Still sifting through the rubble left over from the semester, and I’ve wound up with a list of things to do about as long as my very-long forearm. Last summer/fall was entirely preoccupied by a single task, drafting the novel, so this year I find I’m rather out of practice in living life a little more organically.
Most years I feel a little bereft the week after school wraps up for the term. A highly-structured, high-accountability life with dozens of human connections lurches into the blank expanse of summer, which is no less work-intensive but much more discretionary and features far fewer players in the ensmble. It’s of course one of the auld ironies that plenty of folks assume teachers begin the annual ritual of gallivanting about when summer comes around, but at best I’ve got a soupcon of gallivanting tentatively penciled in for about two weeks this year. Among the topmost items on my to-do list, however, are investigating new books to teach in 2022-23, fleshing out a new class to pitch to the university’s newly-launched Center for Learning through Games and Simulations, redesigning some peer review structures for composition classes, etc. It’s quite a lot to do, and it’s best to do it while the spring experience remains fresh in my memory. And when it’s all done I get dessert: the chance to chip away at some new fiction and poetry projects, all the while chipping away at the revision of the novel.
Though I’m not a fan of thought-terminating cliches, I often have to remind myself that the work is the work. There are parts of it that are enormously rewarding, but the lion’s share of it aligns with my desire to put food on the proverbial table. I might well get the university equivalent of a merit raise this year, but when I look back on the documents I compiled to apply for that raise I come away with a vivid sense of the structure behind the structure, the grindy, hustly, churny bits of buiness that make the pleasures I sometimes get to indulge in possible. I have four years’ worth of documents foldered on my computer desktop, and another new folder awaits all the materials I’ll need to compile for 2026-27. The trick generally involves making the daily grind look and feel organic, like a natural, intuitive process rather than a systematic, rule-bound march toward that distant destination. Sometimes, however, the bones lay bared before me.
Every profession has it or something like it, of course–that under-structure of work that seems blandly mechanical at one level but becomes artful in practice. In teaching it most often occurs as a rhythm, a musical balance between classroom instruction, fielding questions, and getting and returning work, all while being responsive to the improvisations of students and administrators as we go. It’s true of every profession, however. My partner had a bit of dental work done on Wednesday, for instance, so I went to grab her the dinner she wanted from our local mashed-potatoes dispensary. And while I waited in line I could see a cashier utterly in the zone (whipping through customers at an impressive rate, keeping the lines of communication between the counter and the kitchen humming) coupled with a prep cook who was merrily pulling and packaging orders with dazzling automatic efficiency.
The snag in the system, however, was a middle manager (at first blush it looked like he had just started his shift) who was utterly out of sync with everyone else, working on a different set of imperatives that had a bit of footing in the dinner rush but was probably looking forward to all the tasks he needed to tackle by closing. It’s the sort of thing that gives one pause whenever a pundit speaks of unskilled labor. There are yawning chasms between knowing the work one is meant to do and doing that work efficiently and artfully. We can see it in its boldest, plainest strokes–the bench-riding second-stringer standing in for the masterful athlete, for instance–but generally forget that most steps in our daily experience hinge on someone who has worked long enough and hard enough that all the tricks of their trade become instinctive and invisible.
I’m thinking about that a lot when it comes to fiction today, the ways in which technique, when artfully accomplished, vanishes into the flow of a story–and the ways in which accomplished writers can venture past established techniques, can improvise and innovate to tell stories in unexpected ways.
Speaking of stories, while you’re here why don’t you swing by The Big Purple Wall, where my short story, “Clicker,” is freely available and currently in contention in a lively virtual scrum. If the spirits move you, you can vote every day, but I hope you enjoy the story any which way!