Writing: A Love Story

I’ve been catching up on old episodes of the Nerdist podcast, and I listened to an episode from May with Michael Fitzpatrick from the band Fitz and the Tantrums. I bought their album More Than Just a Dream earlier this summer, and it’s so great that I’m a little sad that I didn’t discover them earlier.

Fitz was talking to host Chris Hardwick about his long career in music. The band Fitz and the Tantrums has only been around a few years, but Fitz himself is in his early 40s and has been in the music industry for so many years. He talked about what it was like to finally be recognized for his music and how hard he and his band have had to work. He also talked about finding his voice. He’s been a singer and played instruments and been trained in so many styles of music that he wondered what his authentic voice was. When he moves between genres of music, how does he know what’s really his own voice? It seems like he’s finally figured that out with this current band, but it’s also interesting to note that all of those different styles and influences actually formed the voice that he’d been looking for the whole time.

His comments also reminded me of Glenn Miller. In the biopic The Glenn Miller Story (which I watched many times as a kid), Glenn Miller (played by the incomparable Jimmy Stewart) plays in a lot of bands that he eventually leaves because they don’t have the right “sound.” He walks out of a performance of “Moonlight Serenade” because he didn’t like the way the singer interpreted his music. When he finally finds the right musicians, he finds the right “sound,” and he makes the music he’s always dreamed of. But once more, it took all the experience of the “wrong” sound or the “wrong” voice to get him to the right one.

These past two days, I’ve met four classes full of students that I’ll be teaching this semester. Seventy-five students that I hope to steer towards being better writers and towards finding their own voices. I’m realizing that it might take a lot of “wrong” voices to get them there. How do I, as a writing instructor, dedicated to my craft and to the rules of my craft, encourage them, lead them without stifling their voices? How do I find a balance in correcting, teaching, encouraging? I’m going to have to teach them how to do the same thing that Fitz and Glenn Miller did: search for authenticity while learning from those who have gone before; take risks to learn about themselves while understanding they might crash and burn.

I’ve been thinking about my own writing process. Writing my thesis was one of the greatest things I’ve ever done, one of my proudest accomplishments to this day. It didn’t happen overnight, though. It took a lot of reading, researching, learning, scratching out, starting over, across many years of scholarship, to get to that level of writing. I read articles and critiques in an effort to sound more scholarly. I imitated, but I also became what I studied. By learning from others’ writing, I figured out how to become my own writer. I figured out how to love the research and the analysis and the thinking. And, hopefully, I learned how to teach some of that to other people, too.

This is the joy and the burden of teaching writing. Writing is forever a search for authenticity, a search for identity, a search for meaning. Writing is difficult and time-consuming and back-breaking. Writing is frustrating and demanding. But writing is also empowering and coercive. Writing demands reflection and empathy, a knowledge of self and others and the universe, a quest for truth and life and answers. Voice and craft can exist side-by-side without contradiction. This is the lesson that I ultimately want my students to learn.

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Reflection on a Solitary Evening

I worked late this evening in White Hall, the lovely building on campus that houses the English, History, and Christian Studies departments. My last colleagues, April and Debbie, had left sometime before 6 p.m. I grabbed a quick dinner from the bagel shop across the street and ate while I finished a PowerPoint for my lecture tomorrow morning.

My to-do list seemed to be miles long, and I was feeling anxious about how to cram all the information I need to teach into the time allotted. Although this is my fourth year teaching, I’m teaching Composition & Literature for the first time this semester, at 8:00 in the morning, which is a daunting hour for even the most experienced instructor.

I was sitting at my desk, finishing my Diet Pepsi, listening to Moby, and tackling my to-do list when 7:30 rolled around, and I heard the familiar sounds of the campus security officer closing up the building. I’ve worked late enough times to know the routine: he would secure the downstairs, make his way upstairs to check all the office doors, and stop at my open door for a bit of small talk.

That’s exactly how it worked. I turned in my chair to face the door, and the officer–not the usual one I have encountered in previous semesters–stepped through my open door to say hello and run through the drill. “I’ve locked this side door and the one downstairs. Everything else is closed. Turn your light off and pull the door behind you.” He checked my door, which was already locked and ready to be closed up when I left.

I assured him that I would do that, and he turned to the door, noticing the name plate. “I noticed you’re not Tim Hendrix,” he stated. “May I ask who you are?” I told him my name, explained my many jobs on campus, and said, “I don’t get a name plate since I’m only adjunct. I have to share.”

