Category: Teaching

I am doing a writing exercise I’ve assigned to my students

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Insects buzz. Insects with a vibrating hum and insects chirping at regular quick intervals, like a racing pulse. Cars pass. Engines roar, mildly, louder when accelerating, heavily whirring before changing gears, puttering, brakes squeaking, a rushing sound like wind that is not wind, that is mechanical, a hush of white noise.

Shadows on yellow brick, moving as the wind moves the trees, patterned, like lace.

The dogs begin to bark. What have they seen or heard? The first to begin is DJ, loudest, the leader of this pack of two. Suzi joins, confused, eager, uncertain. DJ stops, stiffens behind the raspberry patch, behind the cluster of dead flowers, and sniffs the air. Whatever she has seen is gone. The yard is safe, again.

On the clothesline a few items hang, shirts upside-down, athletic gear airing in the breeze and sunshine. The leaves are turning colour. The sky is steady opaque blue, not quite dark, not quite light, clear behind the flame orange leaves, like an artificial backdrop for a photograph I took last year, and the year before, but not yet this year.

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photo of the changing leaves, last year

I have not taken any photos of changing leaves this year. This is not because the leaves have not changed. I don’t know why I haven’t brought my camera outside to catch the season on its cusp of coming.

I am sitting in a green plastic fake Adirondack chair, bought uptown at the hardware store for cheap. The floorboards beneath my feet are painted a rich blue, the paint also bought uptown at the same hardware store.

I turn to examine the pile of sandals by the open back door, and see instead a large spider, suspended in its web, very near me. It hangs upside down. It is alive, its legs twitch, each leg thin and ringed with a pattern of pale tan, dark brown, and a shade in between the two colours that looks mottled. Its body is fat, and also patterned in shades of brown. I would fear it, but it has lived on our porch for much of the summer, moving its web higher or lower when disturbed by one of us. I have watched it through the kitchen window suck clean the body of a large fly, a bee, draining each to a dried husk of its former self.

I am writing this because I’ve given the students in my creative writing class the same exercise. I want to feel what they feel while forced to sit and focus for 15 consecutive minutes, uninterrupted except by what they observe, their objective to seek out the details, no matter how small, and place them on the page, without judgement, without critique, simply observing and noting and describing.

It is an exercise I’ve given myself at times throughout this past year. It asks not: is this interesting; but rather: what is here to be found?

The timer rings. I don’t want to finish yet. The dogs have gone inside, and are working themselves into a sudden frenzy of emotion, howling and yipping at something they’ve seen through a window. Gradually, the noise diminishes, then stops abruptly. Here is Suzi, come to find me, her little body quivering.

Here am I, glad for the excuse to sit still and think of nothing but what is, right now.

xo, Carrie

New things are happening

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New things are happening around our house.

The kids started school. Yeah, that was a few weeks ago already. I’ve been a touch distracted.

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this was as happy as I could get them to look, and oh how we tried!

New instruments are being played. CJ has started the piano. Fooey has retired from piano and taken up the violin. AppleApple has the opportunity to play both the French horn and the cello through her school, and on Tuesday evening practiced that horn for an hour and twenty minutes. I kid you not. Then she went outside and practiced some more. The neighbours kid you not. “It doesn’t sound quite so much like an elephant’s butt,” her helpful father told her. And Albus joined the school orchestra (he plays the viola), because, he told me, participants will be rewarded with a trip to Canada’s Wonderland at the end of the year. Hey, whatever works.

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I’ve newly begun teaching, again. It’s much easier the second time around. So much easier. It helps not to be suffering the effects of concussion, too. (How did I manage that last fall??)

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Also new: swim kid is no longer swim kid. She’s just going to be soccer kid, field hockey kid, cross country kid, music kid, theatre kid, hanging-out-with-friends kid. This was no small decision. But I think I’m mourning it more than she is, which means it’s absolutely the right decision (she had tears, but moved on). Truth be told, we couldn’t fit the extra commitment into our lives. It’s hard to stop doing something you’ve enjoyed, and that has brought you success. But success doesn’t always mean you should keep doing it. When you’re good at lots of things, you’ve gotta choose what you absolutely love. (I mean, this is a kid who will obsessively focus on whatever is before her. She’s playing the damn horn again as I type. I mean, the melodious completely non-elephant-butt-like horn. She’s trained herself, with literally hour upon consecutive hour of practice over the summer to juggle—with her feet—a soccer ball 379 times without dropping it, when she could barely manage 2 back in June. Discipline is not her issue.)

Here is the reward: she would have been swimming for two hours last night. Instead, when I walked through the front door, home from teaching, I was greeted by this sight:

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Sweeping toward me, decked out in feathered mask and cape, she burst forth in low dramatic tones. Shakespeare? Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy, to be precise. “She’s in a mood,” said her father, fondly.

