Congrats on publishing your first book, The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death Defying Acts. How exciting! It must be wild to walk down the street and have people recognize you and take pictures with you and stuff!

That’s never happened.

 

Hm. Even when you stand in a bookstore and hold the book up in front of your head so a passerby can see that your face matches the face on the back of the jacket?

Right. Not then either.

BurchcoverI am fascinated by beginnings. I think this has always been the case, but it has certainly amplified since I began teaching. In part because they’re important, obviously; in part because they’re easy to teach. Middles, endings: those take context. It’s harder, if not impossible, to look at a large selection of endings, side-by-side, and analyze what works, and why. They work because of everything that came before. Conversely, beginnings work because of everything that comes after, but you don’t know that yet at their time of presentation. A good beginning should pique your interest, it should make you want to read more. It should make you start asking some questions—once your brain starts inventing questions, you’re involved, you have an interest, and now you want to keep reading, because questions need answers. A good beginning gives you all that and, too, in the parlance of creative writing classroom, it teaches you how to read the piece itself

Saving April

By M.J. Fievre

Memoir

school girlsApril shows me her cuts. Small razor cuts spread on her arm. She’s managed to shape some of them like stick houses—triangles atop squares. Others are words—fuck them. Several of the wounds are still fresh. I want to run the tip of my finger on them, ease the pain, but several years of training stop me—I’m not wearing gloves.

April lets out a short laugh and shakes her head; the silver skulls dangling from her ears slap her jaw. The other students call her Ms. Ugly, but I find a certain beauty in her witchy features: the long, pale face and pointy chin, the crooked nose. The dark eyeliner brings out her daring eyes under ever-frowning brows.

The door of the classroom is ajar, as I never talk to students alone in closed quarters. I’m not teaching middle school for the long haul, but no scandal is going to force me out the door before I decide to call time. April whispers, “I did it to myself, you know. All the pain inside… I have to hurt myself.” Teeny-tiny zits cover her forehead. Her hair, which has been backcombed, is recalcitrant whenever her friend Katrina attempts to fix it in my Literature class.

April pulls down her long sleeves and folds her arms, black fingernails repeatedly scratching the purple shirt—reopening wounds through fabric. “You know what I like about you?” April asks. “You always look so damn unimpressed.” She hides a smile at the corners of her black lips. “I’d love to see your face when the shit hits the fan.”

R.I.P. MPW

By Aram Saroyan

Nonfiction

university-of-southern-california-15

In an email during Thanksgiving week 2013, I learned that USC’s Master of Professional Writing program (MPW) would no longer accept new students and would suspend operations entirely by spring 2016.  I was a teacher in the program for 15 years, and in the fall of 1996, when I began there, it was exhilarating.  My wife Gailyn and I had moved to Santa Monica over the past summer and I’d met with the director of the program, the poet James Ragan, who offered me a job teaching that fall.

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1.

On the day we call the cops on him, L. tells me he’s always been a fighter.

No guns, though.  He looks up at me from where he’s hunched, a skinny kid sitting on a rickety chair.  Not before what happened.

What happened before was L. was riding his bike and some bad boys shot him in the spine.  He wasn’t supposed to walk again.  He walks fine now.  He swaggers.  His khaki pants are too big and he cinches up his belt higher than the other boys.  I don’t think he can handle wrestling with the constant creep of a sagging waistline.

Knitathon+afghan+2

I first learned to knit while living in Dublin, Ireland the fall after my mother died. I was 20 years old and felt profoundly alone in the world for the first time. Having suffered a dance-related injury to the point I couldn’t walk, and stuck living with my elderly Auntie Peggy and the few books she kept on hand, I was bored out of my mind. To pass the hours and to get to know each other, she suggested we knit. It sounded like a terrible idea to me – I have not the smallest bit of patience and was sure I’d fail miserably at the project. But stranded as I was in a foreign country with only two television stations and a raft of religious books to distract me, I became willing as only those who have no other options become willing.

Grown-Up Words

By Bethany Cox

Essay

blackboard-thinking-of-love

His name was Jeremiah and he was in my preschool class. He was five years old, tall for his age. His parents were divorced and he had an older brother, which meant he knew words like ass and hell. Once he accused me of saying the f word during story time.

“I said fox, Jeremiah.”

“It sure sounded like fuck,” he countered.

Cold sore 2Yesterday, I woke up with a familiar sensation, or what, for me, is a familiar sensation: a tingle in my upper lip. A slight, hair tickle itch. Fizzy, like I’ve rubbed my mouth with the skin of a habanero pepper. I went to the bathroom and turned on the light, unconcerned about burning my eyes with the sharp, sudden brightness. In the mirror, I saw the faint irritation lining a section of my lip about a quarter-inch long, barely noticeable. From experience, I knew it would erupt in the next few hours. A cold sore.

