When To Take The Drawing Away

I've been writing a lot this last couple weeks but publishing very little on the blog (or anywhere else) because I'm torn between two competing instincts: to publish and to revise. It's difficult to know when something is ready to go, when it's finished. I have a piece about the power of leaving the classroom, the nature of real leadership, and the mistake of hierarchy, but I don't know that I've got all three things in the piece, that they all belong and are connected in some meaningful way. I liked the first draft but saw issues and have gone through four or five revisions, but wonder if it still requires significant restructuring and re-imagining. I wish it would just resolve into what I imagine it should be, but there is still work to be done.

On the other side are today's Morning Pages. Running my pen over three pages, I came up with something that felt good in the moment, but I worry it will require just as much revision as the leadership piece. There are only so many balls I can keep in the air. Here's what the Morning Pages sound like:

The most vivid of dreaming this morning began with a woman who could not wait to get me alone and naked. She was dream-familiar in that she probably combines eight to ten women I've known or seen on the screen. I'm trying to conjure her now in order to figure out who she is, but she is a figment, fleeting, insubstantial as smoke. Maybe I have no idea who she is and with every attempt to pin her to reality some part of me says, "she's not of this world. Let her go."

In a later dream I was saying goodbye to Danny Devito whose son I had helped somehow. I said, "I hope to come back someday." He stared sadly at me, not wanting to explain that this was a one-off. The woman appeared again, silent, withdrawn, and I was possessed of a need to make out of desire something like love because the chance wouldn't come again. But I also knew that chance had never come at all. I hugged her — around the legs of all things. She allowed it because even I knew it was an embrace rather than my usual desperate hanging on.

In the real world, something like my old school job was posted yesterday. This morning the school's website is down. Coincidence? I don't think so! (Actually, I'm sure it's coincidence but still enjoy that joke.) The posting describes only half of what I used to do. This is either management omitting crucial details and withholding information or it indicates a programming shift in which the two parts of my old job are split from one another. I suspect it's the former or else there would be a part-time job posted as well.

Whatever the case, some poor sap will walk into my old job like stepping on a rake, the wooden handle snapping up hard in her or his face. They'll see stars and it will leave a mark. Some admin will say "it's nothing, keep walking, there are a hundred more rakes in the yard. Good luck!" They'll give the sap a push forward, turn out the lights, and blamed that teacher for every bruise and beating they receive.

Here's what really bothers me about all this: I won't know; I'll be out of that loop. No one in management will notice I'm gone and those on the ground will be too busy to pine for me. Though I want to say it doesn't matter, I'm so troubled about being easily replaced that I want to see the place fall to pieces without me.

"Why are you still carrying her?" the elder monk asks me. I have no good answer. Anger, anxiety, and ego get in the way of enlightenment. I'm still back in the place I left in June, trying to change someone other than myself.

(There's a topic to discuss with my therapist today. Will I continue therapy after August when I have to change insurance plans? It will be a luxury I likely can't afford and I wonder if it's a better vehicle than this writing. Is it just a shield against making the same old mistakes?)

In the dream I was only close to the woman twice and each time something got in the way. First it was other people, then it was me. When Danny Devito asked how he should pay me for helping his son, I said, "call it tutoring. That's what I do." He shrugged and wrote the check.

Then I was with a guy trying to figure out our next move in a long-term plan to teach writing. I asked what our next event should be, but he refused to say even the first word.

That was this morning's pages. There are things that interest me, but it's a mess, just a draft. I'm torn between revising and losing the feel of the thing. It reminds me of a scene in Six Degrees Of Separation:

FLAN (VO): How easy it is for a painter to lose a painting. He can paint and paint – work on canvas for months and one day he loses it – just loses the structure – loses the sense of it – you lose the painting.

A BRIGHT WHITE LIGHT shines on FLAN who turns to see A TEACHER, in her forties, very pure and happy, hanging beautiful and brilliantly colored children's drawings in the air. FLAN'S VOICE echoes in this vast space

FLAN: Why are all your students geniuses in the second grade? Look at the first grade. Blotches of green and black. Look at third grade. Camouflage. But the second grade — your grade. Matisses everyone. You've made my child a Matisse. Let me study with you. Let me into the second grade! What is your secret?

THE TEACHER: Secret? I don't have any secret. I just know when to take their drawings away from them.

I have no idea when to take the drawings away, but I keep wanting to be Matisse.

What Writing Looks Like

At my job I'm supposed to be writing, but at one point I pushed the chair back from the desk, crossed one leg over the other, put my hands behind my neck, leaned way back in the chair, and stared at the plaster wall for a couple minutes toward the end of which I worried that someone might walk in and doubt I was earning my keep. Had anyone asked what I was doing, I would have wanted to answer, "I'm writing," but probably would have said I was thinking because so few people would believe that, staring at the wall, I really was writing.

