Why I Teach

Yup…I like teaching

Next week, Shelli Cornelison and I begin our fourth collaboration as teachers of our six-week short fiction workshop. Writers will share and revise as many stories as we can possibly read and critique during that time. Each time we teach, Shelli and I put a lot of effort into planning and promoting. Each time, I ask myself: Why do I teach?

For the collaboration…I love the collective reading of a work and the shared exploration of what works, what’s confusing and what blows our minds.

For the community…Sharing something we’ve written is a vulnerable move and one I don’t take lightly because, at the end of the six weeks, if we’ve treated each other with respect and kindness and rigor, we have formed a community and community is something that humans create which makes the world a better place.

For the articulation…When I teach I have to be able to articulate what’s working (or not) in a story and that articulation makes me a better writer when I come to the blank page.

For the knowledge…Every writer and their story teaches me something about myself, about writing, about story.

For the generosity of spirit…Let’s face it, sitting in a room, creating story can be pretty selfish and self-serving. Teaching kicks me out of that room and that’s a good thing.

For the money…We don’t get rich as teachers but every little bit helps. Every. Little. Bit.

For the joy… Is there a better feeling when someone nails a story and it is accepted for publication? Possibly. But I love the small celebrations of a perfect sentence, a beautiful scene, an indelible story.

If you would like to join us, the class begins on April 11 and runs for six consecutive Wednesdays, 7-10pm at Austin Creative Alliance, 81 San Marcos St. $285.

For more information: Click Here.

If you would like to attend, please send an email to heartofshortfiction@gmail.com

 

When Is The Right Time?

Sombra’s Last Day-March 2, 2018

I kept waiting for the event.
Stroke.
Heart failure.
Back legs giving out completely.
But the event didn’t come. Sombra our 15-year-old Labrador/Whippet mix was not going to have an event. He was going to stay. That was his job. To stay with us.

I didn’t know what to do. Help him leave? Wait until his body stopped? I asked my friend Sandra if she thought Sombra was enjoying life. At that moment, we were standing in the yard watching Sombra squat and pee and then stand there, motionless. For a dog who would take off running after squirrels, deer and any nearby body of water, he didn’t wander much anymore. I suspected it was because he was mostly blind and deaf and had the good sense to wait for me to be near him with a leash. But I also felt like the edge of him was disappearing. Each day, the definition of him in space and time was blurring. Instead of being the dog who could run after those things that needed chasing, he was becoming those things.

I’d seen these blurred edges before. When my daughter was born, she had no sense of the edge of herself. She was me. For many months. Her cries were as much about needing to be held as they were about sustenance. It was as if the edge of me and my love for her defined her, kept her from floating away, allowed her to thrive and land in her own body.

With Sombra, I was watching the process in reverse.

Sandra said, “I don’t know if he is enjoying life but he will be here with you as long as you need him.”
“You mean he’s waiting for me to be ready to let go?”
“I don’t think he’ll leave unless you’re ready.”

We helped Sombra stumble walk inside. As we sat down to dinner, he waited nearby to lick my empty plate. I thought about his little expectancies during a day: Breakfast and dinner; standing at the door with me about to go outside; the dinner plate. His world was diminished. Do I wait until they are all gone?

I didn’t know. When is the right time to help someone leave their body? Strangely, this question is similar to the one couples ask themselves about parenthood: When is the right time to have a child? The answer to both questions is: there is no right time. You do it and you make room and it is always a blessing.

And so I was ready.

I called my daughter and we figured out a time when she could be with me virtually. She was there at Sombra’s beginning when some boys on bikes, hanging on to a black dog with a collar, came up to our car and asked, “Is this your dog?” My daughter, seven years old, said yes, with all the conviction in the world. We brought him home and her dad named him Sombra because he was as black as a shadow and stayed nearby as shadows do. Now we were going to help him slip into the shadows.

As the day approached, I kept wondering if I should be doing anything special. You know, taking him out to do his favorite things. The only one thing I could think of was taking him to the creek for a little farewell because he loved swimming so much. I found a place where he could walk in gradually. A few months before I’d taken him to a deep swimming hole and he sank because his back legs didn’t work well enough to swim. As we edged our way slowly to the water, he tripped over rocks and tree roots until finally his paws were in the water. And there he stood. Frozen. And looking slightly miserable. “Like what the heck am I doing here? I can’t swim.”

So we went home and I served him a yummy dinner of grain free kibble, goat milk and pumpkin. I sat next to him while he immersed himself in his meal. These small pleasures: a good meal, a clump of grass with intoxicating smells; a prodigious pee. Who am I to remind him of his lost pleasures? He is this pleasure now. May I be so wise when I am near death.

