This is what I’ve become.

This is what I’ve become.

Teaching Writing

It’s been four months since I started my new job, and the things I most feared have happened.

  • I’ve stopped blogging here.
  • I haven’t been working on my novel as much as I’d like.
  • I care about stuff that I never cared about before–like bulletin boards and registration time tickets and how class rooms are assigned and posters and scheduling grids.

I’m not surprised. Administrating changes you. Entire realms which have been hidden from view suddenly appear, and all you can really say is, “Holy shit.”

This quote from an Inside Higher Education essay by Chuck Ryback is on the money. Read the whole thing here.

Looking back to when I was first hired on the tenure track, I really didn’t know anything about how the systems I was working in were structured. Literally, it has taken me 10 years to even achieve a competent grasp. Why? If a maze built by Daedalus is complicated, imagine a maze built by an army of Daedaluses. Campus and system governance in public universities is deeply complicated and entangled, and this is largely because it’s supposed to be difficult to understand (but that’s a whole different post).

My job as Whack-a-Mole

When people ask me what I do all day as Assistant Chair of Operations, I tell them it’s like this:

You walk in the door and the moles start popping up—in my office door and in my inbox—and I take my mallet and whack whack whack as fast as I can.

Perhaps this makes it sound bad. Like I’m mad. Like I resent the moles from popping up. Like I’m trying to hurt them.

Au contraire.

The “whacking” isn’t hurting, it’s helping, solving, progressing.

For twenty years, I’ve written words that took months if not years to be published, taught students that I (mostly) never heard from again. So there’s something deeply rewarding about walking out of the office at the end of the day knowing that I actually finished something. Even if it was answering/archiving/deleting 50 emails and signing five forms.

My job at the candy conveyer belt

I like coming home and having dinner with my husband and maybe writing a little in the evening or reading or watching a movie, like a normal fucking human being who is almost 50 years old, not a graduate student. Like my doctor. Like my lawyer. Like pretty much every professional person I know.

Except for teachers.

We don’t expect our doctors to help us and answer our questions when they aren’t in their office. Why do we expect college professors and teachers to do this? I don’t know. But it drives me crazy.

I never worked this hard when I was in my 20’s and 30’s. This is a new development. It’s Lucy Ricardo’s candy conveyer belt and the chocolate is coming faster and faster and faster. Because there are real chocolates and virtual chocolates coming in via email.

One reason why I took this new job, I think, is that I’m no longer Lucy at the conveyor belt anymore. I’m her supervisor. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but for me, it was a necessary thing.

My job as a state bureaucrat.

Last night I went to a play with my cousin, who is a freshman at Ball State. She introduced me to a friend and I said I was the Assistant Chair of the English Department, let me know if you need anything, etc.

Later, I saw a dean walk down the aisle and pointed him out. “That’s the dean of your college,” I said to my cousin. She looked at me, and I thought, Oh my God, if I was 18 years old and a freshman, I would have no freaking idea what that meant nor why it mattered in the slightest.

So I said, “Okay, so pretend Ball State is a country. President Ferguson is the President. The deans of all the different colleges are like the governors of the states.”

She nodded. “So you’re like a senator, right?

“No, a department chair is like a senator. I’m like his chief of staff.”

“Oh.” She sighed. “I’m sorry. I just think politics is kind of boring.”

“Yeah, I know. Or think of it this way. The department chair is like the mayor of a city. And the English department is a big city in the country’s largest and most populous state.”

“So you’re like the mayor of Los Angeles?”

“No, more like Sacramento. I’m like the deputy mayor of Sacramento.”

I remembered then that her friend had wanted to meet me because I’m a writer, but lately, I’ve started thinking of myself as the deputy mayor of Sacramento because I really like the job.

And that’s what scares me. Can you help run a city and write books at the same time?

That is the question, isn’t it?

Here are some more:

  • How does your identity change when you take on an administrative position?
  • How do you maintain your identity as a writer when your daily work is so specific to the institution to the place where you work?
  • Since so many of us have day jobs–lots of different kinds–how can we balance our job (paycheck) and our work (art)?
  • How do we keep our work from becoming a hobby?
  • How do we keep our job from defining us?
  • When do we say to ourselves that we’re better at the job than the work? Or can we do both?
  • How do you keep doing your job for years and years and years without becoming overwhelmed by despair?
  • Here’s a great essay that’s helped me think through these things.

