Growing Into Who I Am

A couple of months ago a writer friend forwarded an email call for submissions to an ebook collection of stories from expat teachers. Such a specific author call! I thought of what essays I might rework or draft. I wrote around a couple of ideas, let the work drift. Then a few weeks ago, my friend and I decided let’s do it, set up workshop via Google docs and drafted, commented and revised to hit today’s submission deadline. The whole collection will support the Children of Haiti Project.

I’ll let you know if my essay is published and where to purchase the collection when it’s released. Meantime, here is the essay I submitted. I can’t get away posting much of my finished work but think it’s okay to post this here.

On the writer side of things: titles. What do I call this? I titled the piece “Choosing Heartbreak” and then “We Choose Heartbreak.” Both titles are dumb, to me. “Growing Into Who I Am” fits but also sounds dumb. I suck at titles. Read the piece and if you have a title idea, please please please leave a comment.

As Yet Untitled, In My Mind

For years I held my profession at arms’ length, uncertain I really was a teacher until a decade passed and I couldn’t pretend I was actually a writer anymore. Instead, all those semesters of practice made me a good teacher. I have joy in the classroom. I wake up tired, run my treadmill miles, negotiate traffic with kids in the backseat, order a coffee I pick up from gate two on campus and walk back to my classroom, open the door to first period.

We aren’t always ready for first period. Students trail in five or ten minutes into class, find a desk. We roll our bodies and minds into the school day. A few years ago I started asking students to “be present” in my class and I do the same. We enjoy the people nearest us for fifty-five minutes. We learn what we can in fifty-five minutes. The joy I have in my classroom stems from affection for people as they are and belief those fifty-five minute classes matter to more than academic growth.

Still, last year was a wrestle with identity: am I more teacher or writer?

I had a group of seniors preparing for college: essay, applications, college visits and fairs, acceptances and rejections. These young men and women were making such big decisions. Sometimes they asked about my experience or opinion. Everything matters: small liberal arts college, Ivy League school, state university; declared or undecided major; visa issues in UK or US. I assured a few students they would be okay, wherever they landed, eventually, maybe. I went to a university that promised a scholarship, supposing I’d transfer after a year or two but instead I studied English which led to me choosing a teaching certification which wandered me from Wisconsin to Colombia to Kuwait. No choice is inconsequential and that’s a terrifying thought for an eighteen year old. It’s a terrifying thought for a thirty-five year old. I saw parallels between my seniors learning who they were, what they wanted next, and my own questions about why I was in the Middle East and what I was doing with my piles of notebooks and files of finished poetry and narrative pieces.

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I Felt Like My Seniors: Writing A Personal Narrative That Says “Like Me, Choose Me”

English 12 started the school year with the College Essay. The all important personal narrative that matters more now that more college admission boards read applications holistically. When I applied to state university nearly twenty years ago (!) I remember handwriting a couple of paragraphs in pen. I do remember thinking about what I wanted to say first but I don’t remember worrying if those sentences would sell me as a student because I was weirdly unworried about where I went to college, thinking I’d move on to an art and design school later. This passive approach to major life decisions was a pattern I kept through dating, career choice, marriage, jobs and children up until maybe two years ago. It’s mostly worked out. But this year Justin and I are looking for a new country and while I’m not anxious about where we’ll land, I also want to be wise about the search, upping our chances at choosing a place rather than taking what seems the easiest or most practical option.

So as my seniors were thinking how to frame themselves in a single, short narrative, I was also worrying what I look like on paper. I spent a couple of months picking at my resume, counting the many times I opened the document, sighed, and closed it. Then I had to write a bio for the international teaching placement service we’re using. I was in the thick of reading college essay drafts and revisions. During conferences with students, we’d look at whether they were telling a specific story to illustrate their character or ambition. We’d point where to expand, where to cut. We’d commiserate over the difficulty of conclusions. All the while, I penned bio starts in my notebook and thought it was hopeless, I wouldn’t find a way to say to potential employers: This is who I am!

One Friday afternoon the kids were out and I made myself write the bio. A lot of my essays get a first draft like this, the just-write-it-now draft. After I’ve written an idea again and again in my notebook, I surrender it to a typed page, see how I might shape it.