The next day, a few friends gathered.

As was their habit, Diane took him on a last little stroll in which he peed and pooped and then had a biscuit and a drink of water. Sombra lied down on his favorite white rug, which used to be in my daughter’s room but he coveted it so much that she finally gave it to him. Eight humans circled him. Fifteen candles (his estimated age) circled us.

Michael gave Sombra a shot to relax. I sat next him, stroking him as he sank more heavily and deeply into his white cloud rug. Finally, Michael shaved a little spot on his leg and injected him with a pink liquid. Sometime between the first press and the empty vial, his heart stopped.

After everyone left, I called my daughter. She was still crying.
“Did we do the right thing, Mom?”
“Yes.”

Could we have waited one more day, one more week, one more month? Could we have waited until he had no more little events during the day, which made him happy and expectant? Could we have waited until misery eclipsed everything?

I suppose yes we could have.

But here’s what I know. Sombra was loved from moment he leapt into our car until his heart stopped on the white cloud rug. Is there anything better than that?

Sombra Joins His New Family

 

In May, my daughter and I will return Sombra’s ashes to the creek for one final swim.

My First Webinar…Yes!

Saying Yes is Good

Kwame Alexander’s talk about his path to publication and winning the Newbery Medal for the Crossover is about saying yes. He believes in the yes. So do I.

So when Writers League of Texas Program Director Michael Noll emailed and said, “I think your Crafting Short Fiction class would make a great Writers League of Texas webinar. Would you like to do it?” I said yes.

Why?

Because a yes will take me further down the road. A no is a stop.

I have never taught a webinar before. To be honest, I’m a little nervous. I mean, it could be a little weird sitting in my office talking to my computer for three hours. But it could also be fun. After all, I really like teaching. I love talking about aspects of craft and digging in to discover what makes a great beginning or how to use setting effectively. But most of all, I love being authentic and connecting with people in a class setting. I love when something I say creates an ‘aha’ moment for them. I love sharing the inspiration of writing.

Will it be harder to do through a digital format? Hmmm…maybe.

But I still say yes.

Join me on Wednesday August 30 @6:30pm for webinar on:
The Craft of Short Fiction: Telling the Story with Fewer Words and More Punch 

Those Who Can, Teach

I’ve always hated the expression: Those who can’t, teach. It’s specifically meant to disparage teachers who can’t, supposedly, make it in the “real” world by doing their art, whatever it may be.

For some people, teaching is a second choice. They can’t make a living doing what they want to do, so they teach. If they are frustrated by this reality, it comes across in their teaching.

I still remember this undergrad creative writing professor who was described by upper classmates as a very tough. I’m pretty sure that description came from students who’d survived his eviscerating criticism and were too intimidated to say, “Hey, asswipe, telling me my writing is trite, hackneyed and pointless is not helpful.” Sheesh, We were nineteen, for crying out loud, we’d barely begun our lives, never mind, learned how to write. In short, he was mean. It was like he was on mission to: a) make sure we never wrote again; b) decimate his competition c) scare students into believing he was a good writer; d) all of the above.

Fortunately, I have had many writing teachers for whom teaching is joy. All of them are working novelists, poets, playwrights and screenwriters who brought a spirit of collegiality to the classroom. They wanted me to grow as a writer. Every one of them opened up their writers’ toolboxes and showed me how they shaped and honed point of view, voice, setting, etc. They wanted me to succeed because they loved writing. They loved sharing the joy of the craft with me. They wanted me to feel the feeling of writing an excellent story or a fully realized novel. They wanted to jump up and down with me when these labors of love got the notice they deserved.

That’s why I teach. For the joy. For the community. For the generosity of spirit.

I have two upcoming classes. One is a Writer’s League of Texas Webinar on Crafting short fiction (August 30, 6:30-9:30pm) and the other is a six week short fiction workshop at the Writing Barn which starts on Tuesday, September 19. Please join me.

Interstitial Interstices 

They look like architectural drawings
these two words
Maps of pathways between things
all columns and arches
inviting us to enter into
—what—
the thing between everything
the you inside you
the imperfect chink in the crystal lattice
the weeds in between the flagstones
the interruptions in the boring passages the
waiting periods before we assume a higher position
in our mundane existence
—as if—
all the everythings will be better then
When really what we want is to slip
Our fingers into the crevice of her hand
Breathe ourselves onto her skin
Weave through the pathways
Along and
Along
All the way
Home

The practice is inspired by Naomi Shihab Nye and her notion that words are like oars. Dip them in the water. Explore with them. Feel how they touch and bump up against one another. Let them take us further down the stream.