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Why Writing Groups Matter

October 28, 2015

New York Times article recently discussed whether or not one can improve the brain’s function by doing puzzles, brain exercises, or other activities. While the results weren’t conclusive, I gleaned some helpful hints: One, that physical exercise has a positive effect on the brain, particularly for women my age. Two, believing you can improve your brain increases the likelihood of doing so (see Carol Dweck, Mindset). Three, socialization improves the mind.

Since I prize my wide range of friends from different parts of my life, I was particularly gratified to learn that one’s social circle enhances the brain function. I do know that practicing my hobbies and interests with others who share these interests motivates me to do more, to do well. My musical ability improves when I don’t have to play alone. I’m much more productive in an art class that I am alone. (At home, I tend to amass materials I am going to use–eventually.)

Writing groups have also proven useful to me. I’ve met with a prose group for quite awhile. We’re a diverse group and have enjoyed going to Weymouth Center for the Arts in Southern Pines for short writing residencies. Now I have an active poetry group as well, women I met through Poetry Hickory and Art of Poetry.

Even though one must devote quiet, solitary time to write–and not just sit around talking about writing–what I get from a writing group is invaluable–encouragement, genuine feedback, group-imposed deadlines, and involvement in small projects. Our sharing sessions confirm what I learned long ago about teaching too: There are so many right ways to do something. If I can glean what is useful from my companions and celebrate what they do well that doesn’t necessarily work for me, the interaction is useful.

On top of that, my brain get sharpened.

Balancing Writing with Reading–and Life

October 9, 2015

IMG_1840After spending the summer using Rebecca McClanahan’s Writing Your Heart Out as a guide for online writing, I’ve not posted must once the summer ended and the school year started up. That does not mean I’m not writing. In fact, I’ve managed to carve out some regular writing time most days, and I’ve kept meeting with my prose group and my poetry group. Best of all, with some of my go-to people, we managed to pull off a successful event for poets right here in Hickory, which we called The Fall Face-to-Face in the Foothills Poetry Festival.

My friend Jane Shlensky and I have batted around the idea for awhile now to try to bring together some of our online writing community, and we figured North Carolina would be the perfect setting, since we have such a strong poetry community here.  Of course, we managed to schedule our event the same weekend as the Fall meeting of the North Carolina Poetry Society, and several other major cultural events conflicted from Raleigh west.  Nevertheless, we had a wonderful turn out for a varied schedule of sessions featuring three NC poets laureate–Shelby Stephenson, who holds the position currently, as well as Joseph Bathanti and Kathryn Stripling Byer, along with Scott Owens, host of Poetry Hickory, Michael Beadle, and Robert Lee Brewer. editor of Poet’s Market and Writers Market, at the Hickory Museum of Art, just in time for participants to be able to view the museum’s latest exhibit, National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry’s striking photographs.

One of the special joys was getting to meet Sharon and Terry Ingraham of Alberta, Canada; Connie Peters of Cortez Colorado, Bruce Neidt of New Jersey, and Judy Roney, who splits her time between Maggie Valley, NC, and Plant City, Florida.  All of these folks knew each other–and Robert–from the Poetic Asides online poetry community, but had never met face to face.

Now that this first festival is behind us, we’re already looking at how–and when–to do it again. Meanwhile, I’m working hard to put to use all those notes I scrawled in my notebook, all the tips, all the “poem idea!” notes in my margins.

Moving Between Two Extremes

August 7, 2015

IMG_1717I know it seems as though I performed a disappearing act during the last half of July and the first few days of August.  To draw back on earlier chapters in Write Your Heart Out, I realize that I was in the prewriting stage:  gathering so much material.

What struck me most this week was the huge pendulum swing I experienced. I don’t know if I felt more like Alice in Wonderland or Gulliver, moving from Lilliput to Brobdignag. As anyone who knows me has heard, I spent a wonderful week toward the end  DSC_0135of July at the Swannanoa Gathering Old Time Music and Dance Week. This is my fifth consecutive summer to attend the event, and I plan for many more returns.

Having Avery, my nine-year-old granddaughter, along with me was certainly a major highlight. I may not have completely comprehended how special this week in this place was for my, though, until I accompanied my husband this week on a business trip to Las Vegas.  It was my first time there, and if it’s my last, I’ll shed no tears.

