Head’s Up: The Headmistress as Writer

July 7, 2022 § 13 Comments

By Ann Klotz

I had not thought much about being a writer when, 18 years ago, I became the head of a girls’ school. I’d been a life-long English and drama teacher and a college guidance counselor, but in those days, I did not write much for myself. Certainly, I knew how to evoke a Senior with a deft anecdote and strong verbs, and I kept a journal, but I identified more as a teacher than a writer. My students and I wrote together—big epic sagas about pioneer women and the French Revolution; I loved that generative, collaborative process. They’d improv a scene, and the student stage manager and I would scribble notes feverishly—long before iPads or cell phones could have easily captured every word. At home, in front of my enormous desktop computer in the cramped study of our tiny NYC apartment, I would puzzle over my handwriting, trying to decode my scrawl, editing scenes as I transcribed them, adding more conflict to one dialogue and more lyricism to a monologue. But even making those plays did not persuade me that I was a real writer.

In 2004, lugging two tween daughters, an elderly cat, a rescue shih tzu, far too many books, a hermit crab—a real one, not a carefully crafted essay—and a newborn son, my husband and I headed West for me to become the headmistress of Laurel School, a wonderful girls’ school in leafy Shaker Heights, OH.

“Someone will write all your letters and speeches,” my assistant explained in those bleary first days.

“No, they won’t,” I snapped. “If my name appears on something, I’ll write it.” There it was. I was a writer. True to my word, stubborn and sleep deprived, I wrote anything that carried my name. Why would I cede my voice to a stranger? I was the brand-new head of the school; my language had to be my own. There was so much I did not know about running a school, but I knew how to put a sentence together. This was one part of the job for which I felt qualified.

A head of school writes a lot:  inspirational remarks to start the year and more to end the year, talks to trustees and to alumnae; the “You’ve been naughty; don’t do it again, and we all grow from our mistakes” homilies for various groups of girls; talks for Admissions events; citations to accompany awards. I always write the talks first. Even if I extemporize during delivery. I need to understand the architecture, the flow, the moments to emphasize, which stories I might choose to amplify a point.

What else do I write? Letters to family about joyous events or, more recently, tragic ones, letters to neighbors about parking or special events or construction. Each Friday, I send weekly updates to the faculty and staff. I author grant proposals, strategic plans, thank you notes, sympathy notes, monthly reports to the Board, articles for the alumnae magazine—mine is overdue as I write—mid-semester comments for the 9th graders in my English class. And recently, I’ve written several eulogies for beloved alumnae.

As an English teacher, I read the analytical essays and creative pieces I am teaching my students to write, adding commas, and offering endnotes in purple ink. I proofread, too, editing the sometimes tricky letters division directors need to send about a child or an adult who needs to improve. I model for my leadership team that we all do better with another set of eyes on a document in progress.  My husband, tech-theatre wizard and fixer of broken items, has taught me the carpenter’s adage: Measure twice, cut once. It’s always easier to fix a communication before we hit SEND. I often proofread aloud, trying to imagine how the tone of a letter might land. Schoolteachers know about education, but not every parent understands our shorthand, the lingo of schools. We need to be tactful and direct, kind but explicit.

I write and write. Along the way, I began to think of myself as a writer. Now, I compose at the keyboard and on sheets of paper in pretty notebooks and on my phone when stopped at traffic lights. I am not good at dictating. My brain works better when my fingers move, tapping the keys or forming the letters with my Lamy fountain pen.

Only recently, in the tsunami of correspondence that a global pandemic required did I join forces with Julie, our brilliant Director of Communications.  In those early days, we needed to send almost daily updates to families, and I realized that Julie, a close observer of style, could put letters into draft for me. I could always “Ann-ify” them, but I didn’t have to start from scratch every time. The state and county changed their guidelines continuously; keeping up with it all was overwhelming, and the volume of letters about changing protocols and how we would keep school open or pivot to online learning would have sunk me. Besides, I still had all the other regular writing to do!

During these strange times, collaborating with a co-author has been comforting. Julie and I often find ourselves on a document at the same time, late at night, Julie’s little green cursor moving a few lines above my purple ones. Google docs have made tag-teaming much easier! Sometimes, we phone each other, and discuss the points we are trying to make, mull over word choice, reorganize a paragraph.  Even with the tough stuff, it’s easier to have a friend. Julie knows my voice, understands the way I want to phrase ideas. I’ve learned that I do not have to do everything alone—my words are stronger when a loving editor, whose opinions I trust and respect, takes a metaphorical red pen to some of my choices!

