop, but just to check in.
Tayari Jones, an author I adore as a person and admire as a writer/teacher, launched her August #WRITELIKECRAZY routine, a way of taking back the time lost over the summer before school takes us over again. Tweeting with her and with other people who are writing like crazy has been a way to keep me going, to keep that fire under my butt burning with some level of intensity.
Amanda and I have been watching a lot of movies lately where underdogs rise to the challenges that seem insurmountable. Flashdance, Center Stage, Secretariat, Step Up (okay, I also realize three out of the four are dance movies, so that might be a better way to categorize them) – point being, I’ve had a lot of inspirational movies to riff off of, movies where the hero decides to succeed no matter what. And though they may not all be high quality cinema to everyone, they’ve been helpful and enjoyable to me.
So when school started yesterday, I was ready. I had new shoes on (and the blisters today to show for it), I had my notebook with all my materials in it, I had a lunch packed, umbrella in hand, and a smile on my face. I was ready to throw myself back into the teaching world. But I also had my goals in mind. I knew that today would be my writing day. That at some point yesterday evening, I’d turn my teacher brain off and click my writer brain on. I’d get up today and #WRITELIKECRAZY even if I was tired.
When I got up this morning, I had one fleeting thought about teaching fly through my brain. I dismissed it. It was nothing I couldn’t come back to later. It was nothing that needed my attention on writing day.
And I did it. I got up, I made coffee, I checked email and Facebook and Twitter, and I looked up recipes to make for dinner, and then I shut it all down. I sat in my cozy chair, I drank my coffee, and I wrote for two hours, just like I told myself I would. When I didn’t know what to write, I watched the cat play with his toys, or I stared out the window, and I waited out the awkward moment of questioning. It passed. I kept on.
So it’s not really back to school. That implies I’m leaving behind everything that came before school. It means I’m walking away from it and returning to school. And that’s not what I’m doing. I’m going also to school. I’m adding school to the equation, folding it into a writing routine I worked too hard and waited too long to establish to walk away from now. There’s a great number from Into the Woods, a film I like to show my literature students; in the number, the baker’s wife has just had an ill-advised roll in the hay, so to speak, with a prince, while her husband and others look for Jack to save him from the giant that has come down the beanstalk looking for him. She asks, “Must it all be either less or more, either plain or grand? Is it always or? Is it never and?” And though her situation is decidedly more scandalous than mine, I wonder the same thing. Must it be teaching OR writing? Is it never teaching AND writing? I don’t see why it should. I write AND cook. People often do _____ AND _______. How did I come to believe this binary of being so consumed by OR?
I’m not sure. But I know that for me, today, it’s AND. It’s both. It’s also. It can keep being also. It has to.