My first draft was long. I had to cut nearly a third of the words. Concision appeals. Having to pare a piece forces precision into your work. I don’t totally like the short version best. However, some of the revised diction and syntax works better. While I posted the short version as my bio, I decided to create a last draft combining my long and short version in a piece I think works well. What is gained or lost in the expansion or cuts?

First, the combination draft at 971 words:

This summer I learned to bake French macarons. I can buy them at a bakery for a half dinar or about two dollars apiece but I wanted to see if I could bake a tray myself. I do this sometimes, pick a pastry and learn how to make it. When we first arrived in Kuwait, I spent a few months perfecting the croissant. For a while I baked our bread. I spent a year playing with chocolate chip cookie recipes until I found one I like enough to use exclusively. And now, the French macaron.

I bought a kitchen scale and weighed one hundred twenty grams of almond flour and two hundred grams unrefined powdered sugar which I then sifted between two bowls half a dozen times. Making macarons is meticulous. Recipes use words like “just” as in, whip the egg whites until they just form a stiff peak, and warn against over folding the almond flour and sugar with the egg. But you don’t know you’ve done it right until the macarons are in the oven forming crinkly feet at their edges. Even then, the shells might be hollow in the center. Macarons are maddening. I’d finish a batch and guess what to change on the next round. I ate a lot of macarons in one month. I sent plates to neighbors. I found my favorite flavors – pistachio, salted caramel, and raspberry. Most of my macarons were imperfect, the rounds a little lopsided, the filling too thick or thin. I had fun though.

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570 Word Sentence

This month I put to words something that I had been nudging, getting the shape of, for a while. I’ve been teaching for over a decade, though I accepted my first job expecting to leave the profession after a few years, when I was ready to start an MFA program. I like teaching. But when I think about being part of the field of education, I don’t aspire to do more than keep a classroom and become better at teaching. Meanwhile I’ve watched many colleagues and friends take on other roles in the field. And sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t clamber for a new title too. But what I really want is to be a great writer. So I practice this craft at the loss of tallying credits toward a masters in education, at the loss of school leadership, at the loss of a raise. Occasionally I wonder how long I hold this split: it seems I might be a great teacher or a great writer but teaching full-time and cobbling time to draft and revise means I’m good at both (even very good, catch me on the right day), but not great at either. I’m only good for the consistent practice. Ten more years of this creative tension and I’ll be exhausted but great.

So I’d been looking for a way to say this. I haven’t found the best way. But when I had my students write one long sentence telling a complete story, I told a kind of story too. Part profile. Part rumination. I chose to write about myself in the third person which helped me cut through the noise and say what I wanted.

Great At ___/ The Only One For ___

This year Sarah Marslender returned to teaching full-time after four years of teaching part-time because her writing career remains an unpaid fantasy (let’s say this really is her fault and she knows it, because she’s a squawking chicken about collecting rejections from literary magazines and because she isn’t sure she is a brand anyone wants to publish and because she’d rather not stay up past nine for this fantasy, instead wishing for an editor or agent to magically materialize and insist she take sabbatical and finish what she’s started: a multigenre collection tacked together piece by piece over the last five years and showing readers what mattered/ matters to this woman/ wife/ mom/ writer/ friend/ teacher) but also because she is good at teaching and likes it well enough that she’ll probably keep teaching in some capacity for years to come and, more, she wants to figure out better ways to teach writing and revision and developing flow while you write (something she is desperate to hold onto for more than an hour at a time herself) and she wants to help you instill discipline in your practice (something she has by way of games she plays, like filling a notebook a month) – yes, Sarah wants good things in her classroom but this month she also craves being told she is good at what she does because like every other thing that sucks her time and talent, teaching remains a fairly thankless profession if you have anything but a selfless mindset or take to heart the Facebook posts about how great teachers/ teaching is and Sarah thinks this is because there is a high moral expectation for educators, that teaching is akin to taking religious vows which spur dedicated teachers to find even greater meaning outside the classroom, packing their schedules with voluntary committees, sports coaching and activities sponsoring; vows which spur dedicated teachers to pursue masters in education with an eye on curriculum or administration which may get them out of the classroom because that is one way to gain notice in the field, to leave the classroom and all that entails (grading, management, grading, planning, grading) to prove themselves as great educators by helping their colleagues better assess/ manage/ plan; Sarah is just embarrassed to realize that watching her fellow teachers grow into promotions at her school, chosen for positions they fit just right, has made her look at her own empty want of specialness, that icky taste in her mouth of wishing someone would look at Sarah Marslender and think She’d be great at ___/ She’s the only one for ___ and then she’s ashamed because she knows she’s needed and appreciated not only because Facebook regularly praises her profession but because she has relationships at school that matter for a semester or two or a year or so and many times much longer; oh, Sarah is embarrassed her ego was bruised by her colleagues’ deserved placements, which she didn’t even want for herself: no, it’s the wanting to be thought of as Perfect for ___ that kills her this month because what she’s perfect for is teaching and learning and adding up unpublished pages and making herself say it’s okay to matter in a hundred unsaid ways and it’s okay to keep balance like a quiet and flushed student thinking of an answer when someone asks what Sarah Marslender is great at/ the only one for.