“Well, Ms. Gambrell,”–so polite!–“you’ll be safe here. Stay as long as you need. You’re right at home.”

Indeed, I was. For nine years, there has been nothing in my life as unwavering as North Greenville, and White Hall in particular. I spent four years attending class in the now non-existent classroom 109. I’ve had many conversations–both serious and frivolous–on its rocking chairs and sofas, gracing its doorways, roaming its hall. When I began teaching English three years ago, one of the greatest joys in a semester full of joyous events was preparing for class in the early morning while drinking coffee and watching the sunrise over the mountains. In recent months, I have seen more sunsets than sunrises, on those late evenings like tonight when I have, unaccompanied, written pages of my thesis, read novels and theories, created quizzes and handouts, graded essays and journals.

In White Hall, I have shed tears of joy and of sadness. I have smiled, laughed, hugged.

I have taught. I have learned. I have loved and been loved.

“Stay as long as you need. You’re right at home.”

The Importance of Story

I used to blog more often. I’m not sure when that changed. I’ve actually had a few ideas for posts just tumbling about in my head, and this topic seems to address several of those ideas at once.

First, I found out late Friday night after checking my Gardner-Webb email that I passed my comps–the comprehensive exams that I needed to pass before graduating. All that’s left of my M.A. now is writing my thesis. For my comps, I had three parts: 1) a literary terms test; 2) an analysis of one passage of literature, using literary & historical contexts, literary theories, literary terms, etc.; and 3) a comparison/contrast of two passages of literature using those same areas. I wrote 11 pages (between parts 2 and 3) in three hours.

The email I received Friday was the confirmation that I’d passed part 3, the last confirmation I was waiting for. For this part of my exam, I compared the opening passage of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and the opening passage of Tim O’Brien’s story “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.” On the surface, these stories are very different. A 1930s novel highlighting the journey of an African-American woman’s search for love and a story about soldiers in Vietnam should seemingly have little connection. But the truth is that both of these texts highlight the importance of storytelling: having a story to tell, the method and purpose of storytelling, and the importance and power of language used to tell one’s story. I was so stoked to find this connection between two of my favorite works that I studied in grad school.

Second, I seem to be becoming more entranced with superheroes lately. I’ve seen X-Men: First Class and Captain America in theaters this summer, and I’ve been reading more comic books as a result (not to mention that superheroes are prominent in all the geek blogs and newsletters I read on a daily basis). I find it interesting that I spent much of my time as an undergrad railing against fairy tales in our society, even writing my honors project about how fairy tales have influenced Christian women. I have a love/hate relationship with fairy tales, and I absolutely adore studying how these fairy tales and other folklore have survived in our culture. I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that superheroes are the new fairy and folk tales. We need superheroes to combat our super-problems in society, and we need someone to look up to. That’s always been true, and it will always be true. It’s just fascinating to me to see how the stories we revere change over time.

Finally, I did a creative writing activity with my class today. I put up pictures of several paintings–including Edvard Munch’s The Scream and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks–and had my students work in groups to tell stories of what was going on in the pictures. Most of the stories were fascinating–the character in The Scream is schizophrenic, or a spy, or a cancer patient. But at the end of each discussion, the students wanted to know what the “real story” is. I tried to explain that sometimes we know what inspired the artist to paint, but sometimes we don’t. I was just once again amazed at how driven our society is by the concept of story. We need to know the “true story.”

I’m so grateful to be a child of a God who created Story. And I’m so amazed that I get to devote my calling and my life to studying and creating stories.

A Signpost

As a teacher, this semester has been rough for me. I’m dealing with heavy absences, students who don’t turn in assignments, students talking or putting their heads on their desks in class, and other generally disrespectful attitudes. I’ve left class frustrated many days, wondering why I bother. It’s way too early in my career for me to already be questioning my choice. However, I guess it’s better that I realize now that just because I’m passionate about English and teaching gives me joy, being a teacher can very often be exhausting and despairing. Like so many other worthy avenues in life, I must take the good with the bad.

Some days, however, I get the validation I need to keep going…to keep grading poorly written papers, to keep lecturing even when no one seems to be paying attention, to keep pursuing the education I need to teach more classes.