China is a true land of opportunity for white people. It’s no secret that across Asia any fool with a foreign face can pick up a job teaching children to speak English. Places like Korea and Japan are full of these refugees from the West, accumulating massive bank accounts and “working” several hours a week. I’ve spent nearly three years standing in classrooms and pretending to teach. But in China it’s a bit different. The teachers work so rarely and are so few and far between that there are other jobs on offer: rent-a-foreigner, whitey-for-hire, your own personal Caucasian.

At the end of the day I taught one class. That was my training over. Two hours of listening to Debbie talk and seven hours of watching teachers teach. I’d really learned nothing except that appearance was all that mattered. The kids clearly weren’t learning anything, and most of the Korean teachers spoke almost no English. The place was a joke. If I decided to jump about and spout gibberish I would have been considered a good teacher… as long as I smiled and wore a tie.

Last weekend I gave a short improvised speech to fiction, poetry and non-fiction students at the close of the first Atheneum, a new writing program run by the Attic Institute in Portland. For the last eleven months I mentored four fiction students working on novels and short story collections. The following essay is a better herded version of my thoughts.

Your Mental Dojo

The Writers’ Dojo is a writing studio and community center in North Portland. The space has an open floor plan and draws the writer in with great lighting, couches, writing tables and the requisite full bookshelves with their requisite books. Large color photographs in frames provide visual commas on each wall. There isn’t too much art so you feel it’s been over designed or curated, but enough to provide the unexpected writing prompt. I’ve given workshops at the Dojo, my writing group occasionally meets there and I pop in for readings. Several writers I know work there every day. But for me the Writers’ Dojo is unobtainable, a mirage. It’s a twenty-minute freeway drive from my home in Southeast Portland, and since I define my world by where I can easily commute by bike, the Dojo might as well be in the Yukon.

But we need spaces like this, the clean, well lighted spaces, the rooms of our own. We need quiet places to write and reflect. Those rooms must be internal, rooms that you can carry with you.

Too many writers complain about where and why they cannot write. Your apartment is too cluttered. The cafe is too loud. This is all fine when you’ve had a certain amount of success, both with the printed word and in achieving a daily practice of writing. I have a friend who will not write on the ground floor of any building: that she has several books published and writes every day grants license to her eccentricity.

The clean well-lighted place, the Dojo with its stillness and sturdy wooden tables, some of which look like they were hacked off an old fir so recently you can smell the sap, these are spaces we need to recreate in our minds.

Because we’re all busy, with families, friends, lovers and/or the procurement of love, social obligations, that yoga class that we paid too much for to focus our minds, out of town visitors and the pushy charming devils of the digital age, the barrage of email and IM and SMS: acronyms that aid and abet our ADHD.

Two months after I started writing my novel Captain Freedom my first son was born. He had colic, a form of sleep torture developed in a North Korean lab. The parenting books suggested it would last three months. An early Tiger Baby over-achiever, my son’s colic lasted for eight months. It’s not that we didn’t sleep at all. He slept sometimes, but he was more likely to sleep between seven and midnight than say, three to five. Each night on several occasions we would be jerked out of our sleep, ripped awake by inconsolable wailing. Many pre-dawn mornings found me catching up on The New Yorker, pacing around the kitchen with him in the Baby Bjorn, reading aloud at two and/or three and/or four.

Colic is not particularly good for writing or healthy living, especially when it lasts for eight months, but regular writing had always been key to my sanity. So I woke up and wrote between five and seven-thirty in the morning, because this was the one time my boy was guaranteed to sleep. It was so early that I had tricked myself: I got up, made coffee and forgot to question how much better I’d feel when I had to go to work at nine if I’d slept those two and a half hours. Each morning my dog looked up from her bed and did not stir, only cocked up one ear which asked “are you fucking kidding me?”

That small dark recess, that fringe of the clock between five and seven-thirty became my clean well-lighted place.

I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone, but you need to find that space that’s yours alone, free from friends and kids and wives and husbands and partners. You need to say sorry, this is my time. And then you need to defend that space and time as if it were the Holy Land.

Talismans

You are all so very brave. Brave and fierce, all for different reasons. In prose and poetry you have confronted very different dragons. You have grappled with death in your families, with coming out after a lifetime in the closet, with translating stories between Malayalam and English, with your first public readings of your work, and you have met each request from your teachers with power and grace.

But we are often not so brave, especially alone at our desks, without the fortitude of our peers and mentors. Which is why I encourage you to seek out talismans. You will know what they are when you find them. I have encouraging emails from other writers printed out and tacked on the walls of my office. Whenever I give a reading, or comedy performance or I’m about to teach new material I hide beforehand and listen to the same psych-up song. Inside my black binder, where I keep many of the comedy essays and shorts I’ve written over the years, the binder which I take to every reading and performance and workshop, I have a photo of my older son. He was three months, right in the depths of colic, but he had just learned to smile. I put the picture in my binder when I gave my very first reading, almost seven years ago.

