A Novel Month

Winner CertificateI told only a few people I was attempting it. And I always said “attempting,” as if this was word was a magic talisman to ward off any accusation of failure.

Usually I am all bravado at the beginning of adventures. I’ll declare them, like a European explorer, then push my ship off into the unknown with impunity. I’m going to climb Mt. Rainier! I’m working on a farm for the summer! I’m moving to Europe! This time, I wasn’t so sure. There was a real possibility of failure, and I wasn’t sure what I would do with failure, so I merely whispered the attempt to a few friends.

“I’m going to–I’m going to try to–write a novel in November.”

National Novel Writing Month–NaNoWriMo for those in the know–has long been familiar to me. I’ve been tempted a few times, but never felt that my schedule had enough holes in it for me to insert the required 1,667 average words a day. This year, with a somewhat lighter teaching load, I was willing to risk it.

Each day, I’d sit down for an hour or two to hammer out a tale based on a premise that had been rattling around in my head for a few years. Along the way, I added characters and settings and names. Many of the experiences and places were ones that I’ve had before, so at times it felt like I was making a mosaic out of torn-up snapshots from my own life. There were moments when, I confess, I was desperately afraid that I’d accidentally written a contemporary version of Heidi. Sometimes I wrote more than I was supposed to, often I wrote less, and one day I wrote nothing at all.

This morning, I typed the last words of my novel. And while it was not the glorious summit that I have dreamed of in more idealistic days (though, being a Dahlstrom, it of course ended on an actual mountain summit), it was a learning-rich experience, and one for which I’m deeply thankful.

Though I’m sure I’ll think of more later, today in celebration of finishing I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned in this month of writing:

  1. I can write a novel. With these words, I’ve fulfilled the deepest goal of the NaNoWriMo organization, the knowledge that I, a non-professional writer, can craft a novel-length work of fiction. At all. The month deadline–as I understand it–is put in place to keep writers from endlessly editing and censoring. The hope is that, in the end, we have a draft in all its messy, complete glory.
  2. Writing a novel is difficult. From the outside, it has always been easy for me to dream of the books I could write. In the trenches of crafting a fictional world, I wrote myself into ridiculous corners and spent insane amounts of time on tasks like calculating time zones and poring over Swiss rail timetables. While there were a few days here and there when I felt inspired and words dripped fluidly from my fingers, there were more times when sitting down to write was an act of will, requiring all my patience and faith that the solutions would present themselves, if I just kept writing.
  3. Writing, while it remains a passion, isn’t my only passion. The emails that I received from the NaNoWriMo organization this month were all about overcoming writer’s block or decreasing distraction, and I found both topics annoying. They were predicated on the assumption that I was sitting in some coffeeshop, staring at a blank screen and waiting for words to arrive, compulsively batting away the Facebook tab that was “distracting” me. The reality was that I never had time for writer’s block, and sometimes the distractions really were more important than this experiment. The fact that I finished at all is more a gift from God than a testament to my own skill, because honestly it was far more important that I teach my classes well, meet students to edit papers than needed rewriting, helped plan the Christmas Banquet, made time for prayer and sleep, and actually talked to my husband than that I was able to write the required number of words every day. Like Thoreau, I have many lives to live, and I had only a limited amount of time for this one.
  4. I’ll write a novel again. Someday. Not in a month. But from this sprint I’ll take away the ability to have grace with myself. I’ll accept less than perfection on a first attempt, to pour out words and characters, actions and interactions, setting details that are doubtless gratuitous and more “says” and “replies” than I ever want to see again. I’ll remember what it felt like to follow characters to their logical conclusions, to realize that if someone isn’t completely sure and happy in the end, that’s OK. They’re heading that direction now, and I can rest in the imagination of the many roads they could all take.

In closing, I want to thank most of all my wonderful husband, Timmy, for his support through this month. For letting me write away my afternoons, and encouraging me when I felt like giving up, I’m everlastingly grateful.

Rewrites

“So, what’s up with this paper?” my students ask, wafting in from the hall and settling in their desks with a nonchalance only possible after lunch, when a free afternoon beckons and “we can only handle school if it’s relaxed” is the motto of the hour. Don’t ask too much of us; it’s sixth period.

