On My Experience in Teaching and Writing
Most high schools have done a pretty good job of making people groan when the words “English” and “Class” are uttered in the same breath. How much time did we all spend in those classes? I understood what most students (the good and the not-so-good ones) were thinking and feeling when getting basically the same thing right out of the shoot in college. It was a real “you gotta be kidding me” moment. After all, hadn’t they suffered enough in high school?
But the beauty of teaching college English was that I was able to get into some of the interesting stuff about the language and the creative process that apparently no one had ever gotten to in high school. My class was a bit of an eye-opener for students and I had a heck of a lot of fun. I was neither a grammar Nazi nor a fine-toothed editor, though I could be both when appropriate.
I was far more attuned to the creative process…that thing that gets stomped out of most people by teachers. The creative process is what writes proposals and emails and resumes and copy for radio and letters of intent and advertisements for your business…everything, really. Without the ability to utilize your creativity, you sit there staring at a blank paper or computer monitor and become pissed off because you know you can’t do it. How do you know you can’t do it? In many, many cases it's because of crappy experiences with crappy grading systems.
Unfortunately, what we rarely if ever were graded on in school was the first draft: the horrible version of the eventual product. And it's the most important thing you will do when writing anything. Nobody seemed to tell us that. So much attention was given to what a paper looked like in the end that we began to believe that every word needed to come out “right” or we were just wasting our time. Then when at first we could not get it to look “right” (whatever that means), we would become frustrated, and BOOM! Suddenly what we were doing was writing something horrible and we would give up. That’s most people’s creative process.
A true creative process is just that: a process. A writer must process his or her thoughts and feelings, and it can be difficult. Perhaps I should write that it can't not be difficult. A process should not only be difficult, however. We process to learn. And we clarify the process in order to turn around and share what we've learned. At some point the process will be enlightening. That exchange, that communication was something I tried to emphasize to my students.
So what I did as a teacher was to say forget the finished product. That is secondary, if that, because if you have nothing to work with in the first place, you will end up with nothing. Your first ideas, dumb as they may be, are the most important part of creating anything. I would say jot them down – all of them. Map them, list them, web them, write them – use whatever technique from whatever textbook you want. It is all the same idea – get the good and the bad stuff on the page. Once a student got as much as he or she could onto the paper, we could make the rest happen in class together. But we needed something to work with in the first place.
I would say, “Write it on a napkin or a cereal box and turn that in.” For some reason, students loved that idea: the first draft could look like crap and still be worth something in my class. I really didn’t care what the draft looked like at first read, as long as it was something. The first draft, in any condition, was half the paper’s grade. That’s pretty good encouragement when you’ve already got 50/100 just for writing something…anything.
I actually was encouraging crap. It was often a very new concept. You can see why the so-called problem students did well in my class! Even a crappy writer can turn in crap. In fact, with most of my students, they felt that their specialty was, in fact, crap. In my class, we could work with crap. After all, we’ve all got to start somewhere. Starting with something awful meant only that we were starting, and that was at least half the battle. I was amazed how many people didn’t understand that concept prior to the class. It was like a life jacket for someone who was drowning in a perception of his or her own awful writing ability. Half your grade was based on doing something awful. Talk about good news for someone used to barely getting Ds in writing. Heck, it was good news for someone who was used to getting As.
Then, of course, the bad news would come, but in a slightly new light. Quite simply, each paper would have a version of this written on it: “Here’s how many more points you would get if you called this your final draft and here’s what to do to get more points” – or – “Here is where the draft you just turned in falls on the continuum between the 50 points you have now and the 100 points that will get you an A+.” A paper could, for example, score about 60/100 if turned in again as it was and someone could walk away with a D on the paper.
That was a pretty normal occurrence, a rough draft equaling 60/100 points were it turned in as a final draft. Once in a while someone would take me up on the 60/100 on their paper, but usually students would look at my comments and say, “This is all I need to do to get an A!?!” Once you have something to work with, the editing is so much more achievable. Sometimes the editing is hard and sometimes it is easy, but if you do it in steps, a little at a time, it really isn’t the perplexity that we've been led to believe. It’s just like any other process. You do it until you are satisfied and until you think your audience is going to understand it. I was just there to help at that point.
