March 2010 Update
Well here I am. Officially on Spring Break. It may seem odd to hear me say how badly I needed this break, what, with my February update coming from Honolulu. But I did. I really needed it. Hawaii was great, even if a bit stressful (see Tsunami warning). I love my jobs, so my work often doesn’t feel like work. But this semester the quantity has been both a good fortune and overwhelming. I took on extra work because of the uncertain times and the furloughs at SFSU. One of the extra jobs is teaching 5 creative writing classes to “at-risk” grade and middle schoolers.
It has not been easy. Luckily I don’t like easy. But this challenge went beyond. With what very much seemed like a complete lack of results in most of the classes, I wondered if there was any purpose in what I do at all. I nearly gave up, and now I’m so glad I stuck it out. Just three weeks ago the residency took a turn. After listening to suggestions from both the site teachers and my colleagues at Performing Arts Workshop, I rethought my approach. More than anything, I got over myself. Stopped being so attached to the outcome. Relaxed a bit and concentrated more on establishing relationships than imparting craft tools. (At one point I started laughing, realizing I was trying to get forth graders to write their autobiographies).
Suddenly students are happy to see me. (A couple of my students and two of my colleagues can be seen in this great video) Notebooks are out when I arrive at the classes. And kids who usually don’t speak or participate are suddenly opening up, writing stories.
It makes sense. One hour per week in the classroom isn’t very much time to established trust with anyone, never mind kids who have good reason not to trust many adults. I’m so glad I didn’t resign. Now Wednesdays are my favorite day of the week.
The thing I’ve learned this year about being a University teacher with furloughs is you’re still responsible to impart the same amount of information to the students. I scheduled my Hawaii getaway on a furlough week, which resulted in one less class but twice the reading and writing (and therefore preparation). In fact, I logged at least 20 hours of work in those four days. It turned out to be a strange kind of blessing for me to be trapped in the hotel the day of the tsunami warning. I was able to knock out eight hours of work after calling my mom and telling her I love her and if I get wiped out to tell everyone I died happy. In a penthouse. In a fancy hotel. In Hawaii.
When I lived, I was so grateful to have done so much work because I came back to full-throttle teaching and a flurry of events.
In the late 90s, I began volunteering at Glide, starting off with stuffing envelopes in their office and manning the phones in the volunteer center. Then, a couple years later, I got to work with on one the big fundraisers. I asked Cecil Williams how he and Janice Mirikitani kept people coming back for 30 years. He said, “Matthew, it’s important to leave people wanting more, not less.”
I’ve never forgotten that he said that to me, although at different moments of my teaching career you might think I had. Lately I’ve been really trying to live it. Not only with the kids, but at the adult literary events I’m a part of organizing. The 8th 8-week session of The Douglass Street Lab just had its final reading. We decided host a small benefit for ATA in exchange for their space.
It was FUN! Each writer (there were nine) agreed to read for five minutes or less. I introduced the evening as a collection of snapshots into the works-in-progress of the participants. It took the pressure off of the readers to do all of that awful contextualizing.
The Lab attracts people interested in words who’re at every level—published writers, journalists, those with BAs and MFAs in writing—along with people who sign up for it as their first-ever creative writing class. One audience member left saying the material was so good he had no idea who was new.
I certainly had a blast. There’s something to be said about taking creative writing outside of the normal MFA academic setting (a setting, by the way, that I most-often love). Since, at The Lab, we don’t talk about our publications or where we went to “undergrad,” it lets people be. Instead of getting caught up in the nomenclature of the “fiction workshop,” we talk like regular people, trading in jargon for clear and direct feedback on what scenes are working to pull us into the world of the story or memoir, and why.
More celebratory-feeling reading series are popping up everywhere. Mary Gaitskill was phenomenal as the headliner for a recent Writers With Drinks.The Rumpus events have been great, complete with musicians and comics. A young writer named Chelsea Martin read at the November Rumpus and I still haven’t stopped thinking of her work. Michael Mullen of The Size Queens almost brought the house down that night, and I heard his set was even better in January when I was in New York.
And then there’s Fourteen Hills. The editors and staff work their butts off to put on events for which people want to show up. They just had a very successful panel discussion/fundraiser celebrating the second printing of New Standards, an anthology of fiction collected from the magazine over the years. Check out the pictures. It was PACKED!
My favorite Fourteen Hills parties are the new-issue release parties, which have been held at The San Francisco Motorcycle Club. They prove (drawing over 150 word-nerds) that great food, good drinks, a fun raffle, a DJ and a dance floor (the last 14H party is where I first heard the mash-up of AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” and The Black Eyed Peas “My Humps,” which has invigorated my gym workout) can very much coincide with a quality literary reading.
Maybe now that I’m getting older I guess I want to have more fun, not less. I attended a reading last month where the participants were asked questions by the audience and some of the answers seemed so precious, so rarefied, bottled, and self-important it was practically unbearable. The writers didn’t even seem to be listening to what the audience was asking, but listening for a pause just so they could talk about themselves or how important it is “what we do.” They spoke as if there’s something inherently superior in being a writer or an artist.
Luckily the writers who struck me that way were balanced by those who just seemed passionate and nerdy about how great it is that these twenty-six letters can end up, somehow, turning into great stories. It was a good thing I was sitting toward the back and didn’t have a cyanide pill handy. If I had, I wouldn’t be writing this update.
Speaking of fun literary events, I’ll be reading tomorrow night at BaBL with three former Labbers! Brad Straw (who is organzing the event), the incredibly talented Jennifer Hasegawa (founder of The Barbie Cage and its accompanying haiku contest), John Yi (founder of Dublit); also reading is first-timer Scott Barney.
When: Thursday, April 1st
Where: H Café, 3801 17th Street, San Francisco
What time: 6:30-7:30
How much: FREE
Fourteen Hills has two upcoming events, the aforementioned release party for issue 16.2 on May 21st (mark your calendar, and stay tuned on Fourteen Hill’s Facebook Page), and Second Annual Gina Berriault Award: Featuring Adam Johnson at The Poetry Center in the Humanities Building at SFSU.
When: Thursday, April 15th, 2010
Where: The Poetry Center, Humanties Building, 5th Floor, SFSU
What time: 7-9pm
How much: FREE
RSVP on Facebook
At the last “Douglass Reads” a couple of people asked if they could sign up now for the next session of The Lab, which is scheduled to start September 14th, 2010. Yes! A 100 dollar deposit toward the cost of The Lab can hold your seat. Should I need to cancel or change the dates in a way that will not work for you, your deposit is refundable. Otherwise, you can apply it to your tuition for The Lab. I'll respond to your deposit with an online sign up sheet/contract.
Thanks for reading my update, and see you in April!
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