Dr. Sepko had asked me at the beginning of the week to substitute for her advanced grammar class. After the first class yesterday morning was over, I was gathering my papers to head to the next grammar class. One of my students from last semester walked into the classroom; his next class was in the same room I had just finished teaching in. I greeted him and then walked out the door to the next classroom, and a few minutes later, I saw my former student standing at the door. I went out to talk to him, and the conversation went something like this:

Student: “So how many classes do you teach?”

Me: “Just the one–your class–1300.”

S: (crestfallen look) “Oh. That’s all?”

Me: “Yeah. I’m just substituting for advanced grammar today. But I only teaching the Fundamentals of Writing class.”

S: “Oh.” (walking away)

Me: “When I finish my Master’s, I’ll be able to teach more.”

S: “When will that be?”

Me: “Two more years.”

S: “Oh.” (walking away, disappointed)

Okay, so maybe you picked up on it, maybe you didn’t. He wanted to take more of my classes! He enjoyed my class and learned a lot! He misses my instruction! (I’m sure it’s all of that.) It definitely brightened my day. While most of my students this semester might not appreciate me at all, I’ve already influenced some students (for the better, it seems).

And another signpost: I substituted for 2 advanced grammar classes yesterday (which I’ve already mentioned). This entailed me passing out study guides and answering a lot of questions from students who are wading through an analysis of phrases and clauses. From all my years of tutoring for this class, I know that this section is the hardest for most students. Students who found nouns and adjectives to be difficult find dependent clauses and relative pronouns to be the stuff of nightmares. But when students call me over to their desks to check the work that they’re doing, and when they get excited that they found the relative clause and figured out that the clause is functioning as an adjective, it makes me excited to see that they’re learning. I’m delighted when they ask about my schedule in the writing center so they can come for more tutoring.

I want to keep doing this. I want to be wrapped in the world of academia forever. I want to analyze sentence structure and talk about symbolism in works of literature and figure out why writers use certain narrative structures. I love English. And I thank God for the days when He shows me that my passion and talents are intertwined, and He reveals to me that I’m on the right path.

Beauty and Truth, part 3

One year ago today, I started this blog. Happy anniversary to me! This is my 83rd post, which averages to about one every 4.5 days. Not bad at all. 🙂

My very first post was a memoir I wrote about a year and a half ago–an exploration on beauty–or the lack thereof–in my life. Interestingly enough, that subject is something that still intrigues and perplexes me. A year later, it still weighs on my mind often.

A few weeks ago, I assigned my students the chapter on Beauty from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature. Before I visited Massachusetts a few months ago, my opinion of Emerson was very different. I respected him for his influence on American literature, but I didn’t really appreciate him for his own literary worthiness. That’s changed so much in just three months. I’ve read Nature in its entirety once and my favorite sections many times since. My copy of Selected Essays, Lectures, and Poems, bought at the Emerson House in Concord, MA, is battered and worn already. Purple highlighter marks a plethora of worthy passages. Emerson’s ideas are constantly running through my mind.

Some of my favorite excerpts:

To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again. The heavens change every moment, and reflect their glory or gloom on the plains beneath.

The world thus exists to the soul to satisfy the desire of beauty. [ . . . ] Truth, and goodness, and beauty, are but different faces of the same All.

When I assigned the chapter to my students, most of them balked at reading Emerson. He uses big words, they complained. Their eyes examined me skeptically as I raved over his genius. But when I gave them a writing assignment and had them give me a definition of Beauty, I received so many insightful definitions. And while they perhaps didn’t enjoy Emerson as I do now, their writing was proof that they were thinking about beauty outside of just my classroom. And they were incredible insightful.

After reading Emerson, many of them listed things in nature as being beautiful: sunsets, the ocean, rainy days. Others talked about beautiful people or love or gave a literal definition. But I also had each of them make a list of things they find beautiful, and as a good writing instructor, I made one in my journal as well, which I’ll  include here.