The paper in question was a disaster. I knew it as I graded the first few, writing essentially the same question on each one:

If (CHARACTER) is a symbol of (IDEA), then what statement does Nathaniel Hawthorne make about (IDEA) with what happens to (CHARACTER)?

I had pressed on–circling the egregious haunting of passive voice, writing “Too much plot” next to topic sentences–like a grading automaton, for all 33 of my honors students’ papers. Now, a week later, I have to tell them the hard truth: These weren’t good. Redemption is possible, but it will take hard, meticulous work.

“The papers,” I reply, noncommittal. “We’ll talk about them.”

“First period said they were really bad.”

The students of first period, alert traitors that they are, reveal all secrets, utterly powerless in the face of the insistent question, “What are we doing in English today?” Doubtless they answered, “Hearing about how bad our papers were.”

I begin by sharing their collective strengths, commenting how it was clear that they’d actually read The Scarlet Letter, itself an arduous task, and that this was a difficult book and their comprehension alone is commendable. Then I compliment their proofreading. Following these consolations, we begin examining the cracks: flawed thesis statements and careless topic sentences, along with an overall misunderstanding of the concept of symbolism.

I’ve thought a great deal about failure in the last few weeks. As I share with my students, I’m no stranger to it. Though I could share about the math tests on which I’ve scored in the low 20 percents, today it’s far more relevant to reveal that I, too, have earned a C or a D, here and there, (gasp!) on an essay. And while I’ve forgotten most of the A grades I ever received, I still remember the exact contents (or lack thereof) of those horrid papers.

Educators discuss “rewrites” and “retakes” to exhaustion, curious about the consequences to the students of being given a second chance with their “final” assessments. As I reflect on my own failures, however, I realize that the ones from which I’ve learned the most–in school, in relationships, in cooking, everywhere–were the ones that involved going back and redeeming my mistakes.

I’m always eager to leave the crimes behind, hoping that everything will take care of itself. That the bad paper’s grade consequence will diminish in importance as more grades fill the spreadsheet. That the harsh words will be forgotten, buried under better ones, before I have to apologize. That I can call the cookies “muffins” to explain their having half the required amount of sugar. Just don’t make me go back, I sometimes plead. I don’t want to worry about this anymore.

But the going back is where the learning happens. Though it’s not standard academic practice, it happens that the essays on which I did worst, both in high school and college, were ones that I was required to rewrite. It was a tortuous process, involving in each case sitting with the instructor and then rehashing material I hadn’t bothered much with in the first place. I remember sitting down with a sigh, putting my mind and fingers back to the work of rebuilding, hoping to do better this time. I did, and I’m a stronger writer for it.

That’s what I hope to teach my students this week, with their returned essays. “They’re not great, these papers,” I tell them. “There’s no other way to say it, really. But you’ll do better next time. And I’ll help you, don’t worry. We’re in this together.”

Failure is important, I tell them, but only if you look at it the right way. Almost everyone writes one bad paper, but you’ll keep writing them, again and again, unless you learn from this one. It’s only when we acknowledge our failures, when we look them straight in their lackluster faces, that we can see a way forward, a way to repair, to apologize, or to start over. Only then can we move on, leaving the failures gracefully in the past to seek a better next time.

Richer Than Hemingway

“But then we did not think of ourselves ever as poor. We did not accept it…. We ate well and cheaply and ate well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.” A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway

“Are you ready?” I ask my Period 3 Honors American Literature class as they file in, many of them from Timmy’s Romans class downstairs.

“Ready for what?” they ask, as usual.

“For class!”

“Oh, that,” is the worn-out response. “I guess.”

I’m excited, even if they aren’t, because it’s the beginning of Semester 2. I love the second semester of American Literature. Even with a research project looming in the third quarter, and a steady stream of essays to grade toward the end of the fourth, this latter half of the year includes some of my all-time favorite books–The Great GatsbyOf Mice and Men and A Raisin in the Sun among them–not to mention the best American poetry. Though I love the stirring imagery of Thoreau and the brooding symmetry of Hawthorne’s storytelling, in the end I’m glad to leave behind the blindly optimistic, “Let’s just write better than England, OK?” attitude of the American romantics.