At the Gathering on the Warren Wilson College Campus, we experienced warmer than usual temperatures of the mountains, and the dorm rooms are not air conditioned.  We managed to make do with a large oscillating fan and two-a-day showers. The setting is idyllic: mountains surrounding us, wild flowers blooming their hearts out, bunnies visible everywhere, and one lone bear only an occasional sighting.  I also noticed a significant decrease in technology in use. I am accustomed to seeing young people walking along while texting, and muttering, “You’d better watch out or you’re going to run into something.”

Here, I saw a teenager walking across the scenic bridge–READING!  In fact, I noticed how many of the  campers, particularly the young ones, had a book handy to fill time before classes or during meals. I mainly saw cell phones pulled out to record an instructor playing through a new tune we were learning. (I have “Nail That Catfish to a Tree,” “No Place Like Home,” and “Crow Creek” on my phone, a couple in video, so I can enlarge and watch Paul Kovac’s double stops.)

Dress was casual and cool, with the occasional cowboy boots coming out for dances or Honky Tonk Night. The flavor of the week was decidedly international. On the first day, at the opening in the Pavilion, we learned that of the approximately 250 participants, at least 35 were from other countries.  I know that in my own classes, we had students from Australia, Israel, Norway,  Canada, France, Scotland, and England. Now imagine, if you will, singing “Precious Memories” with this kind of assortment.

Nationality was only one measure of diversity at the Gathering.  Since Old Time Week has a strong children’s program, we had lots of young people, along with babies. (Yes, I saw a mother in a square dance with her tiny baby in her front pack.) and folks that were elderly enough to need walking canes or golf cart transportation between classes.  Age in no way hampered their participation in the music or dance, though.  In fact, I picked up a favorite set of lyrics (to an Iris Dement song) from one of the older members of class. Best of all, though, age difference were in no way divisive during the week. I’ve been around young music prodigies who could be a little over-bearing (and old ones too) but the young students in my classes–many of them Youth Scholars–were respectful and charming.

The range of talent didn’t cause a rift either. I noticed that while we students often enjoyed just listening when the staff members–all of them exceptional musicians–jammed at night, many of the staff members were more than willing to play with the regular folks too.  Each day after supper, some of them led the scheduled “Slow Jam,” playing tunes, often familiar ones, at a slow enough pace that beginners could catch on.  But even when they weren’t expected to mingle with the students, they were just eager to play, learning and sharing new tunes.

Las Vegas was a culture shock. The heat–the proverbial dry heat–was oppressive, so most people crowd into the air-conditioned hotels and  casinos.  We stayed at the MGM Grand with all its gold and glittery Hollywood movie motifs. We were warned at the door to expect it to take two hours to check in. The lines were long, but moved swiftly, so we figured out that he was just wanting a tip to store our luggage for awhile.  When we got to our floor, we found ourselves looking down our hallway at what seemed like an optical illusion.  “There’s a mirror at the end,” my husband conjectured. He was wrong; it was more hallway.  Standing at the end put me in mind of that old cereal box with a picture of a kid holding a cereal box with a picture of…. You get the picture.  Even the carpet motif gave me vertigo.

The room was space efficient (i.e., relatively small) with a lovely view of a roof top–and buildings and desert mountains in the distance. And Hooters.  We were able to close our blinds to (try to) sleep, but the blackout curtains wouldn’t close (until we wrestled with them the next morning), so we were lit by the town that never sleeps.  Carrot Top made a joke in his show about having sunburn from his hotel room window.

I understand that the casinos aren’t as loud as they used to be, since no real coins are used in the slot machines. It’s all done with tickets, so no one has the loud sound of payoff.  Likewise, people don’t have to go back to their rooms with their hands smelling like coins. The hotels–all of them–have traffic patterns that require guests to pass through the casinos no matter where they are going. We ventured out to see some of the nearby sites.  New York, New York (replete with a small Statue of Liberty, a roller coaster, and a number of reproductions from the Big Apple, was just across the walkway.  The restaurants there were NYC themed. Excalibur had King Arthur’s Camelot-inspired decor, but the restaurants and the casino areas were more of the same.  On over to the Luxor, we saw Cleopatra’s Needle, the Sphinx, and the pyramid that is the building, but inside, it was pretty much the same.