So what is Beauty? Have I decided? I think so. Beauty is Truth. Beauty is anything that makes me realize how powerful God is, how excellent his creation is, and how valuable my life is as a result. So here’s a very short list of beauty in my life:

1. Mornings on Camp Creek Road on my way to work, which the trees make a canopy over the road, and the Blue Ridge Mountains are enveloped in fog
2. Switchfoot’s Learning to Breathe; the Civil Twilight album; The Earth is Not a Cold, Dead Place by Explosions in the Sky. Plus, a whole lot more incredible music
3. Driving down a long stretch of road
4. Everything about autumn–the weather, the colors, the scents
5. Renewal and rebirth in spring
6. The ocean at night, stretching to the horizon to meet a sky full of stars
7. Being surrounded by my family at Radius
8. My bulletin board, filled with memories of adventures my best friends and I have had
9. The smell of coffee brewing
10. LOVE
11. Stacks of books
12. The color purple–not the book, which I haven’t read–just things that are purple 🙂
13. Edward Hopper paintings
14. Great works of literature
15. Long, colorful scarves
16. Christmas lights
17. Connemara, Carl Sandburg’s house in Flat Rock, NC
18. The Concord River flowing past the Old Manse and under the North Bridge in Massachusetts
19. Redbirds
20. Lighthouses

I could go on forever, but twenty is enough for now.

Happy Halloween!

Three Weeks In…

…and I’ve learned a good bit about teaching. Some days, I leave class invigorated, sure that I’m changing the world, teaching my students things they’ve never heard before, encouraging them to expand their minds. Other days, I walk out of class dejected, pondering the vacant looks on their faces, with eyes glazed over, as they struggle to stay awake.

Most days, however, I leave class grateful for this opportunity, encouraged by knowing that it’s a process, and my students and I have all semester together to explore the world of writing.

I have learned a few important things, though:

1. As much as I love grammar, even I can’t make subject/verb agreement exciting at 8:00 in the morning.

2. I cannot teach writing the exact same way to two distinctly different sets of students. I’ve done some activities in one class that I know the other class would not find interesting. I’ve asked questions and recieved vastly different responses from my two classes.

3. Bibles verses and Beatles lyrics are fantastic sources for teaching students parts of a sentence.

4. A penguin is not just an aquatic bird.

5. Just because a student has a British accent does not mean he’s actually British.

Teaching is great. Really. It’s challenging in ways I didn’t expect. It’s exhausting. It comes with a great deal of responsibility. And I’m more sure than ever that it’s what I want to do the rest of my life.

An unexpected, challenging, awesome surprise.

I’m just gonna say it…

I’m 24 years old, and I’m teaching (developmental) college English.

Yes, it’s true. I never expected it to happen so fast, yet here I am. I taught my first class this morning. Granted, it involved introducing myself and going over the syllabus, but it still counts.

For some reason, this goal never made it onto my List. Maybe it was just so big and obvious, I felt like it didn’t need to even be written down. Nonetheless, my desire to be a college English professor is the reason I started the M.A.T. program at Converse last year.

How did this happen? Dr. Boone, one of our English faculty, unexpectedly resigned over the weekend due to some health problems. This left Drs. Collier and Sepko scrambling to shift her classes to other professors. This required several of them to overload, and that created a problem. So because a Bachelor’s degree is all that’s required to teach developmental and remedial classes, Dr. Collier asked me Monday afternoon if I’d be interested in taking one of Tim’s writing classes to free him to take one of Dr. Boone’s 1310 c lasses. I said sure, not really thinking anything would come of it. After all, I was a last resort, really, and surely something else would work.

Nope. Dr. Sepko called me yesterday morning to ask if I’d take both of Tim’s classes. I agreed. By yesterday afternoon, I was super-hyper, bouncing around White Hall, getting my syllabus from Tim and advice  and encouragement from every other English professor. This morning, I walked into a classroom with a stack of syllabi with my name and office hours on them, and I met my first students. When I returned to White Hall, I walked into Tim’s office (which I’ll be using for my office hours) to discover that Betsy, Tim’s wife, had acquired a desk for me and made a nameplate. I was awed. She’s so sweet, and it’s really awesome to know that they’re trying to make me feel like an actual instructor now. 🙂

On top of my new desk was a stuffed animal: Stitch, left for me by Dr. Bruce. During my very first English class with Dr. Bruce at NGU, he pulled out Stitch and announced that, although he was a new professor here, we were all going to be a family. And we were. Seeing Stitch on my desk six years later, right after teaching my own first class made me so happy. It’s been a long time since that day, and I’ve changed so much, and it’s such a great reminder of the family I have at North Greenville.

I love this place. I love English. I’m going to adore teaching, I’m sure.

So although my life has been super crazy over the last two days, as I’ve tried to figure out my new teaching schedule on top of my full-time library/writing center schedule, on top of my own grad school courses, I’m super excited about life right now. This semester is going to be wonderfully chaotic and challenging and great!