Writing As My Way of Teaching

I didn’t start writing as a way to “heal.” 

In fact, my earliest memory of myself as a writer goes back to second grade. I had written a story and showed it to my teacher, Mrs. Jones. In all fairness, in my memory, my story wasn’t entirely my own, but was “borrowed” from something I had seen on Sesame Street. 

In any event, Mrs. Jones made me a “book” with yellow construction paper for the front and back covers and the “good paper” inside – the white paper with blue lines that was always reserved for our final drafts. She told me to write my stories down in my book. 

I don’t know what happened to that book, but I do know that I’ve been writing ever since.

I got lucky. My very first publication was in the Los Angeles Times. 

After that, most of my published personal essays were inspired by my teaching career and my interactions with my students. (You can check out a list of my published work here.)

But that was before 2010. For the past ten years, I have written more and more about my life with an autoimmune disease. In fact, I am working on a memoir-in-essays as a mother, wife, and former teacher living with this invisible disability.

And that’s why I recently read Louise DeSalvo’s Writing as a Way of Healing – How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives.

While I don’t know if writing is “transforming” my life, I do believe writing provides me with a different opportunity to teach.

This week, I’d like to share a few of the passages that I marked with my pinkish/purplish highlighter.

“… writing that springs from intensely personal motives can be useful to others. For loss is a universal human experience, something we all must learn to deal with.”

“Through reading, our imaginative faculties are nourished, enriched, expanded. This is why, for writers and would-be writers, reading is not a luxury but a necessity.”

“One reason, then, to write as we face these critical junctures in our lives is that illness and disability necessitate that we think differently about ourselves, about everything. We can write a new story for ourselves, to discover who we are now – what we’re feeling and thinking and what we desire. We can learn, too, what our bodies are like now, and we can imagine what will become of us.”

“Writing gives us back the voices we seem to lose when our bodies become ill or disabled. We want to speak for ourselves and our particular experience of illness and disability rather than have someone else speak for us. Writing helps us assert our individuality, our authority, our own particular style. All are seriously compromised by medical treatment and hospitalizations …”

“For illness often confers a wisdom about how to make ordinary life deeply and transcendentally meaningful.” 

 

Taking It Day By Day

When someone asks how we’re doing, I answer, “We’re taking it day by day.”

But what I really want to say is, “We’re taking it bird by bird.”

My second answer is a reference to what is considered a classic writing book, Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. 

I’ve read this book in the past, but now seemed like a perfect time to take it off my bookshelf and re-read it.

While it’s especially valuable for writers, I do believe much of the book can be applied to readers and artists in general.

During these challenging, scary, unchartered times here are some words from Bird By Bird that I hope help get you through your day-by-day.

“Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work; you don’t give up.”

“If you are a writer, or want to be a writer, this is how you spend your days – listening, observing, storing things away, making your isolation pay off.”

– “I honestly think in order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing? Why are you here? Let’s think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world.” 

– “My deepest belief is that to live as if we’re dying can set us free. Dying people teach you to pay attention and to forgive and not to sweat the small things.”

– “To live as if we are dying gives us a chance to experience some real presence. Time is so full for people who are dying in a conscious way, full in the way that life is for children.” 

– “Don’t be afraid of your material or your past. Be afraid of wasting any more time obsessing about how you look and how people see you. Be afraid of not getting your writing done.” 

– “Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul.”

A Promise To Myself

Today is generally the day when many people state their new year’s resolutions. Grand plans for dreams, goals, and aspirations.

I’m not going to do that.

Instead, I’m going to state my intention to continue working on my memoir. I’m going to promise myself that I will not give up on sharing my story. 

For my fellow writers out there, I highly recommend Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art From Trauma by Melanie Brooks. This collection is such an inspiration, providing insight into how different writers took something hard/terrible/horrific and used it to create something beautiful/meaningful/relevant.

Here are a few passages I’d like to share with you:

“The reason I write memoir is to be able to see the experience itself in a new way. I hardly know what I think until I write. The therapy is one way of sort of processing things. But it’s only in writing about some of these things that we discover and understand the metaphors of our experience that give our life meaning. Writing is a way to organize your life, give it a frame, give it a structure, so that you can really see what it was that happened.” – Sue William Silverman

“I was a writer, and then this big thing happened in my family. And the way that I tend to try to understand things is through stories – both things that I write and things that I read. That’s the deepest way I know of expressing something inexpressible.” – Joan Wickersham

“You take what you’ve been through, and if you are a writer, you have to write about it.” – Suszanne Strempek Shea

“It really becomes memoir, though, when you open up space for others to enter – when it becomes about more than you, or your family, or your own personal feelings.” – Edwidge Danticat

“Don’t forget, it’s scarier not to do it than to do it.” – Abigail Thomas

 

My Job

As I tell my son, one day my name will be on the spine of a book. For now, my name is inside -these anthologies each include a personal essay I have written.