I couldn’t get over, first of all, how many people were visiting from foreign countries.  I remembered several years ago attending an English conference held at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, and hearing local author Ann Patchett telling attendees, “If you don’t get out of this hotel, then don’t tell people you’ve been to Nashville.”  Likewise, I wanted to tell international visitors, “If you don’t leave Las Vegas, please don’t think you’ve seen the United States.”  I was surprised by how many people had small children there.  Late, late at night, poor babies rode in strollers, their drooping heads looking miserably uncomfortable.  “Take that baby and put her to bed. Now!” I wanted to tell parents.

I had considered spending a little time in the hotel pool–until I saw the people leaving the pool area, ignoring the hotel notices “requiring” coverups.  Even the coverups didn’t coverup much! I didn’t see many of “my people”–fifty-somethings in our “tankinis.” I decided to wait and swim at home!

I also notice that people walk about like they drive–totally oblivious to those around them.  Change your mind as you reach the beginning of the escalator?  Just stand there. Those people gathering behind you can wait.  Even the normal traffic pattern–moving to your right–was ignored.  I eventually got tired of dodging people coming straight for me (eyes glued to their phones) and just ran into a few.

The few days there weren’t a total waste.  It’s always nice to have a little time with my husband away from home. Somehow, removing the day-to-day responsibilities allows time to talk or just to be together.  We also had another couple along for the work portion of the trip, so we got to know them and enjoy a little time together.  I even managed some reading time–finishing one book during wait time at the airport and making a dent in James Michener’s The Source, my mega-read for this summer.  We also had one genuinely good meal–in a quiet but sophisticated setting, good prices with reasonable (small) portions.

I just couldn’t get over how different my two experiences were.  Give me the Southeast, the mountains, even the humidity.  I was even ready to cook again once I got home–cubed steak smothered in onions, mashed potatoes, fried okra, field peas and biscuits. I wonder what that would have cost in Vegas–if they had such a thing. Maybe the next hotel casino will be a Tara theme:  You’ll never go hungry again!

The Final Chapter: If Writing Becomes Your Heart

August 3, 2015

Over the course of the summer, I’ve talked to lots of people about their writing goals.  I think it’s safe to say that we have a wide range of goals. For some, it’s publication, maybe even fame and fortune; others of us want to find at least a small group with whom we can share our writing or our writing life; others just want to find the time and motivation to get some things down in writing for ourselves.

In this last chapter, McClanahan distinguishes between writing as a career and writing as “a way of life.” I have found that whenever I tried to make a career out of something I enjoyed for pleasure, I rarely succeeded and I extinguished my joy. Most of the writers I admire have had “day jobs.”  So many are teachers, but there are others who had completely different professions.  Ted Kooser, former U. S. Poet Laureate, worked in the insurance industry but work about 3 a.m. every day to write.  William Carlos Williams was a physician (who made house calls where he notice shiny red wheelbarrows.) Even Shakespeare had his living as an actor and theatre part-owner, not as a writer. (Where were copyright laws when he needed them?)

Part I:  McClanahan notes on page 199 that if you aren’t finding time for writing in your life, you have to make changes. You must either change your writing “to fit your life,” or you can “postpone the writing until circumstances change” or you can “revise your life.”

Which makes the most sense to you right now and why?

Do you agree that “no one actually has time to write, each writer must make the time”?

Someone in my writing group had her own version of McClanahan’s “Got to the desk….” dictum.  Her prescription we call B.F.A.–you have to put your Big Fat A** in the chair and write. Once you work through your excuses for not writing, what might encourage you to make time to show up at the desk?

Part II: Breakthroughs

I found the discussion of Rolla May’s breakthrough theory intriguing.  Think back to your writing or other creative ventures.  When have you had those kinds of breakthroughs?  How can you make yourself ready for them?

We considered in one of the early chapters all the reasons we don’t write.  Have you been able to recognize your own delaying tactics?  What–besides technology–has you conditioned to be distracted?