One more reward: eating supper together as a family.

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See? We tried. We really did. It’s what we do around here.

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xo, Carrie

Reading & writing

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Eleanor Catton, the 28-year-old writer who won the Booker last fall for her novel The Luminaries, continues to win further prizes too, and recently declared her intent to set up a grant with her earnings that would give writers time to read. Yes, you read that right. Time to read. Click here to read the entire article in The Guardian.

“My idea is that if a writer is awarded a grant, they will be given the money with no strings attached except that after three months they will be expected to write a short piece of non-fiction about their reading …

“We’re very lucky in New Zealand to have a lot of public funding available for writers, but they generally require the writer to have a good idea about what they want to write, and how, before they apply. I think that this often doesn’t understand or serve the creative process, which is organic and dialectic; I also think it tends to reward people who are good at writing applications rather than, necessarily, people who are curious about and ambitious for the form in which they are writing. I’m also uncomfortable with the focus that it places on writing as production, with publication as the end goal, rather than on writing as enlightenment, with the reading as the first step.”

I’m making several connections as I read this.

I’m thinking about generosity, creativity, and the many reasons a person may feel compelled both to read and to write. I’m thinking about teaching creative writing again this fall, and agonizing over how best to encourage in my students a love of reading and words and ideas and stylistic play and leaps of connection and openness and generosity, yes, creativity, yes. It’s the necessity of marking that troubles me, not because it takes time and effort, but because aiming for a particular grade is not necessarily conducive to developing a love of writing and reading.

Which leads me back to Eleanor Catton’s idea for a grant that does not require of the writer a full-fledged project at the end or the beginning, but rather openness, curiosity, patience.

(And she’s coming to the Eden Mills Writers Festival on Sunday, Sept. 14, where I do hope we’ll get the chance to meet.)

xo, Carrie

A sea of inexplicable commas

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Here’s where I’m spending this week. My favourite part of the photo, above, is CJ’s tiger overseeing the situation (ironically, it’s the part that gets cut out of the photo when this blog is posted online; I’m sure that’s a metaphor for something). I’m marking. That’s what I’m doing. By the end of this evening, I expect to be more than halfway done. (That’s the sound of me knocking on wood.) If all goes as planned, I will finish on Friday. (The knocking is getting louder.)

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Maybe then I can fold that basket of clean laundry at the end of the table, which will no doubt have expanded into two wildly overflowing baskets of clean laundry if left until then.

Anyway, if you don’t hear from me between now and the weekend, you’ll know what I’m up to. And why my posture is deteriorating by the hour. And why I suddenly have the urge to write. In broken. Oddly, punctuated, sentences. Grumpy oldster comment ahead, but I don’t think anyone’s teaching kids grammar anymore (did anyone, ever, come to think of it?). It’s like they’re on their own, trying to negotiate a sea of inexplicable commas. I want to help them!

Here’s an awkward transition. I’ll just throw it in like this.

Can you spot the common theme in the following two photos?

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Christmas tree

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new art area

I’m signing off. Pencil in hand, freshly sharpened, back to the table, back to the tiger. I can see it, even if you can’t.

Inspirational lectures, Carrie-style

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I taught my last class yesterday evening.

We ended with a “poetry slam,” and the students got to read/perform something they’d written for the course. I brought snacks. It was fun. 
At the very end of class, I handed back an assignment and said, “And I’d like to give you all a copy of my first book.” Was I ever surprised when the class erupted in cheers. “Really? Wow, I’m so relieved,” I said. “I thought maybe it was kind of lame on my part, like, hey, guys, here’s my book …” “It feels like we’re on Oprah,” someone said (of course with irony). “Like we should be checking under our chairs.” “Yes, there’s a publishing contract for everyone under your chairs,” I said. That was a joke. But I did give them all a copy of HAIR HAT, which isn’t obtainable anyway by other means, since it’s out of print, a fact I’d shared with them in an earlier class during my inspirational lecture on “Being a Writer is All About Rejection and Disappointment”; though I had to revise my lecture somewhat after selling GIRL RUNNER the very next week. “Being a Writer is All About Rejection and Disappointment, Except When It’s Also About Your Dreams Actually Coming True!”
A few students were curious to know whether I’d teach again. I got the general impression that they hoped I would, and that they hoped I’d enjoyed teaching them. I know it will/would be easier next time, having laid out a curriculum that worked quite well, and would work better with a few minor tinkerings and adjustments. But I can only do it if I have the time. And that remains to be seen.
I do think it was good and useful work, and I’m glad to have been given the opportunity to do it. It felt, I’ll admit, like a major responsibility for which I have no training; in other words, a fairly daunting task, now undertaken, and accomplished. Except for the final marking. Oh, right. The marking.
I’ll miss the room, above.
I’ll miss the warm, comfortable atmosphere that developed in the room as the term progressed and we all got to know each other. I’ll miss hearing the students’ stories, too.
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I won’t have to miss my office quite yet, however, as I’ll be back to visit regularly over the next week or two in order to plough through that aforementioned marking. I like marking there. It’s quiet and I’m not distracted, and it feels like it’s what I’m there to do, so I do it. Also, I work hard because I want to get done and go home. There’s food at home.
Wish me luck.

