Monday, February 20, 2017

Dirt in My Veins

This is a love story.

I grew up in a small Kansas town, Clay Center, the county seat of--you guessed it--Clay County. The town has a spiffy web site now and a pretty bad-ass water park. When I lived there, the internet needed diaper changes and the water park was a Great Depression-era concrete-lined hole in the ground. Just under five thousand residents lived in Clay Center when I was in high school twenty-five years ago... and the population has been shrinking since.

Dirt and gravel roads criss-crossed Clay County, most of them laid out grid-like in sections. Drive a mile, and you would find a perpendicular section road. Order lived there, neat and tidy, except for the river. The Republican River snaked from the west to south-southeast of town and disturbed the grid. Driving close to the river, I found abrupt ends to gravel paths and dusty drops of twenty or thirty feet to the slowly rolling water below.

My heart fed on those roads and the mystery of overhanging trees and quiet fields. I would drive and drive and drive during lazy afternoons. Gas cost less then, less than a dollar a gallon, and my car was a sanctuary. There were secret places and shadowed hollows of public hunting land near river-bottom fields. Dead ends hid in the county's hills--like a cemetery I once found while driving Mom's four-speed Ford Ranger. The poor machine strained in reverse as I straddled ditches on either side for a quarter mile as we backed away from the locked gates.

Sometimes on lazy afternoons, I would drive away from my small town on a county highway and choose a gravel road to explore. I'd park on the roadside, half in/half out of the ditch, leave my car behind, pick a hill, and climb. I'd be lost to everyone for an hour or two. Alone. Invisible. Gone.

I couldn't live in Clay Center now. I've grown, and the seventeen-year-old me is long gone. He left a legacy in my veins, though. It's why I don't mind my brief commute through the rolling countryside into Jefferson County. It's why I value slow Saturdays and walks on wooded hillside trails on the edge of Lawrence. Northeast Kansas is a cousin to the home I knew, close but not the same.

My heart wants these things--hills to climb and grass and trees and time to just be. I ache for a time when I could disappear for a few hours, lost to everyone and everything.There's no magic in my Kansas memories... just gravel and dirt and plowed-under fields and the muddy swell of a river.

No magic, but plenty of love.

Hills to climb.

Roads to explore.

A love story.





Monday, February 13, 2017

On Persistence

Today we visit the ghost of words past...

I had originally written this for the Shimmer blog when they first published my short story, "The House was Never a Castle"--my first and only sale to that market. It's a fabulous publication, and I'm happy to note it is still drawing breath.

I value all the words, especially those from a time to which I cannot return. Persistence--resilience's first cousin--has so much value in life.

(Cue flashback music...)

My four-year-old son, Max, plays with the Soccer Hobbits on Saturday mornings, and no one keeps an “official” score. Soccer Hobbits focuses on playing, learning to love the game, experience, and fun. When Max pursues the ball during scrimmage, however, the look of grim determination on his face speaks all business. Max might not be as big or as fast as some of his peers, but he makes up for his lack of prowess with sheer guts and persistence. One tiny tap of the ball, even if it is stolen a microsecond later, proves enough to keep the fight in his tiny legs.

I can’t help but draw a parallel to what it takes to stay in the game as a writer.

Anyone can write. I have to believe as much to survive my day job as a high school English teacher. Some days are harder than others, for my students as well as me. Writing well and developing one’s craft requires patience. Patience requires a healthy dose of perspective. Since I started my writing journey four years ago, I’ve gained as much perspective as any bit of craft. Rejection is part of the game, and I’ve received my share. Each “no” used to sting like a solid punch in the gut, knocking the writing wind out of me.

But persistence requires a certain level of stubbornness despite little defeats. I listened to editors. I dusted off my knees and worked harder. I read. I’ve read the best in the field, devouring year’s best volumes, retrospective collections, award winners—trying to unlock the magic. Along the way, I identified what I liked, what worked and what didn’t, in the stories I read. I made a mental list. I wrote, too. Every day. Even days when I was too sick or tired or defeated to keep going, I forced at least one hundred words on a page, just as Max forces his little legs to keep pumping on the soccer field.