We’ve made a pact: when Julie and I retire from schools, we’re going to be one of those murder-mystery writing duos, setting our crimes in girls’ schools! Wherever we are, we know, we can write together, seamlessly.  Until then, I write most of my own stuff, and I’ve ceded what I hope will be the last of the pandemic letters wholly to Julie.
Ann V. Klotz is a writer, whose work has appeared in the Brevity Blog, Literary Mama, Multiplicity, and other journals. By day, she oversees the lives and learning of about 540 girls and very small boys at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, OH. Find her work at www.annvklotz.com or @AnnKlotz

Writing Personal Essays Together

November 15, 2019 § 7 Comments

x ellen scolnic (left) and joyce eisenbergBy Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic

We’ve been writing personal essays – together – for 10 years. Yes, this is an oxymoron. Personal means unique, individual, one’s own, yet we often find ourselves writing about “our children” or “the time we burned our dinner.”

How do we present our joint point of view without the reader assuming we’re polygamists with five children between us? While we don’t share husbands, we’ve shared paychecks, bylines, and the microphone at our speaking engagements ever since we wrote the Dictionary of Jewish Words in 2001. We write, blog, tweet and post as one – but we really are two people.

We are partners but that not kind. We’re married to different men, but they both thought we were talking about him when we wrote that “our husband” wanted to leave the wedding before dessert. Likewise, when we described our husband as the nicest man in the world, they both said, “Thanks, sweetie.”

When we write together, we meld our point of view for the sake of the essay. So as not to embarrass a particular child, we disguise their identity. We use pronouns instead of names, add up all their ages, grade point averages and incomes, and divide by five. Still, the kids recognize themselves and accuse us of exaggerating:

“Everyone gets detention; it’s not big deal.”

“They gave archery ribbons to everyone. You don’t have to brag about it.”

We don’t want to be outed by Oprah for faking our autobiography, so we’ve never totally invented a child. Our own give us plenty of material. But we have created an imaginary uncle for a holiday column about rude dinner guests.

Like a personal trainer, a writing partner provides motivation. On our own, we wouldn’t make time to write, just like we wouldn’t make time to lift weights. Together, we commit to writing once a week. We sit in front of one computer. Joyce types; Ellen talks.

As the date approaches, the wheels start turning. We scan the news, look at the calendar, and examine what’s going on in our lives for inspiration. We’ve written about our children’s interests in “Different Paths to Diplomas,” favorite foods in “The Great Knaidel Konundrum,” and the rush to purchase presents for the winter holidays in “Calendar Confusion.”

Sometimes our inspiration is mundane. Joyce reached for a coffee mug and realized that her mug collection was snapshot of her life – the Mother’s Day cup with the faded photo of her toddlers, the college logo mug. When Ellen confirmed she was sentimental about her mug collection, too – the souvenir mug from the trip to Chicago, the one her son made at Paint-a-Pot – we knew we had enough material for a column.

Our writing skills are complementary. Ellen is imaginative; she’s known to exaggerate to get a bigger laugh. Joyce is an editor by background; she likes to Google everything and find out the facts. “Ellen, you are making that up. Those gourmet chocolates didn’t cost $39.99. We need to look it up.”

We are a writer’s workshop of two. While we write together, we check in: “Do you think that’s funny?” “Is that the best word?” After years of working together, we don’t hold back our opinions. We don’t feel compelled to give positive feedback before we say, “That needs some work.” We’d don’t get our feelings hurt when one of us points out, “That sentence doesn’t make any sense.”

In the time that we’ve been writing together, our children have gone from kindergarten to college, our phones have gone from our kitchen counters to our pockets, and our hair needs a touch-up every few weeks now. Together we’ve written 119 blog posts, dozens of published op-ed essays, 751 tweets, 1,400 definitions of Jewish words, and spent hours and hours together driving to book talks. But we still look forward to writing together. We long ago got rid of our personal trainers because we thought we could exercise on our own — but we know better when it comes to writing.

Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic are the authors of the Dictionary of Jewish Words, and The Whole Spiel: Funny essays about digital nudniks, seder selies and chicken soup memories. Find their books on Amazon and visit TheWordMavens.com. Follow them on Twitter @TheWordMavens


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