Great grey Friday

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It’s a pattern. Every Friday morning this fall, I sleep in (ie. not up at 5AM), yet can barely drag myself out of bed. I eat breakfast, start the laundry, see the children out the door, and struggle to be otherwise productive at anything. The cup of coffee doesn’t seem to help.

Thursday evenings I teach. Friday mornings I’m drained. I think it might be as simple as that. But frustrating, too, because there is so much about teaching that I’ve enjoyed this fall. It’s gone how I’d hoped it would go. I’m accomplishing what I’d hoped to accomplish. So how to explain my body’s reponse to the job?

I’m going to go out on a limb and self-diagnose as introvert.

A long day of writing leaves me pop-eyed and twitching. Manic, you might say. Or, energized. Three hours of teaching leaves me jelly-noodled, spine sunken like a comma. Bloodless, you might say. Glazed. Is this how other teachers feel?

This sounds like an extended complaint. I’m not meaning to complain, only to observe.

I don’t think teaching naturally drains everyone. I’m sure of it. Kevin comes home from teaching buzzing with good energy. I wish that were me. My students are terrific, interesting, thoughtful, hard-working, open-minded, and a pleasure to share ideas with.

So, yes. I do feel frustrated by myself. It’s not that I’m shy. It’s not hard for me to talk to people. But it may be that I’m introverted, and draw my energy from being alone. Any thoughts on this, from introverts or extroverts alike?

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Two more things. Okay, could be more than two, but I’ll keep it to two in this section of the post. We’ll call this the newsy section.

1. I did an interview about style for BLUEPRINT, a student-run magazine at Wilfrid Laurier. I liked the questions, and I liked thinking of myself as actually having and even cultivating style. (Long-time friends, please don’t laugh.) You can read the interview here.

2. I’m hearing rumour that the latest QUILL & QUIRE magazine has a blurb about the success of Girl Runner at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Kevin’s promised to pick me up a copy on the way home. (Quill & Quire is Canada’s publishing industry magazine.) Couldn’t find a link.

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Final section of Friday’s blog post. This will be the philosophical section wherein I write about an idea that is only half-formed, as bloggers are wont to do. The idea is about work.

Work is a word that I’m beginning to realize has enormous value in my mind. But I define it in very narrow terms. Work is writing. Period. Everything else gets filed under other categories, somehow. This happens unconsciously, and I’ve only just realized that I do it.

Here are some of my (unconciously formed) categories, which all go into the big filing cabinet of LIFE.

Parenting/pleasure. Family. Marriage. Hobbies. Recreation. Obligation. Chores. Cooking and baking. Reading. Friends. And, of course, Work.

Parenting/pleasure encompasses all the things I do for and with my kids. Of course these things have to be done, but they don’t feel like obligations. That’s why I add the word pleasure to the file.

Family is a broader category and includes my wider family systems.

Marriage. Obvious.

Hobbies. I think that’s exercise, for me. It seems to occupy the space that a hobby would. It’s quite time-consuming, and I’m devoted to it for no reason other than I love doing it. Photography fits in here. Blogging, too.

Recreation is anything done in the spirit of pure play.

Obligation is job-jobs. Things I do to earn money. There’s a bit of cross-over here between other categories, and it includes promotional work for my writing life. It isn’t all a grind, and I don’t mind doing it, but nevertheless these are jobs that must be done rather than jobs I would choose to do. These jobs don’t seem to count in my mind as work, no matter the financial value attached to them.

Chores. Also obvious. That overflowing laundry basket on the table behind me right now, for instance.

Cooking and baking. I enjoy doing this too much to call it a chore, and yet it isn’t a hobby either, seeing as feeding everyone is a daily necessity.

Reading. This gets a category all to itself. It comes close to work, in my mind, obviously in a good way.

Friends. Maintaining relationships, trying to keep them fed and nurtured, far and near, in-person and via social media.

And finally, work. As I type out this half-formed idea, I realize that work is a constant, even if I’m not at my desk. I’m feeding my working life, and my writing, by being in the world, by parenting, by playing, by running and reading, by all of it. So work is both a precious and guarded particular part of my life (writing), and work is all of it, all the time, always.

End of idea.

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