My now-eleven-year-old son gave me the biggest boost the other day, and he doesn’t even realize it.

Ryan told me that during lunch the other day, kids were talking about their parents’ jobs and some of his friends asked what my job was.  It’s a fair question.  After all, I take my son to school each morning, and I’m there each afternoon to pick him up.  I’ve accompanied his class on a field trip to The Getty Center, and I attend all his class performances.  

“I told them you’re a writer,” Ryan told me.

And I smiled.  A writer is, by definition, one who writes.  And I do.  Nearly every day.  My writing time is divided between assigned posts for MomsLA.com and personal essays for my memoir-in-progress and those I submit for publication. (Update –  I have received word that two of my essays have been accepted and will be publishing sometime in the future.  I’ll keep you posted).

“I told them you’re writing a book,” he continued.

Ryan knows that I have a collection of “stories” (his word for my personal essays) that I am working on compiling into a book.  

“And one of my friends said she’ll buy your book when it comes out,” he said.

I smiled.  

“So, what’s your book going to be about again?”

I told Ryan, “It’s about living with an invisible illness.  What it’s like to do all the things I do but having an illness people can’t see.”

He was satisfied with that answer, but I was curious about something else.

“Ryan, did you tell them I used to be a teacher?”

“No.  Because that was before.  And now you write.”

“Do you even remember when I was a teacher?” I asked him.

“No,” he said.  (I left teaching in March 2013.  Ryan was almost 5 at the time.) 

It’s important to remind myself that if I hadn’t left my teaching career, there’s no way I would be writing as much as I am now.  And I certainly wouldn’t have published as much as I have. 

And my son wouldn’t be telling his friends his mom is a writer.

 

Just Keep Writing

For my birthday, a good friend gave me a book from my wish list – Jennie Nash’s The Writer’s Guide to Agony and Defeat – The 43 Worst Moments in the Writing Life and How to Get Over Them.

Having just turned 43, I thought it would be a good time to read this book.  And,  having an increased blog readership and a growing collection of essays I hope to publish as a memoir, I thought it would be a good time to read this book.

While I didn’t agree with everything Ms. Nash wrote (and felt some of her jokes weren’t that funny), there were a number of takeaways I’d love to share with you.  I think you’ll find they’re insightful and valuable even if you aren’t a writer.

Talent is helpful in writing, but guts are absolutely essential.”  – Jessamyn Wes

This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package.  Don’t consider it rejected.  Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘not at this address.’  Just keep looking for the right address.  – Barbara Kingsolver

What we do might be done in solitude and with great desperation, but it tends to produce exactly the opposite.  It tends to produce community and in many people hope and joy.” – Junot Díaz

Ones best success comes after their greatest disappointments.” – Harriet Ward Beecher

 

A Hopeful Read

Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott is “an exploration of hope and the place it holds in our lives.”  That phrase alone was enough to make me want to read this book.  And then in an act of serendipity, because I had never mentioned this book to her, a very good friend of mine gave me this book for Christmas. 

I just finished reading it a few days ago and would love to share with my readers some of my favorite passages.

“…life lasts so briefly, like free theater in the park – glorious and tedious; full of wonder and often hard to understand, but right before our very eyes, and capable of rousing us, awakening us to life, to the green and very real grass, the mess, the sky, the limbo.”

Almost everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, scared, and yet designed for joy.”

Adults rarely have the imagination or energy of children, but we do have one another, and nature, and old black-and-white movies, and the ultimate secret weapon, books.  Books!  To fling myself into a book, to be carried away to another world while being at my most grounded, on my butt or in my bed or favorite chair, is literally how I have survived being here at all.”

Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”    (That one line makes up the entirety of chapter four).

Hate is such an ugly word.  How about loathe for the verb, abhorrence for the noun?  (I agree.  When I was a teacher, “hate” was not allowed to be spoken in my classroom).

So, writing.  What a bitch.”  (And this begins my favorite chapter of the book).

In my current less-young age, I’ve learned that almost more than anything, stories hold us together.  Stories teach us what is important about life, why we are here and how it is best to behave, and that inside us we have access to treasure, in memories and observations, in imagination.”

 

This Year’s Plan

My personal essays appear in these anthologies.

Last year, I wrote a blog post stating my intention to make my writing my year’s focus.  (Click here if you missed it.  And an update:  the anthology I mentioned in last year’s post has been delayed but hopefully will be published later this year). 

So, a week into the new year, I thought it only fitting to reflect on 2018 and see how I did.  

