To be a teacher and remain a student

to be a teacher but remain a student

C.S. Lewis wrote a great introduction to his Reflections on the Psalms that I used in the “Be An Amateur” section of my last book:

I write for the unlearned about things in which I am unlearned myself… It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than the master can… The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want him to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten… I write as one amateur to another, talking about difficulties I have met, or lights I have gained…

This is the way I’ve always tried to approach writing, teaching, or speaking on stage: not as an expert, but as a fellow student. I’m trying to learn in the open. I’m letting others look over my shoulder while I figure things out.

And even when I do think I’ve figured some things out, I’m trying to find more things to figure out, because learning is the thing that keeps me alive, keeps me moving forward.

This, I think, is the great trick: To be a teacher and remain a student.

Teaching blackout poetry at the Texas Teen Book Festival

photo by @elizzas.art on instagram

photo by @genzone on instagram blackout-reading

blackout-reading-2

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In some ways, I’m probably the worst person to teach blackout poetry. I’ve done it for so long, I don’t even really think about it any more.  Making art and teaching art are two different skill sets, and a quick Google search for “blackout poetry lesson plans” shows that there’s a small army of English teachers already doing it better than me, anyways.

That’s not to say I don’t like teaching, it’s just that I’m never sure I’m any good at it.

I’ve done some workshops with a lot of instruction and timed activities, but those always seem just a little bit off. So, this weekend at the Texas Teen Book Festival, I found myself in an auditorium full of teens, and the festival folks had already set out newspaper and markers in front of them, so I just thought, “You know what? Forget it. I’m going to give them as little instruction as possible, and we’ll just see what happens.”

I told the story of how I started blacking out,  showed a timelapse video of how I make one, read a few, then told them they should just go for it. I spoke for another 10 minutes, showed some more examples, then I asked if anybody wanted to read theirs.

This is always the moment where I kind of hold my breath and think, “Uh oh. This is gonna be bad if nobody reads.”

But these teens! They started lining up at the microphone. And they read their poems like it was nothing. And they were great. And they would’ve kept lining up and reading if we didn’t run out of time.

It’s easy for an old fart like me to get jaded about everything, especially my work. Doing that workshop was a jolt of energy. It reminded me of Patti Smith, quoted in the book Please Kill Me:

Through performance, I reach such states, in which my brain feels so open… if I can develop a communication with an audience, a bunch of people, when my brain is that big and receptive, imagine the energy and intelligence and all the things I can steal from them.

I stole a lot from everybody in that room. So thanks, y’all!

What your days look like

in any day there is some poetry

When my dad brought home girlfriends, my grandpa, rather obnoxiously, would quiz them from his arm chair. I’m told the first question was usually, “So, what’s your philosophy of life?” (I’m not sure what my mother answered.)

I was thinking of my grandpa last week when I was asked a similarly baffling and broad question during an interview: “What is your definition of success?”

I hemmed and hawed a bit, until I finally said, “I suppose success is your days looking the way you want them to look.”

Sounded okay, but after I said it, I wondered what the hell it meant.

“What do you want your days to look like?” is a question I ask myself whenever I’m trying to make a decision about what to do next. In fact, I believe that most questions about what to do with one’s life can be replaced by this question.

What career should I choose? Should I go back to school? Where should I live? Should I get married? Should I have kids? Should I get a dog? Should I take up the piano? 

“What do you want your days to look like?” forces you to imagine the day in, day out realities that making such choices will present you with.

Albert Camus once told a reporter, “One has to pass the time somehow.”  And how you pass the time, what your days look like, well, as Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Maybe success is just a matter of how the reality of the days match up to the ones in your imagination.

That’s not to say my ambitions these days are all that lofty. In 1851, Nathaniel Hawthorne, after spending the day with his five-year-old son, wrote in his journal, “We got rid of the day as well as we could.”

Whether that’s aiming too low or not, it sounds like success to me.

Sentencing

sentences will be the death of me

I hate writing. What I really love is reading. I tell people I became a professional writer so I could be a professional reader. (Adam Phillips: “I had never had any desire to be a writer. I wanted to be a reader.”)