‘Tis the Season to Write: A Teacher’s Tale
December 13, 2017 § 7 Comments
By Shawna Kenney
After my first book was published, I visited a writing class as an invited author. Following my visit, the professor asked why I wasn’t an instructor myself. His question sparked my imagination. I was a cubicle jockey in a mind-numbing corporate job by day, a freelance writer in the wee hours, and a touring author on weekends and holidays. Teaching seemed like it would be a better fit for my writing life.
Plus, get paid to talk about stories all day? Yes, please.
I went and earned my MFA in a program with pedagogy classes and a 3-year TA-ship. I took my piece of paper and taught American Literature to Marines at Camp Lejeune, photojournalism to teenagers in a juvenile detention center, English composition to immigrant students in community colleges, developmental writing to women in a Catholic college. As an adjunct, sometimes I taught six classes at three different schools at a time, which left little time or energy for writing. Some of my colleagues taught even more. I was lucky to publish two pieces per year with that schedule. Finally I landed the classes of my dreams—memoir and personal essay, which I’ve taught online and in person now for 10 years, rarely more than one or two at a time, leaving much room for writing productivity. Between semesters I am most active, sending pitches, revising essays, and finishing books. I come back to classes armed with stories from the front—samples of editorial rounds for them to see, links to new work, and shares of disappointing rejection.
Semesters have given rhythm to my writing life. Between reading early drafts of other people’s stories, I scratch down ideas for my own to be pursued over the summer or on holiday break. They simmer in my journal and my brain until the metaphorical school bell rings. Then when the last grade is entered, I clean off my desk, file the handouts away, reorganize my books, bust out a good tea, and sit down to write. By then the words are retching up out of my gut like a looming flu virus, eager to infest the page. Of course sometimes there are also fits and starts, the proverbial “shitty first drafts,” and there’s some searching around in the dark for what it was I wanted to say, exactly. When I get stuck, I take on an editing project or take a walk. Remembering that this is my window for self-care, I get myself to yoga three times a week, schedule a massage, make more time for friends. Sometimes I brush up by taking a writing class (last summer it was sketch comedy). Inevitably, I do get words down on the page, partly because there is a syllabus in the distance calling my name.
Yogi Bhajan says, “If you want to learn about something, read it. If you want to understand something, do it. If you want to master something, teach it.” I don’t know that I have mastered anything, but between semesters, I am indeed protecting my inner life, as Lan Samantha Chang advises in her Lit Hub essay. I am teaching myself that this ebb and flow of giving and receiving words works for me.
Shawna Kenney is the author of I Was a Teenage Dominatrix, editor of the anthology Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers and co-author of Live at the Safari Club: A History of Punk in the Nation’s Capital. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, Playboy, Ms., and Creative Nonfiction, among others.