Lovely / Interesting Unread Things

I’ve been writing about my early teaching years. Below is a WP selection.

I started writing again my second year of teaching. I filled one or two notebooks that year. I couldn’t think what to write unless it was a draft example for my freshmen or sophomores. My classroom was next to the Spanish room and Karla was patient and kind to me for the three years we were neighbors. Between periods, we’d chat in the hall. I got to know her like that and on inservice days, during after school activities and on shared car rides. Karla had four little kids at home. She talked about weekend birthday parties, family dinners, trick-or-treat. There were a few women I knew during that time that I looked at and thought that’s what grown up meant.

One day I found out she’d taught English but switched to Spanish. Students choose to take a second language, she said. I got it. It makes a difference, to teach a class students elect. I taught required English, ambivalent about my job every third day. Karla told me about a friend who’d quit because his students sucked his love of literature dry. This was a passing period conversation, an offhand anecdote of my fear. The bell rang.

I remember introducing writing practice to my students at that school. I wasn’t sure how it would work when we started because I lacked a steady practice. But we began anyway, ten minutes at a time. I learned to write again.

When I started writing again, with my students, I decided not to stop. I thought about that teacher Karla mentioned, wondered if he’d quit writing poetry or reading dense Russian novels because he had to grade American lit analytical essays. Even then, over a decade ago, I had a sense that if I let go my own reading and writing, I’d resent the profession cutting into the two pleasures that made me want to teach English at all.

I just finished reading a bunch of student poetry, first fruits of consistent WP. I’m encouraged by how many of my students went for it, playing with metaphor, sound and form. And I’m reminded again how tough it is to put ourselves on the page, to choose honesty over fear. Years ago, a student left her notebook for me to read. I still remember what she told in her bubbled script. I finished reading and cried. Sometimes writing our selves on the page is enough but this girl needed more. So we all do, when our admission, memory, dream, want, fear, joy, insecurity or hope whispers share me. I want to know why that is, for my students and me, and for others who write lovely / interesting unread things. I think about that girl who left her notebook, or a few of my students whose poems I just read. I peek into the lives sitting in desks in front of me. There is honor and pleasure to this work.

The Dumbest Grief In The Room

I was away for summer. Left one home to visit another. We enjoy our time in Wisconsin and are always glad to return to Kuwait. (Once here I am not always glad to be here, but that’s anywhere in the whole wide world, except maybe Sweden or Finland, one of those countries who’ve got it all figured out thanks to small populations and broad social welfare. Which I’m not knocking). Anyway, we are back in our home, mostly sorted and ready for another school year.

Every time I go home, stuff comes up.  This summer I managed not to leak all over the place, confining most of my overthinking to long runs and a notebook. One thing that comes up when I visit my college town is What Am I Doing With My Life because there is the house where I wrote late into the night, chancing on one or two good lines. And there is classroom building I tracked snow into. And there is the reserve I ran and biked through. So this summer, the thing that came up about What I Am Doing With My Life skipped past marriage and parenting (thank God) and got stuck on a/vocation.