Everything needed to be modeled several ways several times and I did that for them, writing along with them during my own exercises. They needed to see it as many ways and times as it took to get comfortable with the process, and they needed to see it from me as well as their peers. Trying and trying again was integral to the class. Once students saw and began to try the creative and the editing processes, the whole thing turned into small steps that were tolerable and knowable.
There was no limit on drafts. If someone turned in draft #2 and was satisfied with 70/100, so be it. If someone turned in draft #8 and still wasn’t satisfied with 98/100, a draft #9 was fine with me. Complete control of their own destiny with lots of help or no help if someone didn’t want it – everything was up to the student. I set the standard and they could take it or leave it knowing they had the control and the help. That is communication. That’s how you keep people interested and learning even though they initially don’t want to be there. The quality is not compromised and neither is the students’ integrity.
I loved seeing people who were adamantly against writing turn completely around and try. I marveled at my students as they did. The excitement was electric and I went home charged up more times than not. Now I encourage everyone to try writing: blogs, travelogues, emails to relatives, whatever. Find someone who inspires your writing – an author, a teacher, a blog show host – and soak it in. Then turn around and try it. For me, it has been an incredibly rewarding pastime: my way to sort through all kinds of bullshit I am hanging onto, to get it out of the way, and to live again.
We all need something that helps us process our life, and writing can be it. I still have students who get in touch and let me know they are still writing…without groaning! Whether I was the one who opened eyes or not isn't really important. The importance was in their trying. After having tried, the process and the result can be quite enlightening and exciting; in my case, extremely liberating. After all, as I used to tell my students, each of us has suffered enough.
I found a beautiful secret hidden inside hell and heartache.
I know what it’s like to be hated. I know the fear of being in the way of a menace, of being aware that my time is almost up. It’s an impending feeling; a close-hanging, rancid, dripping terror. That precious thing, a child, can be held angrily and purposefully in front of you while the courts and psychologists tie your hands as if you will only make things worse. The urge to fight and the instinct to salvage what is still good becomes your trap. You take the form of your worst self, manipulated and puppeted until you feel wrongly placed in your skin. You move because someone else moves you and are condemned because of your movements – set up and castrated.
I thought I knew what I was getting myself into when I asked my girlfriend to marry me. She was scared and pregnant. She was also mentally ill. Functional, but warped. I was young and inexperienced and easily became her patsy. I was far from perfect, but now can say I did the best I could in the face of extreme duress.
Most importantly, I learned a secret and I am about to share it with the world.
Tasty Summer Reads Blog Hop
Brenda Perlin tagged me to be a part of the Tasty Summer Reads Blog Hop. To participate I am to post the answers to some "tasty" questions, an excerpt from my book, and a recipe.
Here is the blog hop general blurb:
Welcome to the Tasty Summer Reads Blog Hop! Each participant invites a number of others to answer five questions about a recent or forthcoming release, and a recipe that fits with it. Links to the participants I have invited may be found in a while, just above the excerpt and recipe. Their contributions should be in place soon after this, so check out their blogs over the next few days.
1. When writing, are you a snacker? If so, sweet or salty?
I write amidst chaos: four boys, three cats, a dog, and anything else that sneaks into our house (frogs, lizards, snakes, leaches, worms, crickets – goodness knows what they’ll bring home next!). So when I write, it happens so quickly, I don’t have time to eat! I write between the bathtub flooding and the garage door getting stuck. I barely have time to snack while I’m mopping! That said, coffee is the one important “food” and I do love dark chocolate (70%).
2. Are you an outliner or someone who writes by the seat of their pants? And are they real pants or jammies?
I write autobiographically, so I know what I am going to write already…to a point. Then I just see the story as rungs on a ladder or stones across a creek. I know which stones or rungs are important plot points and my job is simply to build the excitement until I get to the next one. Then I just hurry, hurry, hurry to the next one so I don’t get caught in the middle of a thought and fall. I suppose I should say I write in my boxers, but that's only what's underneath my pants.