The look of writing differs throughout the process, changes according to the kind of work and the tools employed, and varies according to the writer. It even sounds different. I talk to myself while writing, whispering the lines as I work through something difficult. Sometimes writing is a good pen moving across and down the page. Most of my writing has me sitting at a desk rapping too hard on the keys and beating holy hell out of the space bar with my thumbs. I'd hate to share an office with me. But writing is also staring at the wall, looking out the window, filling the water bottle or coffee cup, crumpling a sheet of paper, massaging the eyes, and sometimes going for a walk or a run. Aaron Sorkin writes in the shower. I doubt he brings the paper and pen or his Macbook in there, but he's not taking a break so much as advancing the process.

No one questions Aaron Sorkin at this point. Not anyone with half a brain. I'm a lot less established and feel the need to account for what I'm doing. Good people are paying me money to write and I'd hate to have them think my staring at the wall is a waste of all that. I want to explain that looking at the wall got me the fix for the paragraph on page three. I pretty much wrote it on that wall, my body reclined in the chair, hands behind my head, but the pen in my head writing, scratching, and rewriting words. I found the words as if they were written in the textures and patches on that wall. I just needed to see their outlines enough to begin hearing them drop into place one after the other, one sentence and then another.

Now that's writing.

No one caught me in the act of it and had to hear my explanation. Except you.

I've been staring now at the two-word sentence that precedes this one, wondering, how will this end? Check back with me in a while. I'll still be staring out the window, into the pattern of the carpet, or maybe even at the painted wall. You'll have to get my attention. I leave this world when I'm writing even without pen or keyboard involved. I hate to come back until I've found the words and have arrived at the period that finishes it off just so.

No Apprenticeship. No Master.

Cutting potatoes for a recipe I got thinking about technique. I cut vegetables all wrong, holding my knife poorly, and though I curve my fingers away I'm sure I'm an accident waiting to happen. Sharpening my knife on the stone, I'm less than amateur, almost clown-like. Sorry, clowns. No offense. There are YouTube videos I should watch to help myself learn, but I really want a teacher.

My mother has never liked cooking. Her mother died too young and Mom got stuck preparing meals, feeling no joy at all. I learned to make a lasagna from her and enjoyed our time together in the kitchen. I like to think she enjoyed those times too, but cooking was such an obligation. I learned some from her, but she was no master. No one masters something they hate to do.

My brother enjoyed the kitchen as much as the workshop or garage. He watched The Frugal Gourmet, bought one of his cookbooks, and prepared dishes as he had seen them done. Never one to shy from teaching himself, he went in knowing he could do it and so of course he could. I started cooking with him. He taught me to curl my fingers under as I used a knife and a lot more.

We used Mom's kitchen tools which were no good. Her generation was under the impression that anything would do. Her knives were cheap, dull, and couldn't be sharpened. My brother bought some of his own things and I learned the value of proper tools and technique.

I've come a good long way since then, mostly by trial and error, and while I can put a meal together, I'm not doing things in the traditional and proven ways, and with the level of success I want to achieve. Which is a way of saying that I have a lot to learn.

My friend is a photographer and has taught himself the art and craft. He has worked at it but seems a natural. Polished, practiced people often do. I know it has all come to him over time, that he has tried and erred, but by now it's as if he has magic in him. He continues to work at it and is student and teacher all in one. He is his own school of photography.

I'm not as good at running a school for myself. Ironic, given that I'm a teacher. I wish I was better at it, but it's not my forte. This is why I often wish I could apprentice to some chef or, better still, some writer.

I learned what I could learn of writing in school and college. That was all twenty-five years ago. Since then I've been mostly on my own. That's not bad. I've learned a lot about writing but almost nothing about publishing. A mentor, teacher, guru, or master to whom I could apprentice myself seems like the way to make it all work.

That or I could just dig in and push myself to figure it out. Even if I cut the vegetables with less than perfect technique, the soup will taste fine. I just have to manage not to cut my fingers off in the process. Lucky for me, my pen isn't nearly as sharp.

Them's The Breaks

I haven't posted in a couple days. Things got busy and I've wondered about other kinds of writing I want to do. Posting daily takes work — though I don't want to oversell it since I can gin up a post in half an hour — and there are times it leaves me without the energy to write something longer. And then there are the streaks and the break.

Streaks sometimes work. They keep me going when I want to quit. A long streak gets me over my inertia.

But streaks can get in my way and become more important than the thing I'm really trying to do. That was how daily blogging had begun to feel. I was churning out mediocre posts that weren't making me happy and got in the way of other writing. I took a break so I might come back with a better idea of how to proceed.

I've kept my Morning Pages streak. People confuse the blog with those. There are posts that come from the morning's pages, but not often. Morning Pages are less about writing than about daily practice like meditation or prayer. I find balance through them. Without them the last five years of my job would have been unbearable. Morning Pages teach me who I am. That streak is easy to maintain. Every time I consider breaking it, I reconsider and keep going. The daily-ness feels necessary and good. It doesn't get in the way.

I'll try to keep publishing a newsletter each week. It's a great way to keep up with people, understand audience, and have fun.

Here are my guiding questions for streaks:

  • Is it making me happy?
  • Is it making me a better person?
  • Is it making me a better writer?
  • Would a break improve things?

It has been a good break. I'm back today, happy, better, and ready to see what happens next.

Those questions are a good guide to most anything. Go figure.