Along with art and maps and plots scrawled on butcher paper that clutter my office walls is a print-out of a quote from Samuel Beckett. Even though I’m nearsighted the words are in a font big enough so I can make them out from any point in the room without my glasses.

Ever tried.

Ever failed.

No matter.

Try again.

Fail again.

Fail better.

Find your own talisman to keep you brave. Sometimes you need to believe in magic.

Scaffolding

I grew up in and around New York City and when you live there you have to deal with scaffolding. The scaffolding is everywhere for building repair and window washing and it’s hideous: it’s like they’ve given braces to the buildings and sometimes the braces stay on for years. In New York you don’t need anything to increase your claustrophobia, but scaffolding crowds you in because the support poles take up significant room in the sidewalk. In the summer unidentifiable drops of moisture condense on the metal and find their way to your nape and if you are very fortunate they are colorless and you can pretend they are water drops.

There are a few advantages. Sometimes there will be scaffolding connecting your apartment all the way to the subway, and if you’re lucky all the way from the subway to your job, so you don’t need an umbrella for when it rains or spits out that horrible frozen brown they call snow.

Eventually the scaffolding comes off and you don’t recognize the building anymore. You’re surprised the building doesn’t topple.

Your mentors for the past eleven months were scaffolding. You didn’t need me to teach you to write fiction, you didn’t need your other instructors to teach you non-fiction or poetry. We gave you deadlines, you gave us pages and we met and worked through them, one-on-one. But you were the ones who wrote those pages, who met our arbitrary deadlines. Never once did I sit down and type those words for you.

Now eleven months later the scaffolding comes off. You will form new writing groups, you will mentor others, you will make your own arbitrary deadlines and meet them. You will keep writing, editing and questioning your work. The building does not fall.

One final thing: we are all peers. We are all students. We are all teachers.

When Alexandra Wallace posted a YouTube video of herself complaining about the “hordes” of Asian students at UCLA and how their existence on campus interfered with her student performance (in the video Wallace mocks the way Asian students speak on their cell phones in the library. “Ching Chong, Ting Tong, Ling Long” she sneers, holding an imaginary phone up to her ear) the response was venomous. Tons of insulted students of all races, creeds and genders logged online to insult her back, oftentimes relying on racist and sexist stereotypes designed to insult and intimidate. Most of these insults drew attention to her cleavage and the fact that she was a “stupid, slutty little white girl”, rather than a bigot. Though the rage that Wallace provoked was certainly merited, as noted on blogs like Racialicious and Colorlines, the use of equally appalling slurs to shame her begs the question of what kind of dialogue we aim to promote in our current culture. Though there has been considerable backlash about what is politically correct and incorrect to say in our culture, the constant influx of these type of insult matches demonstrates how often discussions about racism, sexism, orany other “ism” end with piled on insults and relying on hurtful stereotypes in order to shame the other. This is the current landscape of 2011, a far cry from the days where politically correct labels were slapped on to anything in order to minimize conflict. These days, people want their conflicts right out there in the open. The question is, are these types of conversations actually working to minimize hate?

Note: All names have been changed.

Trainer Howard explains that never, under any circumstances, are we to hug an inmate. Shaking hands is also against the rules. He recommends bumping knuckles, and asks one of the trainees to stand up. They demonstrate fist-bumps several times, to be sure that we grasp the concept.

We’re to keep hand sanitizer in our cars and apply it before and after each class—to fight off hepatitis and other contagious diseases that abound in the facilities. We’re not to discuss sensitive issues with the inmates—like suicide or Hawaiian sovereignty. If we enter the prison with a cigarette or a dollar bill, we might face felony charges. We’re not to allow physical contact between inmates during class (apparently, sex acts in larger classes have been an issue). We’re to have no contact with friends or families of inmates. In the event of a riot or hostage situation, we’re to remain calm.

In academe, publishing a book is certainly grounds for congratulations—it’s a boon to any teaching career, a big step toward the goal of all of us adjuncts: to land a full-time professorship, and the time it affords to create our own work. My writing and teaching careers have so far gone according to plan: graduate school, adjuncting, publishing a book, and now pursuing the full-time gig in earnest. Only my original plan didn’t include publishing a book about the most personal and shocking experiences of my life.

Herding Cats

By Colleen McGrath

Humor

Trying to teach music to a room full of children under five years of age with no other adult in the room is a bit like herding cats. Most of the time it’s just not possible. I would guess in the forty-five minute period, the time we spend on actual music is less than fifteen minutes. “But how can that be?”, you cry. Let me clear it up for you.