3. When cooking, do you follow a recipe or do you wing it?
My cooking has been reduced to grilling as of late because my wife can kick my butt up, down, and sideways in the kitchen. However, I still help brainstorm recipes and we basically take a basic theme and add to it, as you will see. I do stick to one key ingredient while grilling, by the way, and that’s beer. I even put it in the food sometimes.
4. What is next for you after this book?
I ended up self-publishing 2/3 of my series last year before getting an offer from a publisher. So I pulled the book, followed their revision suggestions, and then they kind of left me hanging. So I pitched my book to Master Koda and…we’ll see. If they don’t want it, I’ll self-publish again this fall with my souped-up version of the first book. Then I plan to record a CD with the music I wrote while going through all I talk about in the book. I plan to steal the band from a guy I know who has recently made quite a splash in the music scene, so it should be a lot of fun and sound really, really good. That CD will act as a soundtrack for the recorded version of the book. That’s what’s next.
5. Last question…on a level of one being slightly naughty and ten being whoo hoo steamy, how would you rate your book?
I’ve been criticized for being too naughty in my book. Let’s face it, none of us is perfect and I happen to tell about the imperfect things I’ve done. Some of them are controversial. I guess that’s the nature of being imperfect…people will criticize you. So I’ve taken it on the chin a little in the naughty department. As far as steamy, most of the steamy stuff is left to the imagination in the first installment. Things heat up in the next book.
Now, who should I invite to carry on this blog hop? I’ll choose a couple of poets who have books coming out soon to get a little variety into the mix: Cynthia Atkins and Sunny Moony Rose. Let’s see if they’re game!
It was quite simple to sit in the passenger seat and admire her as she drove the streets and freeways she knew so well in the San Diego traffic. Her cute little up-turned nose, beautiful, full lips, and gorgeous eyes that I knew sparkled under her sunglasses – this was the pretty face I knew, but was now quite real and flawed as well. I loved it even more than I had looking at it in pictures. She was perfect for me just the way she was. It was the face I had dreamed of. Every girl I looked at, even Kim, wasn’t quite right until I looked at Jan. She was just plain right. I don’t know how I knew, but I did. It was a very calming, comforting feeling looking at her face in the evening sunlight.
We stopped for dinner at a bar and ate – what else – Mexican food. This wasn’t the taco meal of Minnesota Lutheran Churches or those from the $1 taco bar my buddy Roland and I played Jazz next to at a Downtown Minneapolis health club. Those tacos were Minnesota tacos. You know the kind of tacos I’m talking about: pre-fab taco shells from the grocery store, unseasoned, ground hamburger, shredded strands of iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes, cold, shredded Velveeta cheese, and Old El Paso Salsa on top. I had no idea how Mexicans could eat that shit until I ate real Mexican food. Then I realized that I had simply missed out my entire life because I had been eating Norwegian tacos. That completely explained the blandness!
The tacos we had were savory. I inhaled them. They were incredible. The tortillas themselves were savory. Inside, the crunchy veggies, beans, meat, and seasonings – it was unbelievable food. With a few margaritas and with Jan and her friends laughing and joking around, I was having a great time. There was nothing uncomfortable about any of it. It was all perfect, especially Jan. She was my girl, right there next to me, and I just soaked up her smile and her laugh.
I told her how I had been missing out my whole life because I had been eating shitty tacos, and she said she actually preferred her own tacos to the ones we were eating. I couldn’t believe anyone could make better tacos than that at home. How was such a thing accomplished? I couldn’t fathom how someone could possibly make the breathtaking concoction I had just consumed in her own house – and make it better! I was blown away. She had to be bullshitting me. There was no way.
It was a beautiful night. We moved outside and had a few Dos Equis while the sun went down. Then Jan and I excused ourselves so I could get situated in my hotel room for the night. So far I was not a killer and she was not an imposter who now had turned out to be a complete bitch-blob. She was just a regular, quirky, funny, happy, gorgeous chick. Not so bad. What was the down side, I wondered?
I suppose you may have guessed that I was about to find out.
And the Recipe:
I love all things breakfast, and I mention a breakfast scramble in my story, but that was before I met Jan. Since then, Jan and I have made variations on the theme, and here is a favorite of ours.