(more later, i’ve been thinking about this a lot)

 

Come upstairs and see my route book?

Come upstairs and see my route book?

The Circus in Winter Writing

Route books are a gold mine of circus history. They’re a yearly archive of a show’s acts and travels, meticulously recorded for posterity, then printed and given to circus personnel as a keepsake.

I have one that belonged to my great great uncle Henry Hoffman, superintendent of the menagerie for the Great Wallace Show.

When I started doing readings for The Circus in Winter, I took lots of pictures and put them in scrapbooks. I wanted to remember as many of those wonderful moments as possible.

But I noticed that many of the pictures from those years featured me standing behind a podium or sitting at a table.

That isn’t how I remember readings and events. I remember looking out at a sea of faces.

So for the last few years, I try to take a picture of the audience at all my readings.

Check out the new Route Book page

When I was creating my Route Book page for this website, I decided to do more than caption the photos. Where. When. I decided to share my memories of those events, and what I realized is that I’ve met and re-met so many people by going on the road.

Readings are hard on me. I have a bad back. I have anxiety issues. I’m an introvert. But I also love the experience of being in the room when people are experiencing my work or reacting to my ideas.

So feel free to follow the link and thumb through the pages of my route book. Maybe you’re in one of the pictures?

Check out the new Events page

I’ll be adding lots of pictures to the Route Book page soon; I’m going to be on the road a lot this fall. For more information, check out the Events page.

And may all your days be circus days. 

 

How I travel back in time, hold myself accountable, and refrain from smoking

How I travel back in time, hold myself accountable, and refrain from smoking

Mrs. Cole Porter Writing

I’ve been blogging a lot lately, just not here on WordPress. I’ve been using Pinterest and Tumblr for quick posts. The interfaces are simple, and the stakes are low because not a lot of people follow me there.

What am I blogging about? Well, they aren’t “essay-like” blog posts, as you are used to here. These are more visual, like a bulletin board or scrapbook. Or they’re more utilitarian, like a ledger. That’s why I don’t think to share them here on the Big Thing.

A few years ago, I went to an exhibit at the Morgan Library on diaries. I was especially interested in how artists use them.

I spent a lot of time looking at the writing journal John Steinbeck kept as he wrote The Grapes of Wrath. Here’s a great post from Austin Kleon’s blog about that.

steinbeckI want to hold myself accountable, too, like Steinbeck did. That’s why I started this little Tumblr blog called Every Day I Write the Book.

I also use Tumblr (and Pinterest) like scrapbooks. A place to archive the images and maps I find.

Sometimes I just reblog a picture.

Sometimes I add a picture to a scrapbook I keep for Linda.

Sometimes I make digital scrapbooks comprised of images and maps of one particular place, like Villa Trianon.

The pages I’ve been writing this week are set at Villa Trianon, and I look at these pictures to sort of “will” myself into that time and place.

exterior villa

I suppose it’s no different from cutting something out of a magazine and pasting it down so that you can go back and look at it later.

If you’ve seen Somewhere in Time, you know what I’m talking about.

Sometimes I do more than just clip images. I actually start writing about what they mean to me. Proto blog posts. Like this one on the so-called “classic” look.

In this article, Edwidge Danticat talks about how she creates bulletin boards so that she can see her ideas and the images that inspire her, as well as the overall plot structure.

That’s what I’m doing, too, I guess, except my bulletin board is digital. And share-able.

But this research can’t overtake the actual writing. Instead, I play with my bulletin board/scrapbooks as a way into the writing or when it’s time to take a break from writing–instead of smoking. (The urge to do so has been strong lately for some reason.)

I’ve also been watching period dramas to keep myself thinking in the past.

  • A Room with a View, both the 2007 and 1986 versions
  • Ridicule
  • Austenland
  • My Immortal Beloved
  • The Other Boleyn Girl
  • A Royal Affair
  • The King’s Speech
  • Agora

Another way that I will myself into the past isn’t digital at all. I read books that were published at the time I’m writing about. Right now, I’m reading a novel by the Duchess of Sutherland, who was a friend of Linda’s. It’s not very good, but the book smells old, the details are marvelous, and it definitely transports me into that milieu.

 

If you have any other suggestions for me, let me know. Good luck with your own writing projects. Thanks, as always, for reading.