I first submitted to Shimmer in 2007. By my count, I’ve beleaguered the editorial staff with 27 manuscripts over the past few years. Persistence requires a writer to believe the next time will be it, the golden message, an acceptance letter with contract attached. It’s a sort of insanity, really, trying to find a home for one’s stories in highly competitive markets. For a writer to stay with the game, a writer must believe each story is better than the last, each story is a move forward.

And finally, most of all, a writer must be patient—as patient with her/himself as with a market’s submission wait-time. Craft does improve, only with time and effort; no “magic writing beans” exist, no overnight elixirs of brilliance. Stories need patience, too. Patience to develop. Patience for the characters and setting and plot cogs to snap together in the right way. Sometimes patience requires a story be set aside for months, as I did with “The House was Never a Castle.” I’m not the same writer I was when I first submitted to Shimmer back in 2007. I won’t be the same writer a year from now. 

Max can keep playing soccer as long as he loves it; I’ll hammer away, story after story, page after page, word after word, putting my patience and persistence to the test.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Pencils

I heard a story once, and whether it is real or not is irrelevant. It's true, and that's all that matters. A college freshman (smart guy, 30+ on the ACT, gifted program in high school, etc.) went to his first final of his first semester with a pencil. This was twenty-some-odd years ago when pencils held a little more relevancy.

He surprised his roommate by returning ten minutes after the test started. 

Roommate: Easy test?

Smart Guy: (holds up broken pencil) My pencil broke, so I quit. 

Astonished? The first time I heard the story, I nodded with understanding. The smart guy had been a good friend of mine in high school, so I knew school wasn't really his thing regardless of IQ score. The story really isn't about pencils or college or intelligence or even truth. The story tells us about resilience--or the lack of it.

Resilience goes by many other names: grit or determination or willpower or being "scrappy." It's the ability to stick with something when roadblocks mount in front of you. It's what helps you over, under, through, or around those roadblocks so you can keep going. It's how you answer the big questions in life, like: 

What are you going to do when your pencil breaks? 

I taught English in a small northeast Kansas high school for thirteen years. Pencils, or the lack of them, were a common theme. Some students marched into class sans pencil (or other writing utensil) like the Light Brigade rode into the valley of Death, banners flying. Some students sulked into class without a pencil and tried their best Harry Potter with invisibility cloak impression in the back of the room. A student without a pencil is like a carpenter without a hammer, at least "way back" then. A former colleague would engage in a five to ten minute verbal sparring match with some of these kids as if yelling at them would make pencils magically appear. 

I found it easy enough to leave a container of pencils at the front of my classroom. Problem solved and roadblock circumvented. We all need a healthy supply of resilience no matter our age, role, or lot in life. What are you going to do when students show up without their pencils? What are you going to do when things don't go your way? 

Because they won't. Not most of the time, anyway.

I worry about my own kids all the time. Owen, my 8th grader, has decided not to use the pencils I bought for him at the start of the year. He has made it his goal to find pencils on the ground at school and use those instead. He has all year. Am I mad? Worried? No. I consider it training for a day when he's going to need to be resourceful--for that day when a roadblock arrives and he must conquer it. Pencils are fragile and sometimes forgotten. We all need the ability to keep going.

So what will you do if your pencil breaks?




Monday, January 30, 2017

Rule #1: It's Not About You

I started writing fiction in the summer of 2007. Somewhere in the deep, dark recesses of this blog's history, I'm sure you can find a story of how and why. It involved the birth of my second son and publication of the 7th Harry Potter novel.

When I started, I knew I would be famous. There may or may not have been fantasies involving fame/fortune and rock 'n' roll style groupies. I might have made up that last part. Or maybe not.

I wrote a book in the summer and fall of '07. For an hour or two each evening, I sat at a computer in my basement and hammered words onto digital paper. I told a long and meandering tale about a boy, a girl, and a small town. Reality bent in funny ways in my small, not-so-imaginary town (it was a near carbon-copy of my real birthplace). Ghosts hijacked the bodies of football players and the main character may have been dead the entire time. Or not. Sometimes reality is slippery and hard to pin down.

I edited the book, crafted a trillion revisions of a query letter, and proceeded to be rejected by all the literary agents.

All. Of. Them.

Short stories called to me. I landed my first paying publication early in 2008. I wrote for an hour or two each night for the next few years. The stories remained strange, for the most part. I developed this blog and met some wonderful travelers on the road. I became a better teacher. Through writing for publication, I gained insight into the importance of the written word.