I think we all must acknowledge that life can get in the way.  Sometimes we aren’t just making excuses; we are in survival mode or celebration mode.  When those times come, give yourself a pass.  Sure, journal if you can. Writing can help you process both the joys and the sorrows. But realize that during these times, you are gathering material for later.

Part III: Reading Like a Writer

I couldn’t agree more with McClanahan that when she says writers must read. I admit that sometimes when I read a great piece of literature, I am overwhelmed, realizing, “I can’t ever do that.”  But I believe that reading good writing helps us to get into the rhythm of language.  I loved the idea that literature is “an antidote to the babble” around us (204).

Whose writing do you admire most?

Do you read in the genre you want to write?

I have heard of authors who wrote out by hand an entire novel they admired.  Whose words would you like to feel beneath your fingers?

What do you notice when you slow down and pay attention to the writing of a book or story or poem you love?

What do you plan to read next?

Part IV: Now what?

You’ve explored the idea of Writing Your Heart Out. Have you found any quotes in this book–or other places–that you should pin up over your desk?  I particularly liked the one from Audre Lorde: “It is hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.”

What steps do you recognize that you need to take as you hone your writing craft? Are there issues of grammar or mechanics that trouble you?  Do you find yourself overusing certain patterns?  Do you need to be more concise or more detailed?

What goals do you have for your writing once the book is closed?

Putting It into Practice

July 31, 2015

DSC_0211This week, I’ve been singing my heart out and playing my heart out, but I’ve barely touched the keyboard, and my notebook and pen have been taking notes on classes all week. This is what I call the “prewriting stage,” (and, no, I didn’t make up the term!)

Here at the Swannanoa Old Time Music and Dance Week, held each July at the Warren Wilson College campus, I am accumulating enough material to write reams of pages. Today, though, I’m going to take you across campus, tuning in to all the senses.

Warren Wilson College is a liberal arts college in rural Black Mountain, NC, nestled in among the mountains. One of the first working colleges, where all students have jobs and complete a required number of service learning hours, it has also been designated as the “greenest” college in the South.

Driving in from the interstate, the scenery becomes more and more pastoral.  The campus has its own working farm, so the eggs and sausage served every morning are homegrown, as is much of the produce, so little yellow “Tommy Toes,” watermelon, beets, parsnips appear on the buffet every morning.  The cafeteria is all windows on one side and most of the opposite, so we look out over trees in which first-timers are surprised to see miniature animals perched.  From what the students have told us, these were placed all over campus by a former student–giraffes in trees, tiny animals atop the bridge that connects one side of campus to the other.  We may not always be looking toward the stars, but our gaze is up.

The campus also gives the illusion of one geographical oddity: every road and path seems to be uphill.  I usually start the week getting up early to take a morning walk or run. How ridiculous.  An extra thirty or forty minutes of sleep would prepare me for the miles and miles I walk every day lugging my instrument case and bag.  The evening dances are another element in my aerobic repertoire here.

This year, I am here with my granddaughter Avery for the first time, and the experience is even richer. She had never square danced before Monday night, but she jumped in for the first dance and never left the floor. Tuesday night she was ready to go again.  (At this point, dear reader, you can channel your own olfactory memory to imagine our post-dance aroma.)

Another interesting detail of campus life–particularly for those of us staying in the dorms–is the absence of air conditioning.  Sure, we’re in the mountains, where it’s generally ten degrees cooler than our home in the foothills. But there’s a warm streak.  After five years here, I finally remembered to pack an oscillating fan, which makes daytime bearable. By evening, especially after some of the sudden summer showers, we’ve had cooler temperatures.  I do know of two brothers here who bring their own window unit air conditioner for the week. Sissies.

While I could say so much about the visual beauty of this place–the wild array of wild flowers, trees, and bushes, the mountains in the background, each sunrise–the dominant impression here is, naturally, sound.  From the first step on campus, one can hear music.  As soon as they check in, many campers migrate to the jam tents or simply find a spot to sit and play.  Some regulars have established jam circles, even though they may only see each other once a year.  Most just move from spot to spot, finding a group that makes the best fit.