I poke at a/vocation at least twenty times a year. I teach and mostly like the job. In one of my education methods classes, focused on teaching creative writing, our discussion turned to how we’d keep writing while teaching. Most of us in the small class knew each other from previous workshops and a few of us were good writers who wanted an eventual MFA and publication. I didn’t imagine I’d be teaching more than a couple of years. But one woman in the class likened teaching to a religious calling. As such, teaching would come before writing. As such, the majority of her essays  composed on long runs would likely never make it to the page. In that same conversation, our professor talked about whether it’s wiser to take a job that requires little creativity and keep our mind for our writing. I think of him on my cubicle days, when I’d take a job in a cube under fluorescent lights rather than be in my classroom.

My vocation exacts a lot of creativity. I’m lucky enough to teach creative writing and that keeps me writing perhaps more than I might otherwise, but between the school day, afternoons with my kids and (let me not lead you to think I’m too wholesome) nights of tv, my avocation is more minor than I thought it’d be when I was biking to class mocking up a book jacket. I write because I do. But I haven’t seriously pursued publication, even as I want it. And sometimes I talk with my students and think I’ve got to get on that, get something published so that it makes sense I’m the one teaching this class – because publication would somehow validate my ability to write or work with students as they write?

Sometimes my stray thoughts bump against one another, glob together and stretch the length of an essay. Sometimes I get a revelatory conclusion. Then I feel good for a day or week because I’ve said what I need to say just right. I might make my husband read it or post an excerpt here and shortly after, I’ll be useless again.

I was at my parents’ church this summer and the speaker closed his message about grieving before God by asking us to imagine a hurt or disappointment and hold it in a closed fist. I closed my fist around Writing. What hasn’t happened in the years since university grieves me. Writing As Means To Gain An Appreciative Audience Who Also Read Other Better Writers. Writing For Acceptance. Writing For Unbelievable Windfall And Requisite Book Signing Tour. What I really meant was Writing For Publication. I’m unpublished. I stood there holding maybe the dumbest grief in the room and said to God, Please just take this.

And I’ve since thought I can’t begrudge my vocation on behalf of an avocation.

Except (and this is important), writing is not really my avocation. Publishing may be, the laziest of my avocations. But I can’t reduce writing to a minor hobby. I’ve been writing for decades and for all sorts of reasons and I need to (once again) divorce myself from the idea that writing is most worthwhile if I also manage to publish. Maybe my writing goes no further than notebooks, saved files and what’s posted here. I doubt that though. Someday, probably, a piece of mine will land in an inbox and find its way to print. That will be exciting. Until then, and after, I write through, because.

Multigenre Narrative

I wrote hardly anything my first year of teaching. I took a crate of student journals home and read those, but neglected my own.* During my second year of teaching, I figured out a way to keep a writing habit. I completed my own assignments. At first, because I needed examples to show students and I wanted to model the writing process. But after a couple of years of this, I thought it’d be fun to compile all my comparison/contrast essays, pantoums and opinion pieces in a collection I’d call My Assignments. This idea never went beyond the image of a book cover and Oprah appearance, stalling out when I realized very few people would enjoy reading a comparison/contrast of  my parents’ and in-laws’ garages. My parents and in-laws might enjoy such a piece least.

I still write alongside my students. And I have a new assignment to start the semester: the multigenre narrative. This serves me well, too, because I need a kick in my creative pants. I’ve assigned multigenre narratives in the past, drowning students in genre options. This time, I’m requiring only five genres, three already set: fiction, poetry, nonfiction.

Parameters, if you want to play along at home:

Tell a story or explore a theme using five distinct genres. Each piece should be able to stand alone. The pieces, ordered purposefully, build a complete narrative.

Fiction: 500-1000 words
Poetry: Whatever you can defend as poetry
Nonfiction: 500-1000 words
2 Super Special Bonus Genres of Your Choice: Go nuts

The pieces are short, the turnaround is quick, and the yield will be a group of young writers ready for more fun.

I’ll post what I come up with. Give me a couple of weeks. If you try this, or have completed multigenre narratives or seen great examples, please let me know. Post a link in the comments.


*I don’t read read my students’ writing practice anymore. I take a close look only if they ask, respecting their privacy, glancing through to check completion. When a word or phrase catches my attention, I ask. I like talking about the process. But beyond that, I prefer my students’ notebooks to be their own space.