All these "I"s... sounds pretty self-centered. Where's Rule #1?

At some point in the midst of my heyday as a short story author, I stumbled across a blog post titled "The Egoless Writer" by a science fiction author named Mike Brendan. I'm not sure if Mr. Brendan still writes or what has happened to him in the intervening years, but it's a useful list for writers of anything. So useful, in fact, I shared it with my students. We incorporated "The Egoless Writer" as a mantra for making our writing better.

No rule on that list has been more meaningful than #1:

It's not about you. 

In writing, it's not. "It" is about the audience. "It" is about the writer and audience working together to make story happen. Once you "get out of the way," the stories have lives of their own. Rule #1 made me a better teacher, but it didn't stop there.

I *hope* it's made me a better person--more thoughtful, present, and empathetic to those around me. Maybe Rule #1 was already in *here*. Maybe my brain just needed a snappy phrase, "It's not about you," on which to latch.

I became a school counselor a year or two after learning Rule #1. It has served me well, allowing me to really listen to students with whom I may disagree or find the common ground with angry parents. Once we learn to put our ego in its proper place, then and only then can we be fully present with others. Empathy comes easier. Resilience even comes easier because you realize the universe isn't being vindictive when you have a bad day. It's not about you at all. Or me.

But I'm pretty sure "it" is about us.

Next time, Rule #1 meets another man's moccasins. Stay tuned, faithful travelers.


Monday, January 23, 2017

The First Rule, a Pre-History

1. It's not about you. 

Rule #1 almost ended my first marriage before it began.

I was twenty-five, a second-year English teacher in a small, northeast Kansas town. I carried my heart on my sleeve and struggled with classroom discipline as many young teachers do. The students, after all, were only seven years younger than me, and many seniors had already kicked me around the previous year as juniors. The slippery slope of taking everything personally called like Homer's sirens.

When they misbehaved, I struggled. I raised my voice. I yelled. I made hollow threats and moved desks, sent students to the office for any provocation, and gave them plenty of ammunition to "stick it" to Mr. Polson. I did everything wrong--especially the amount of their baggage I decided to carry on my back. Everything became personal. Every voice out of compliance slapped me across the face; every touch of disrespect to anyone cut dagger-sharp into my gut.

I had it all wrong.

The truth comes easily after one's eyes open. All classroom discipline problems germinate from anger, frustration, and stress students carry into the room and/or baggage from home or their social lives. In my novice classroom, they translated that stress and baggage into rude comments, insults to me and other students, jeers and foolish acts and just about any other means to push my proverbial buttons, but none of it was personal. Stumbling at both life and teaching, I was the one who took everything personally,  but it never started that way.

Back then, I didn't know. I was an easy target who didn't understand one of the most basic principles of living a good life.

I carried my frustration home and dumped all that inherited baggage on my fiance, Aimee. One day, she'd had enough. We went for a walk in a small, local arboretum, moonlight and stars playing on a pond. There, in the November chill with black lines of trees looking on, she gave me the ultimatum.

"Stop complaining about the students' behavior. Do something about it, but stop complaining. I don't want to marry someone who carries all their stuff home. It's not personal, you know."

I still remember those words. They crystallized in my brain. They tore at my heart. I'd already had one failed engagement, and now I felt the edge of this one slip beneath my feet. She hadn't uttered the sacred mantra of Rule #1, but her words came close. The meaning was there.

She could have easily said it: It's not about you. 

Working on my classroom structure would take time. I couldn't fix student behavior or classroom environment overnight. But something did change inside me. Motivated by fear or love or a little of both, I sloughed away the baggage my students brought to class. No matter how wicked those students, their misbehaving really wasn't about me personally. A  switch had been thrown deep inside and I would never be the same again in the classroom. Angry commands melted into patience and empathy. Demanding what I wanted morphed into quietly but consistently waiting for students to demonstrate compliance with my requests. Classroom expectations became clear. Over the years, it became easier for all of us, students and teacher alike.

It would be another eight years before Rule #1 formally came into my life, but I'd learned a lesson and learned it well.

Aimee and I were married the following summer, and Rule #1 helped me through the darkest parts of the journey ahead.