Each early evening, we have a “slow jam” session led by some of the faculty, playing recognizable tunes (ideally) in common keys but at a slow enough tempo that even learners can find a place to jump in. Occasionally one of the leaders playing rhythm will even call out the chord progressions. If “Brown-Eyed Girl” is the most played song at beach bars and “Wagon Wheel” at festivals, “Angeline the Baker” is probably the closest parallel. The organizers even send out a list of most common tunes played, so those coming for the first time can start to build an old-time repertoire:  “Mississippi Sawyer,” “Arkansas Traveler,” “Cluck Old Hen,” “Susannah Gal,” to name a few.

Other songs are swapped in the circles though. The Texas musicians have songs that the North Carolinians may not know; the Kentucky musicians teach songs they learned from some of the old masters.  You’d have to try hard not to learn new tunes here.

For a chance of pace–or should I saw tempo?–one could move through the halls of Kittredge and Jensen Halls to listen outside the doors of classrooms.  Imagine for now an entire classroom of students playing upright bass, then down the hall–all banjos.  (One friend described it as “banjo hell” when everyone is tuning and noodling away between songs.)  The autoharps are strumming away in another room, and then the Sacred Harp singers are singing into the hollow square. The ukeleles are back by popular demand.

A full week at SG Old Time Week leaves me with sensory overload–but in a good way.  I have so much more to write about my week, especially having my best roomie ever, Avery. All I need now is time to practice “Crow Creek,” “Nail That Catfish to a Tree,” and “There’s No Place Like Home.”

After Our Hiatus: Chapter 9–From “Private I” to Public Eye

July 27, 2015

writing quotes cardWhile writing is often describe as a lonely pursuit, it doesn’t have to be. In fact, the next step we’re talking about offer the opportunity to take ourselves and our writing seriously.  Realistically, we all have different goals. Some of us are eager to publish what we right, while others may still be working up the nerve to share their writing with one person or a small circle of trusted readers.

Letting someone else read what you write can be scary. I try to respect that fear when I teach composition classes, but I know that consciousness of a potential reader, a real audience, can help to focus and shape our writing.

I liked what McClanahan says on page 189: “[T]he journey from I to we . . . is more than just a grammatical journey; it’s also a journey from specific to general, from personal to universal, and from private experience to shareable idea.”

Part I: Your best first reader–you!

Even if you think you’re reader to share your work, you owe it to yourself and your eventual readers to take the time to edit, revise, and proofread.  She refers to drafts she calls “messays.”  In early stages of writing, you have to relax and let your ideas flow without your inner English teacher making you aim for clean copy, for perfection.  In her wonderful book on writing, Anne Lamott has a chapter she calls “Shitty First Drafts,” which makes the same point.

You can’t begin to polish a draft that’s only in her head as an idea. Since you control when your writing “goes public,” you can ease up on yourself in the early stages.

But don’t skip the re-visioning.

It’s important to let your writing “cool off” a little first, though.  Right after you write something, you either think it’s the best thing you’ve ever done–or the worst.  Usually the truth is somewhere in the middle.

Then read your writing out loud.  I liked the suggestion of taping your reading. If you have someone you trust at the early stages, have that person read it back to you. Places someone else stumbles or emphasizes words differently from what you imagined might need a closer look.

Make sure everything belongs.  Sometimes you’ll have something clever that creeps in, but it doesn’t actually belong in this particular piece of writing.  If it’s good, save it for later. Computers allow you to move things around, to save different versions of your draft.  Some writers need to move things physically though. I remember seeing Eudora Welty’s drafts when I toured her home.  She had literally cut them apart and pinned them back together.  Dori Sanders uses slips of paper she moves around on the floor.

What kind of drafter are you?  What works best for your revision process?

Know your strengths, but know your weaknesses too.  You don’t have to memorize all the grammar and punctuation rules, but you’d better keep a good handbook nearby for reference. Readers become impatient with sloppiness. Editors just stop reading. (Sometimes English teachers do too!) If you lack confidence in your grammar or spelling, by all means find someone who can look over your writing for those kinds of matters. Be sure the person you ask is really willing to do this for you. Find some way to trade favors.