“Well, you should be ready,” I continue as more students file in. “Today is the most depressing class ever.”

“Ever?”

“Ever. We’re talking about Naturalism today!”

And we do. For a whole period, we consider literary naturalism, a movement that puts the individual in the hands of factors beyond his or her control, factors like geography, family history, genetics and social class. Naturalists, writing in response to worldview-altering ideas of Darwin and Freud, believed that the fate of every living thing was unalterably determined, far beyond the power of weak mankind to change.

Surprising no one, I tell my students at the end of this dour lecture that there are very few American naturalists, that John Steinbeck was close, but East of Eden undid it at the last minute. Americans don’t want to believe this, do not believe it, by and large. We create ourselves, one person and life at a time, and no obstacle is so large that an American won’t try to surmount it. It’s in our blood, that Romantic desire to, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And then one fine morning–” In that unfinished thought lies all of our dreams, which which we stretch for beyond probability, the hopes that make us hate naturalism.

Still, there was darkness ahead. The stubborn optimism with our nation rejected naturalism accounts, in large part, for the disillusionment of the “Lost Generation,” the famed cadre of American writers and artists who fled the uproarious decade in the United States after the first World War to work in the more muted cities of Europe. We read these modernists, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, with the realization that they were caught between their hopes for what life could have been–what the world could have been–and what it actually turned out to be. Being American, they were unprepared for that heartbreak, making their art more poignant, their own stories more tragic.

My students are often puzzled that this is my favorite period of literature, a time so marked by sadness and loss. I think what makes me love these books is their honesty, their continuing relevance in a world that continues to fall short of our dreams. And while the nostalgic part of me can understand Owen Wilson’s desire, in Woody Allen’s 2011 film Midnight in Paris, to live in these richer moments of the past, really I have all that I desire from that age. A life of simplicity and community, marked by few possessions and many relationships. And, in the end, I don’t place my hope in being published or in living abroad or even in marriage. My hope, in the face of inevitable brokenness, remains firmly rooted in the love of Christ, a hope that never disappoints.

That’s why I can read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, his memoir of his early years in Paris, punctuated by tales of writing, adventure and love, without envy. I have the writing, the adventure, the love and more. I have the hope that these words, this moment, this love isn’t the best I’ll ever know. The best is Christ. And so I’m richer than Hemingway, richer than Fitzgerald, wealthy in the love of Christ that surrounds me every day.

NaNoWriMo

Short Story Ideas: Chick Flick Action Story

Damsel in Distress/Platonic Ideal: Super smart and hot

Creator made a weapon and then lost it. Quest: Find it and destroy it. Wants to make something better.

Trickster/damsel befriends creator, tricks him into finding the Magic Weapon. Once they find it, she steals it and threatens the platonic ideal.

Has known platonic ideal for whole life. She’s liked him for his whole life. As soon as he starts to like her, he gets distracted by the damsel.

Notes from Study Hall Brainstorming Session

It’s not as if anyone really needs to search long for an excuse not to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November.  “I don’t want to” generally seems to do the trick.  The organizers of NaNoWriMo, tricky writers’ code for National Novel Writing Month, seem to pride themselves on this being an entirely voluntary event.  No one is getting paid or tricked or tortured.

Still, the issue of wanting to doesn’t apply to me.  I do want to write a novel, very much so, and have wanted to participate in NaNoWriMo for the last few years.  (Basically, ever since I met Anna Barton, Prodigious Novel Writer/College Student.)  At the beginning of the month, I more than flirted with (courted?) the thought of jumping on board.  How long would it take, I wondered, to write the required 1,500 words a day?  November 1 is a holiday in Germany, set aside to venerate the saints that Germany stopped venerating approximately 500 years ago, so I had plenty of time.  I wrote my 1500 words and went to bed.

Flash forward two weeks, to when I’ve become a story processing machine.  A few days ago I assigned an “Archetypal Short Story” to my eleventh graders.  Their mission: To create a coherent short story out of five randomly drawn character and situational archetypes.  In theory, this should work, and every combination in my grandly named Jar of Fortune has already been told somewhere.  In practice, many of my students are struggling to put the pieces together.