[And so ends today’s writing warm ups. Time to start writing for real.]

Research Notes: Looking at Wedding Pictures

Research Notes: Looking at Wedding Pictures

Mrs. Cole Porter Writing

 

It should come as no surprise that during the school year, I blog a lot about teaching, and in the summer, I blog a lot about writing. Because that’s where my head is.

Last night, I did a little research on the technology that made it possible to print pictures in newspapers and magazines.

In a nutshell: for a long time, it was very hard.

But it got me thinking about how easy it is now. Think about how addicting Tumblr and Facebook are. Think about how addicting it is to be able to Google whatever you want to look at. I mean seriously, how do we even stop ourselves? How do we not gorge ourselves visually every single day? Continue reading

I was doing a little research the other day on Linda Porter’s very public divorce from her first husband. Here are some clippings (posted on my Tumblr) that tell the whole sordid story.

Further evidence of the fame and notoriety Linda brought with her into her marriage to Cole, who was pretty much a nobody when they met.

Back to the book…

P.S. This is the first blog post I’ve ever done from my phone. 

17 years in the tenure track

17 years in the tenure track

Teaching Writing

Employment History

1995: I earn my MFA.

1995-1997: For the next two years, I work as a full-time instructor, teaching a 4/4 for less than $20,000 a year.  But I have health insurance for the first time in my life. I’m 26 years old.

Note: Titles for contingent faculty:

  • Instructor
  • Lecturer
  • Visiting Lecturer
  • Visiting Writer
  • Visiting Assistant Professor
  • also: Assistant Professor

1997-2000: I get my first tenure-track job at Mankato State University, now Minnesota State University-Mankato. I work with wonderful people. However, my then-partner gets a job out East.

2000-2005: I get my second tenure-track job at The College of New Jersey, formerly known as Trenton State College. I don’t bring any years toward tenure with me, nor do I think to ask for them. I work with wonderful people. With sadness, my partner and I part ways. In 2004, my first book is published and I receive a positive vote for tenure, but it isn’t official until the Board of Trustees votes on it. In an effort to get closer to family, I go on the job market.

2005-2010: I get my third tenure-track job at the University of Pittsburgh, aka Pitt. Again, I don’t bring any years toward tenure with me. I’ve now spent eight years in the tenure stream. Again, I work with wonderful people. In 2008, my second book is published. In 2009, I get married. A few months later, I get an email from someone at Ball State University (where my brother went to college) asking me do I care if a bunch of students turn my first book into a musical? Sure. Whatever. Then I go visit the Virginia Ball Center and hear the music and meet the students and faculty (making the musical is their only class!) and fall in love a little. A month later, I find out Ball State is hiring a fiction writer. And even though I’m just a few months away from turning in my tenure materials at Pitt, I decide that I really need to apply for this job at Ball State. It’s probably my last chance to get a job in my home state, which–I’ve finally, finally realized–is where I want to live and work and serve. And miracle of miracles, I get the job.

2010-present. I get my fourth tenure-track job at Ball State University. This time, I negotiate and bring three years toward tenure (I’m very grateful for this, thank you, thank you). I’ve now spent thirteen years in the tenure stream. I’m 42 years old. Again, I work with wonderful people. In 2011, I apply for promotion to Associate Professor. In 2012, I apply for tenure. For reasons I can’t fully explain, these things take lots of time to become official, and now, seventeen years after I got that first job at Mankato State University, I finally have tenure. I’ll be 46 in a few months, and on July 1, I will start a new job as the Assistant Chair of Operations of the English Department at Ball State. Most people my age have been serving in administration positions for years; let’s just say I’m due.

Summary

It took me a very long time and much, much heartache, and I don’t even want to talk about the lifetime earnings I’ve given up, sigh, but I’m finally in the exact right job in the exact right place. I don’t know too many academics who are fortunate enough to get a job in the geographic location they desire most.

I’m very lucky.

I think that if was 26 today, not 46, facing the academic job market in creative writing, such as it is, I probably would be writing my own “QuitLit” essay here instead of what I’ve written.

I’d probably be a contingent faculty member somewhere, or else be in a TT job in a place where I don’t want to live. I think I’d probably be contemplating leaving academia and getting a job in Indianapolis or Cincinnati.