Part II:  Writing Groups

I’ve been engaged in all kinds of writing groups, from informal peer readers in a class to fellow fiction writers and poets who get together to critique and to challenge one another.

If you’ve been in a group, what helped most? Least?

What kind of group do you envision that would help you most?

At what point in your writing do you want feedback?

Look over the suggestions on 186-7. Which strike a chord?  The best suggestion for me was not to explain your work as you share it.  If it needs explanation, what would a reader do in your absence?

I find that I work best with a group that has general common goals, but diverse style and focus.  That’s why I have one group for my fiction and other prose and another for my poetry. Some members are more willing to play “bad cop” and others are encouragers, pointing out what works well.  I need both.

III. Writers Should Be Readers.

Certainly, you’ve heard famous authors who say they don’t read while working on a novel, but reading writers you admire–especially when you read through a writer’s eyes–can help you develop your own standards and expectations.

Take some time this week to re-read books, stories, or articles that you remember liking.  This time, try to decide just what it was about this work that left a lasting impression. What was done well?  Some things I notice:

(1. Strong sensory imagery–specific nouns, detail.

(2. Fresh figurative language. Two authors come to mind.  When I first read Barbara Kingsolver, I found her writing so pleasurable, and so I slowed down as I read Animal Dreams. What I discovered was the clever way she used metaphors and similes. They worked without screaming at me, “Hey!  I’m a clever simile.”  Likewise, John Irving’s wonderful book A Prayer for Owen Meany had some of the most artful literary devices. For example, Irving used automobile expressions to describe the high school aged daughter of the local car dealer.

(3. Indirect characterization. Whether describing real or fictional characters, use subtlety. Don’t give it all at once. This lets the reader assemble your details the way she might put together a jigsaw puzzle.

IV. When to let it go…

One of my favorite poems to teach was Anne Bradstreet’s “The Author to Her Book.” You may know the background. Her well-meaning family had her poems published without her knowledge, thinking she’d be pleased, but since she hadn’t sufficiently revised, she felt just like a mother whose child left the house unkempt.

The idea of the two imaginary readers (McClanahan’s Susanna and Gritz) appealed to me. You probably have your own version. I know my bad cop and good cop. Several, in fact! If you can look at your own writing through different sets of eyes, you can have a better version when you do decide to share with real readers.

Take something you’ve written this summer and ask

(1. What is this about? What universal idea is communicated in your specific telling?

(2. Have you put the writing together in the best order?  One of my poetry group members has a knack for suggestion me to move lines around.  She’s almost always right. See what happens when you switch your beginning to the end, for example.

(3 Do you move smoothly between ideas, paragraphs, or other elements?

(4. What could be misunderstood?

(5. What needs to be added?

(6. Left out?

(7. Could anybody else have written this?  This is something I always wanted my seniors to ask themselves when they wrote personal essays for college or scholarship applications.

What questions do you think we should add?

I’m going to work on some of the stories from my week at music camp to share this week. What are you writing?


Week 8: How Many Minutes Do We Have to Wait for…?

July 20, 2015

It was the unofficial wisdom when I was in college, and it was still around when I taught classes myself.  When the teacher is late, how long do we have to wait?  Isn’t it longer for a Doctor than a Professor, and not quite so long for an Instructor?

None of this, of course, was written anywhere. Today I’m admitting that (1. While I’m here at the Swannanoa Gathering, I have sketchy internet at best–none in my room); (2. I think I left my copy of our text–with all the notes I was excited to share–on my coffee table.  In any case, I will probably add a few teasers about that I to We focus, but I’ll catch up when I get home, posting by Sunday–unless anyone wants to start a discussion of the chapter for us!  Please post this week if you have any writing brainstorms or discoveries–or questions!

My senses take me back to the class of 1990.

July 17, 2015

I’ve heard the term “density” used to explain why elderly people can remember everything about childhood, yet not whether they are lunch or not. Likewise, I sometimes can’t recall the name of a student I had in class last semester, but I can probably name everyone in my first senior class–and even remember the topics of many of their research papers.

I started my teaching career in a corner room in the high school building of Mars Hill Bible School, a room that my mother says was the biology class room when she was a student there. Sure enough there was a sink and cabinet in the corner. She said back then the science equipment included one microscope and a two-headed pig fetus in a jar. Thank goodness they were gone before I got there.