Anyone overhearing us in the library during study hall would be party to some odd conversation:

T: My characters all have, you know, Norsic names.

Me: Nordic names?

T: Yeah, that’s what I meant.  Did you know that Dustin is Nordic?  And it’s like a normal name.

A: So… can I combine the Platonic Ideal and the Trickster?

Me: No, they don’t go together.  The Platonic Ideal is perfect.  She can’t be tricky.

A: How about the Damsel in Distress?

Me: She can be the Trickster.  You could either have an Ideal Damsel or a Tricky Hot Girl who’s in trouble.

A: Definitely the Tricky Hot Girl.

I’ve never taught archetypes before, and have only encountered them briefly, once or twice, in my own education.  Ironically, the most memorable and coherent lessons I ever received on the topic came in tenth grade, in a class that I didn’t really like.  Still, I’m having fun with them, learning alongside students to see the frameworks that hold our stories together and make us love them.  As always happens when I indulge in the pleasure of assigning fiction, I remember that at least part of everyone loves this, the giddy glee of creation.

With all of these stories in the air, fragments of characters and plot lines demanding my attention, I haven’t written 1,500 words daily.  I’ve returned to my original document a few times, planning for the future, and started my own archetypal story.  Mostly I’ve helped kids arrange the variables in order, sorting through the details of their own imaginations and shining light on shadowy turns of plot.  Someday I hope I’ll join in the fun,  twisting together my own 50,000 words for 30 days, but for this year I’m content, living and participating in the particolored worlds created by my students. I’m still swimming in words this November, even if they aren’t always my own.

Time and Space

“Ms. Dahlstrom… can you read my paper?”

-Everyone

English 11 has a paper due in an hour and a half.  Originally, I hadn’t intended that they would turn in their first literary essay at 10:00 PM on a Friday night.  It had been Tuesday morning, at the beginning of class.  Later, remembering that our department chair, like the Language Arts department at Ingraham, had asked us to filter all of our essays through the plagiarism-catching net of Turnitin.com, I changed the deadline to that evening, to give dorm students a maximum-length window of uneven computer use in which to submit their papers.

We didn’t finish The Crucible with as much time to spare as I’d expected, so the deadline was pushed back once again, this time to Friday.  Ten days ago, the students were grateful.  Tonight, perhaps they are less so.

At Ingraham, we often talked about the difficulty of teaching writing to high school students.  “Drafting days” meant walking in circles for 275 minutes, keeping mental track of the progress and composition of 150 students and their respective topics, paragraphs and thesis statements.  I frequently ended these days exhausted and discouraged, convinced that my two minutes of advice per student wouldn’t sink in, wouldn’t result in the writing reconstruction that many of my students so badly needed.

Often, I was right.  Because while it is possible to teach some things quite well in a classroom of 30 students, even 30 urban ninth graders, I’ve grown convinced that writing isn’t one of them.  Writing requires space, time and attention, resources sorely lacking in the crowded classrooms of underfunded public schools.

I’m learning to teach writing here.  My largest class at BFA has 18 students, and my smallest has ten.  These numbers are a gift, I know, rare and precious.  When I assigned this essay three weeks ago, I knew that I would have time to check in with them, to make sure that everyone had a thesis, outline and rough draft to prevent them from recklessly pasting a Wikipedia article into a plagiarism filter on Friday afternoon.  What I didn’t anticipate, couldn’t have imagined, was having time to actually read, reread, advise and edit so many of their essays beforehand.

With the exception of one day of typing in the library, none of this has happened in class.  Students have found me in their study hall, during lunch, before and after school.  They are eager and conscientious.  Grades motivate some of them; others desire to write well in preparation for college.  An intriguing few take the opportunity to delve into the human soul, analyzing characters from The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible as if they were real people, close friends.

It’s a humbling privilege to find myself in a place where I have the time and space to teach people to write.  This teaching isn’t easy; in many ways it is as exhausting as pacing the room full of ninth graders.  The patience required is a daily test of my trust in God, as I realize my own limitations, my tendency to be rushed or inhospitable.  I’m thankful for the space to keep learning, the time to teach and the students who care enough to keep showing up, asking me difficult questions, and pouring teenaged energy into these challenges.