I recognize that I’m fortunate to have gotten not one but four TT jobs, and at least part of that reason is pure chance, dumb luck: I entered the job market at a fortuitous time. Look at the chart below. Look at how many new BA/BFA programs were created between 1994 and 2004, the time I entered the job market! Also consider how many potential applicants for those jobs were being produced by the much smaller number of MFA and PhD programs that existed at that time.

2012-13 table3

Sometimes, when I’m feeling crappy, I think: What if I’d stayed at Mankato or TCNJ or Pitt? What would my rank be by now? How much money would I be earning at this point? But then I realize I wouldn’t have written the books I’ve written nor met my husband. I wouldn’t have been able to help my grandma die. I wouldn’t have been there the day my nephew was born. I’d see my parents less. I’d be helping young writers in Minnesota or New Jersey or Pennsylvania. I’d be an expatriate Hoosier. Once, that was my dream, but then I got older and my dreams changed.

This is the way my life turned out. This is my employment history, but as Sarah Kendzior says:

You are not your job. You are how you treat people.

To that I’d add: Your identity as a writer isn’t dependent on the school where you teach–or even if you teach. Your identity as a writer depends on your answer to one very simple question: Does your job (whatever it is) make it possible for you to keep body and soul together and get good writing done?

I’ve been asking myself that question for seventeen years, and finally, the answer is yes.

 

Thirteen years later…

Mrs. Cole Porter Writing

Birthday Cake with Number 13 Lit CandlesThree years ago, I wrote this post for my novel-writing students about my progress on my book about Linda Porter. At that point it had been 10 years. Sigh.

Finals are over. I’m back to the novel. I’ve got about 300 pages at this point. I’m not sure how many more I’m going to need because I haven’t made up my mind where to end it. I’ve got a notion. We’ll see if it works!

I’m going to try and go off the grid for awhile so I can get a lot of work done during May and June. Emphasis on “try.”

In the meantime, I thought you might enjoy reading this old post about the circuitous route writing a novel can take. May it inspire you to keep going with your own baggy monster.

This Blog is a Waste of My Time: Thoughts on the Three-Year Anniversary of The Big Thing

Teaching Writing

waste of timeI’ve been thinking a lot lately about this blog. Last week, I wrote about “lore” and informally trading teaching information vs. formally publishing teaching research.

This blog began because in 2010, I wrote an essay about teaching.  I realized that the default setting of all my classes–of most fiction-writing classes, really–was the short story. I wanted to tweak that default setting. Not just in my own classes. I wanted to inspire other people to tweak theirs, too. Continue reading

The Top 5 Most Popular Posts on the Big Thing–and Why

Writing

dems_top_5_101It’s almost the end of the year, plus I’m nearing the third anniversary of The Big Thing, a blog I started so that I could talk more about teaching writing.

I’ve been looking at my stats, seeing what I can learn.

Here are my most popular posts, according to Google Analytics:

This one about visiting Linda’s grave.

  • Why is it so popular? Every time someone sees De-Lovely, they Google “Linda Porter Rose” and boom, they find me. I get at least one comment on that blog post every other week. Continue reading
Is Gaming Bad for Fiction Writers?

Is Gaming Bad for Fiction Writers?

Teaching Writing

The other day, I was reading an undergraduate student’s novel in progress, and a thought occurred to me. As I often do, I shared that thought on Facebook:

I’ve never played a video game, but I recognize that it’s a narrative experience that lots and lots of people value. No judgement. But in my fiction-writing classes, I often read stories and novels that read as if I’m watching someone else play a video game. There’s plot, action, scene, all great, but virtually no interiority, which for me is *absolutely necessary* in fiction. My students have always used films and TV shows to talk about fiction, but now they also reference video games. “This is like Bioshock,” for example, and I have no idea what that even means. I wonder if other creative writing teachers have noticed this quality in student fiction or these references? I wonder if people who play video games could give me some tips about how to help my students make the transition from gaming to writing narrative. P.S. Over the last few years, I’ve read lot more genre fiction (George R.R. Martin, Suzanne Collins, etc.) so that I could at least be familiar with the kinds of stories students borrow from, but I really don’t want to start playing games.

I made the comment public and a great conversation ensued. As of right now, there are 80 comments–from gamers and non-gamers, from creative writing professors and students, from friends and strangers. The conversation was passionate. I invite you to read the comments here. Continue reading