This was a no frills classroom for me too. I seem to remember concrete floors, though I suspect they were tile since I remember our third grade class taking a day to lay tips in our room in the building down the ramp from the high school building. When I think of that class room, I think of the smells. The location of the boys’ bathroom just catty-cornered across the hall probably contributed to the ambience. I suspect a blind man could find the boys’ bathroom in any school without help. Since we still had blackboards–not whiteboards or Smartboards–chalk dust hung in the air as well.

That particular year, I inherited the responsibility as senior sponsor for helping a volunteer who was directing the senior play Taming of the Shrew, scheduled by the teacher I replaced. My room served as green room, since the doors to backstage to the auditorium was nearby. When the “actors” weren’t on stage, they’d hangout in my room, in theory doing homework; in reality, playing cassette tapes in their boom boxes. The song I most associate with that time was Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice Baby” because my room turned into a makeshift dance floor.

That year, since we were putting in late hours with practice, then needing to be wide awake for class, I introduced these seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds to coffee. That sink and cabinet were perfect for setting up a coffee maker and hiding the students’ individual mugs they brought from home. With all the other things students could get into, Maxwell House seemed a benign alternative. Whoever arrived first made a fresh pot every morning, and as long as it didn’t interfere with class time, they could sip their coffee if I could. The coffee aroma also helped to mask more unpleasant smells wafting in from the hall.

A large storage closet in the room also offered a hideaway for students who loved playing card games–considered contraband in those days. The class room also had a full wall of tilt-out windows offering a clear view of the gymnasium, the hilltop track and the traffic entering campus from Cox Creek Parkway, the main road. The sunlight brightened the room, but to avoid distraction, I arranged the room with the rows of old wood and metal desks facing the other direction.

Twenty-five years later, I can name who sat where, who went together to prom, whose rough draft mysteriously disappeared from the stack of papers turned in. The exchange student from Indonesia wrote her research paper on Charles Dickens. Another student writing on the same author offered enough assistance to help her get through without violating academic integrity.

That group of students had a wicked sense of humor. They were yard rollers extraordinaire. The first month of teaching, my yard was rolled three times in one week. No wimpy job either. The finished product looked like something the artist Christo might have pulled off if he’d had my house instead of the pyramids or the Eiffel Tower as his subject. They probably jeopardized my career when I served as chaperone as they decorated the unfinished lower level of the school as the “Punkin Day” spook house. Somehow none of them could explain to my satisfaction or the administrations’ where they got their old tombstones–with names and dates. A gigantic concrete culvert that appeared looked strangely similar to the ones used in the construction of the new Kmart. I won’t even talk about the damage to lockers. Somehow, eventually, we made it through the year, reading good books, seeing–and performing–Shakespearean plays, learning to write good paragraphs that led to good essays.

That year some geologists were predicting earthquakes along the fault line in Mississippi. There were suggestions that we should have earthquake drills. One of the students joked that the principal Mr. Barfield, a portly man, could run in and stomp to simulate tremors. He just happened to be right outside the door, so–good sport that he was–he did just that.

These were also the same students who came and went for three periods, smiling at me oddly, but not telling me that I had arrived at school wearing one blue shoe and one purple one. When I asked why no one told me, they said, “We would have, but we wanted everyone else to enjoy it.”

I will say that we enjoyed ourselves that year, and I’ve kept up with many of them as they’ve become adults, functioning successfully in society. A few years ago, reading a book by Carol Jago, I read with interest the statement that teachers could consider what we hoped our students would still remember from our class ten years from now. At the time, Facebook wasn’t around, but I used to seek them out and first, telling them I hoped in my inexperience I “did no harm,” then asking what they remembered. The answers, quite good humored, made me smile–even laugh. I think I even caught a whiff of chalkdust.

Part of Learning Is Speaking the Language.

July 16, 2015



DSC_1263Of all the areas I might choose to write about today, I think I’ll go the route most obvious–and pleasurable–for me. After all, I’m weary of comma splices, usage errors, dangling participles, split infinitives. And it’s summer.