Did I focus on my writing?  Yes, most of the time.  When my son is home during breaks from school (we just finished up a three-week winter break), my writing time is drastically reduced.  

Yet, I’m proud to say I did a lot of writing last year, including: 

A blog post a week.  And I’m especially proud of re-focusing this blog and concentrating my posts on one of the 3 most important B’s in my life:  boys (or children in general, based on my teaching experiences and raising my son), books (a writer must also be a reader), and bodies (specifically living with an autoimmune disease).

I continued to be a regular contributor for MomsLA.com, often writing two posts per week.

I completed a course in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.  

I wrote multiple personal essays, and I published a dozen of them on sites such as TheMighty.com, parents.com, RoleReboot.org, Breath and Shadow, and mother.ly.  

So what’s in store for this year?  More of the same.  A focus on my writing, specifically my essays describing my experiences living with an invisible disability.  

On my bookcase, there are several anthologies that don’t have my name on the cover, but do have my name inside – on a contributing essay.  And like I’ve told my son, one day, there will be a book on our shelf where my name is on the cover.  That’s what I’m working on this year.

 

My Reading Homework

I have just completed “Creative Nonfiction III,” a ten-week writing course offered through UCLA Extension.

And, I didn’t complete all my homework.

In addition to workshopping essays every other week, each student was supposed to read a book a week.  There was no prescribed reading list.  We were simply to read one book each week of class.  And I didn’t.

When I’ve taken this course in prior years, I diligently completed all my reading homework.  I calculated the minimum number of pages I needed to read each day to make sure the book would be finished on time.  It was stressful.  I’d power-read, just trying to get the book finished without truly enjoying what I was reading or paying attention to the author’s tone or the book’s structure.

So with this class, I decided I wasn’t going to do that again.  I would try to read a book a week, but if it didn’t happen, so be it.  There is no negative consequence.  I wasn’t taking this class for a grade.  I was taking it for me.  I pushed myself during this class, writing in a couple of new styles, writing on different topics.  And I slowed myself down to enjoy what I was reading.

I may not have finished ten books in ten weeks, but overall, I did pretty well.

Since class started in October, I have read:

  • Close Encounters of the Third-Grade Kind: Thoughts on Teacherhood by Phillip Done 
  • The Art of Slow Writing by Louise DeSalvo   
  • When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi  
  • Tell Me More – Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say by Kelly Corrigan 
  • Writing Is My Drink by Theo Pauline Nestor
  • Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro

And I’m currently reading. Wherever You Are: A Memoir of Love, Marriage, and Brain Injury by Cynthia Lim (an author I first met through a Writers Retreat and who has also taken classes through UCLA Extension).

Readers, I’d love to hear about any books you’ve read in the last ten weeks.  Feel free to share in the comments section!

A Doable Dream

I am in the middle of reading Eric Maisel’s A Writer’s Paris (though we have no immediate plans for a trip to Paris).  I love how Mr. Maisel describes Paris:  You feel at home in Paris because the things that you care about – strolling, thinking, loving, creating – are built into the fabric of the city.

My husband and I first traveled to Paris in the spring of 2005, and along with evoking a desire to return, reading this book has also made me stop and think about the technology we used then compared to what we rely on now.

On that note, I thought it would be fun to share with you some of the ways technology has changed and the ways it impacted our trip.

 

— During March of 2005, the billboards around Paris were advertising Apple’s newest product, the Shuffle, a product that isn’t even made any more.  Now billboards (at least here in L.A.) advertise the iPhone X.   

— We stayed at a small, but clean hotel in the Opera District.  In addition to complimentary breakfast, the hotel also had a computer in its lobby that guests could use for free.  Of course, we’d have to wait our turn, but once the computer was available, we were able to send emails back to my parents in California.

— At some point during our trip, our 35mm camera broke.  I worried that the film inside would be ruined, and the pictures we had already taken would be forever lost.  And I was heartbroken that we wouldn’t be able to continue taking photos of our trip.

— Our first stop in Paris (after finding our hotel) was the Eiffel Tower.  We marveled at the size, at the number of people, at the elevators taking us up this monument.  (We made it to the second level; the third level was closed due to wind conditions we were told).  And on that second level, we found a pay phone.  It wasn’t easy to figure out, but we did eventually manage to make a phone call from the Eiffel Tower to my parents in Los Angeles.

Back then, my husband and I were both twenty-nine years old.  We explored the city relying on my two years of high school French and a guidebook.  No guided tours and no smartphone.  But we did it.  Because as Mr. Maisel writes, “Paris is a doable dream, and your writing is a doable dream.  Both require the same nurturing and the same attention, the same courage and the same perseverance.