Serves a family of six
12 fresh corn tortillas
one dozen cage free eggs
10 oz. chorizo
one large tomato
one cup diced red onion
one cup diced red peppers
two minced cloves of garlic
8 oz. chopped mushroom caps
2 Sliced Avocados
8 oz. pepper jack cheese
1. Prep Vegetables, Cheese, and Eggs: finely chop chorizo, tomato, onion, red pepper, garlic, mushroom caps, cilantro and slice avocado. Grate cheese. Whisk eggs in bowl.
2. Sauté and Scramble:
In a non-stick frying pan, add two spoonfuls olive oil and sauté the chorizo, onions, garlic, and peppers. Add mushrooms just before eggs. Add the dozen whisked eggs and scramble in with sauté. Add tomatoes at end to warm them.
Sprinkle cheese on top. Garnish with avocado and cilantro. Serve with warm corn tortillas and hot sauce. Salt and pepper to taste.
And for the one kid who doesn’t eat anything, serve one tall glass of chocolate milk.
John Emil Augustine “Book 1” coming this fall. Keep up to date with all the latest for cover reveal, release date, blog tour, giveaways and more!
A funny thing happened to me in 2012. I died.
Between 2000 and 2012 I was the victim of domestic abuse. As a man, it was not something I would admit, even to myself, because I was taught that guys should be tough and in control. My family told me so, especially during all I was going through. The expectation was that I should be able to handle myself and my family. After all, I was a man. I was supposed to be strong and independent, not weak and needy.
I was an embarrassment. I was figuratively bent over and fucked again and again because I believed my being subservient to my wife was the only way I could continue to see my son. That’s a hard sentence to write and a hard thing to admit. However, I can write this today because I was able to let go of the guy who couldn’t talk about these problems. I was able to stop blaming myself for a situation over which I had no control. The old me was embarrassed and hidden. That guy died when I began to be able to talk about this stuff.
But did I really die?
In my high school yearbook, all the seniors had a chance to put a quote under their senior picture. You know, inspiring things like, “Blab bla bla for tomorrow.” But I couldn’t help writing what I thought was the funniest quote possible: “1975-2012” which appeared right under my name. Strangely, during 2012, I started to become a little worried that I had inadvertently predicted my own death. I have come to realize that in a very real way, I actually had.
The fearful me, the guy who was scared to talk about his feelings, ceased to be in 2012 and John Emil Augustine, the pseudonym I took on, began to untangle the events that first lead to my life of hiding from myself. When I wrote, it helped me and it helped others. I have been rewarded since then by people who have fallen in love with my story and who have understood it and even learned about themselves and their own journeys by reading it. THAT is what we are doing here on this planet, sharing in each other’s failures and triumphs, and I believe I have a role to play now that I am again alive and brave enough to share my own saga of abuse and hope.
Whether I literally or figuratively died thus became immaterial. The result of my admitting my vulnerability was like a death; so like a death, in fact, that the part of me that was too macho to admit what happened will never walk this earth again. That guy is literally dead and only exists as a memory.
There are many guys out there in a similar situation to mine. I meet them all the time during my day job. Guys talk about these things just like women do, but it takes the right circumstance to bring most guys to even broach the subject of their own abuse, much less recognize and deal with their feelings about it. Most guys will not readily step up and talk about the feelings that I delve into with my books unless another guy starts the discussion. Nonetheless, guys need to do this as much as women. That said, I have found that women also appreciate my story and have expressed surprise at hearing about abuse from a man’s perspective. My story suggests to both men and women that those of us who were or who are being abused are in the “same boat.” The more feedback I get, the more I can see the story is helpful…to both men and women.
This fall I will reinvent my story, which first came out a year ago, in a way that is accessible and understandable to all readers. And, for me, that includes the music I wrote during this very terrible time in my life. I hope the music as well as the story reaches those who are in a similar situation as well as those who want to be there for those in a similar situation.
To put what I am writing in perspective, my story and I are not what is important. The hope as the result of having survived abuse is what is important, and it is a hope that we all need. My message is a well-traveled, universal message, and it is that there is a way out through help, hope, love, and mercy. These things will come to you when you look for them, and can be provided by you when you are looked to for them. Watch for these moments. This is why we are here on the planet and I am just one bearer of this message.
Love and Mercy