Me: Okay, welcome back to music everyone. Find a place around the edge of the carpet. Let’s make a circle, can everyone find the edge of the carpet? Justin is that the edge of the carpet? Right, Tim come away from the windows, it’s time for music. See what Sarah’s doing? She’s in the right place. Thank you Sarah. Good. Make a circle please.

Okay everyone, let’s remember the rules for music class. Who can tell me one of the rules we follow here? Eric…

Anne: NO HITTING!

Me: Well, that’s a good rule in general, Anne but I called on Eric who was doing what?

Anne:

Me: What was Eric doing everyone?

Class:

Me: He was doing something with his hand, which is one of our rules. What was he doing?

Class: Raising his hand!

Me: That’s right! Good job! When you want to ask or answer a questions you raise your hand, you do not call out. If you call out to me will I call on you?

Class: Noooo!

Phillip:  Raises his hand.

Me: Yes, Phillip, can you remember another rule?

Phillip: I’m going on a train tomorrow!

Me: Okay, very interesting. Now how about…

Phillip: And we’re staying in a hotel!

Me: Uh huh. Okay, now class…

Anne: I stayed in a hotel before!

Justin: I too stayed in a hotel before!

Sarah: I too! But, but, but we didn’t go on a train. We went in our car. And my mommy threw up.

Me: Okay, okay, thanks for sharing everyone. Let’s get back to music class. We were talking about rules. And what is the most important rule?

Sam: Raises his hand.

Me: Sam, good for you, raising your hand. What’s the most important rule?

Sam: …

Me: Sam, do you have an idea?

Sam: …

Me: Okay, that’s okay but try to have an idea of what you want to say BEFORE you put your hand in the air. Tim, sit down. I don’t want to have to tell you again. Where is your seat? Tim? Tim! Where is your seat. Good boy, now sit down. That was NOT an invitation to talk class! Emily, where are you going? Sit back down!

Emily: I have to pee.

Me: Oh, okay then. Go pee. Sigh. Where were we? Oh yes, rules. What is the most important rule for music? Alan, what’s the rule?

Alan: …

Me: Alan, you raised your hand, do you know or did you just want me to call on you?

Alan: …

Me: Sigh. Okay, class it has something to do with your ears. What do you do with your ears?

Class: LISTEN!

Me: VERY GOOD! Listen. That means when I am talking, nobody…

Emily: I can’t close my pants by myself.

Me: Okay come here. That means when I am talking, nobody else is talking. And if I call on Tim, what happens then?

Class: Listen to Tim.

Me: Very good! Okay, so that leaves only one more question. Are you ready to ROCK?

Class: YEAH!!!

Me: Okay, let’s rock! “We’re rocking and rocking and rocking and…” TIM!!! GET DOWN FROM THE DESK NOW! I will NOT tell you again. Final warning. Thank you. Okay and we’re “Rocking and rocking and rocking and rocking. Left and right, left and…”

Emily: Waaahhh!

Me: Emily, what’s wrong? What happened?

Emily: Aapahhle saaht mmmpf meee!

Me: I didn’t understand you, Emily. Can you try to calm down and use your words?

Emily: Aapahhle saaht mmmpf meee!!!!!

Me: Sigh. I still didn’t get that. Can you try one more time.

Sarah: She SAAAAIIIID, Alan hit her.

Me: Alan did you hit Emily?

Alan:

Me: Alan! Did you hit Emily?

Alan: …

Me: Alan, please apologize to Emily right now.

Alan: Sorry Emily

Me: Class, do we hit other people? Ever???

Class: Noooooo!

Me: That’s right. Okay. Back to it. TIM! SIT DOWN! Okay, know what? I think we all need to move a little bit. How about a game of Freeze Dance!

Class: YEAH!!!

Robert: I don’t want tooo.

Me: Okay Robert, you don’t have to. Come sit over here with me.

Robert: Wahhh!

Me: Robert, why are you crying? I just said you don’t have to dance. Come here. What’s wrong?

Robert: Waaaaaaaahhhhhh!

Me: Sigh. Robert. Robert? Honey, I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what’s wrong.

Robert: I don’t WANT tooooooo!!!

Me: Sigh. Mmm, hmm. Okay. SO, class. Here you go, let me see what you can do! TIM!!!!!! GET DOWN NOW!!!! Okay, that is it. You have had many chances today. You are done. Go sit on the wall.

Tim: …

Me: NOW, Tim!

Tim: …waaahhhhhhhhhhHHHHHHHHH!!!!

Me: Oh for goodness sake. Why are you crying? Go sit on the wall right now. I SAID NOW MISTER!

Tim: AHHHHHHHHHH!!!!

Another teacher walks into the room.

Teacher: “Everything okay?”

Get the picture?