Instead, I’ll put my mind and my pen to writing about one of my later endeavors, playing mandolin.  I’ve always loved music, though my childhood piano lessons could have borne more fruit if I’d applied myself. The background understanding of keys and notes and chords was lying there fallow, but I kept fighting this nagging desire to learn to play the mandolin.  I may have been deceived, thinking its compact size, easy to take along wherever I go, suggested it might be easy to play. Not so. But I loved the sound too–maybe most of all.

I was fifty before I admitted this item on my bucket list not only to myself but aloud.  I feared I had waited too long to start something new, something else.  Then a friend who owned a decent Old Kentucky mandolin but had turned her attention to playing fiddle suggested I might borrow hers and give it a try. I did just that. I picked up a couple of beginners’ books and sat down earnestly to try to play. Plunk-a-plunk.  Every song, according to my husband, sounded like “Yankee Doodle.” So I began lessons, once a week for thirty minutes at the local Music Center.

My teacher, a nice man, a patient teacher, was actually a dobro player, but he took me on.  Each week, he started by tuning my mandolin, and then began to teach me song by song, playing tab, not standard notation. Tablature allowed me to see just where on the fret of each pair of strings I put my fingers.  He also taught me chords, starting with the must common ones–G, with its long stretch, then easier D, C, A.

Using a book a friend gave me for my birthday, he had me study theory, the circle of fifths, for instance. Then our lessons fell into a pattern. One of the first songs I mastered “Angeline the Baker,” we played often. He’d play melody while I chopped chords, then I’d play the melody while he accompanied me with rhythm on his guitar. Eventually, I recognized that I was taking the same lesson every week. Only the song changed.  I took a break. (“It’s not you, it’s me,” I imagined telling him if he asked why I left.

Instead, I found another teacher, the husband of a colleague–both of them friends, both of them talented musicians.  Patrick had recently retired from teaching middle school band–and if that doesn’t qualify a man for sainthood, I don’t know what does. He immediately began to break bad habits, to take me back to basics. He insisted I dispense with tab and learn to read music (or to revive what I knew of reading music and apply it to the mandolin instead of the piano.) He made me learn pick position and proper hand and arm position. He taught me to learn to play by ear, sometimes spending two or three entire lessons picking out one eighteen-second break as played by Sam Bush, stopping the recording, trying to reproduce the notes, starting again.

I learned a whole new language–arpeggios, minor chords, fifths, open strings, cheat chords. I learned the magic of the mandolin–the way a song could easily be moved to a new chord with just a simple move up or down the neck of the mandolin. I learned my songs by heart. I learned that G chords (and A’s, C’s D’s–all of them) can be found up and down the neck of the mandolin.

Best of all, I learned to play with other people, the real pleasure of music. Even when I wanted to sit on the outside of the jam circle, I was beginning to find my place. There’s such a generosity of spirit among those who play.

Finally, at the encouragement of the friend who loaned me–and eventually sold me–my first mandolin, I signed up for the Swannanoa Gathering Old Time Music and Dance Week held each July at Warren Wilson College. For a week, I slept in an un-airconditioned dorm and took three classes a day–Mandolin II, Shape-Note Singing, and Old-Time Music History.  I mixed with people of all levels of ability–professional musicians and rank beginners like me.  Even though I was a little over my head in Mandolin II, I learned much more than I would have in an easier class.

More than simply learning a few new songs–“Old Baldy Kick’em Up,” “Grey Eagle,” “In the Willow Garden,” I found a place in a new community with people of all ages from all over the world.  Each evening after dinner, we could join “jam” sessions led by the faculty, giving even the beginners a pace at which we could play along. We had sing-alongs, concerts, square dances, and Honky Tonk Night.”

The next year I was back–same time, same place.

This Sunday I leave for my fifth Gathering, taking my granddaughter Avery along this time. She has a purple fiddle she’s ready to learn to play. We’ll be roommates, and I’ll have to come in at night earlier than I am accustomed. I have my tuner, a box of picks, copies of favorite songs and lyrics. I’ll be playing “Waterbound,” and “Cripple Creek,” “Cluck Old Hen,” and “Sail Away, Ladies.”

It’s going to feel like Old Home Week.