The Novelist by L. L. Barkat

tea2Concise? Even the word concise is too long to describe this novella –but only at first glance. Coming in at a mere one hundred pages a reader can handle this during an afternoon tea. And some might do just that. Read it. Drink tea. Move on. The English teacher in me couldn’t do that.

At first read I kept growling because the main character just wasn’t delivering for me. She wasn’t writing the novel a fellow Twitter acquaintance had challenged her to write. All she managed to type was “The End” and then freaked out. She dances around it so many ways that for a bit you get nauseous. She infuriates you with her choice of men to the point of wanting to reach into the fibers of the paper and thrash her into some semblance of self-respect. Then there is the on-going search for the elusive tea basket which only serves to remind you of things you have misplaced and yet to find. And let’s not forget the influx of family and their stories. Or the poetry and I am an English teacher but some of this poetry is far beyond my synapses to process. To top it off she tosses in a bunch of well-known authors, some of which you have read and some of which you know you should have read but haven’t, all sharing tidbits of advice. All of which only serves to feed her doubts about being able to write the damn novel in the first place.

When I finished the first read I simply put the book down and was ready to move on. I had three more books ready for my attention. But the cover stayed open. I had bent it around the book as I read and now it just didn’t want to close. My mind couldn’t close it off either. I was just so unsatisfied and I knew I was missing something. So I dove back in. This time with my colored pens. It’s what we English teachers do, color coordinate things. One color for all the authors mentioned and their advice; one for Geoffrey the pompous “boyfriend”; one for anything tea related; one for family; one for poetry; and one for her doubts. There were less than five pages unmarked and that was because they were end of chapter pages with next to nothing on them.

Finishing the subsequent reads I was mesmerized. How the hell did she fit all that into one hundred pages. Not only that but the weaving and intricacies of meshing those stories together to YES end up with a novella that could very well turn into many novels. I don’t want to read the one about Geoffery. First I just had to call him Jeff all the way through because he pissed me off so. Second, she deserved so much better in the way of a relationship. Really, 28 motel rooms? In two years? Bite me! As for the tea and poetry my tastes are not refined enough. I love tea and know what I like and don’t and imagine having no trouble experimenting with more flavors but that would be a learning process I wouldn’t mind. The poetry was just like the tea. Some of it was right up my alley and some was way beyond where my passport credentials could take me. A sestina? I can’t back down from that and I wasn’t even the one challenged with it but I can see it being on the to do list for summer. And the family stories were delightful and terrifying but real as they come.

But the part I really want to share with you (in case you aren’t compelled to read this novella multiple times for yourself) is some of the interplay of author advice and writer doubt. See if you can find anything useful in the author advice or yourself in the writer doubts.

Writer Doubt: A novelist would remember these things.

Author Advice: “Being a writer is like having an insatiable parasite inside you.” Thomas Wolfe

Writer Doubt: Her laptop was plugged in, though, and the Word file was still open on the desktop—a single page of a novel she had never started, with the words “The End” typed smack in its center. As she sank to the floor, she managed a laugh. “The End”. They‘d think it was a suicide note, wouldn’t they?

Author Advice: “Pull your chair to the edge of the precipice and I will tell you a story.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

Writer Doubt: Laura did not like heights, or precipices, or conflicts. This felt ridiculously problematic.

Author Advice: Writing stories is an exercise in freedom and quarreling. Mario Vargas Llosa

Writer Doubt: Writing like Pynchon was an option. (Not trusting her own voice)

Author Advice: The main character must be booted through the doorway, into “the great unknown “ or the novel would get boring. James Scott Bell

Writer Doubt: It had probably been a mistake to start her relationship with Geoffrey via a sestina. Yeah that was the problem in that relationship; a sestina!

Author Advice: Stories have the power to make things present; make it possible for a person to look at things never looked at. Tim O’Brien

Writer Doubt: If she was going to write a novel, she felt defeated before she began, because someone might be coming along to pick it apart, looking for symbols.

tea

There are many more for you to discover as you read this magnificent novella that will exercise your brain as if it were a series of interlinking novels. Don’t let it sneak up on you like it did me. You have been warned, there is a lot of material packed like loose tea leaves for a long journey; physical sustenance and good for the soul.

Burning On. . .The Proposal

In teaching, there is a belief that if you make it through the first three years you are likely to make it ten.  If you make it ten, you might make twenty.  If you make twenty, you might as well stay all the way.  Quite the defeatist attitude and one I never bought into.  Why bother starting if that is your premise.  In reality, most teachers burn out somewhere between years 12-17.  And if teachers are not diligent in their calling they will leave the profession before they reach retirement age. For those teachers that stay in too long and reach burn out, it is a well known fact that they are difficult to remove from the classroom.  They become ineffective in numerous ways:  effective instruction, student engagement, communication with stakeholders, parents, guardians, are often technotards in a digital warp age, and unlikely to try new and improved methods or stay connected to their professional organizations for current methods and pedagogy. 

I know these truths all too well.  I am in my 22nd year.  I have faced burn out and for a while feared it had me.  Turned out to just be a health issue wearing me down.  How do I know?  I know this because I dragged myself to work four weeks after a total knee replacement (four weeks earlier than most people are allowed back to work) and every time I stepped in my classroom those kids rejuvenated me into delivering the goods again.  From morning bell to afternoon bell I was running with the ball, making first down after first down, gaining yardage every where I could.  Sometimes it took a sneak play to get over on them and sometimes the play was a standard run-of-the-mill drop back and pass the lesson to them.  Once in a while I fumbled but once in a while I made a touchdown.  And that makes all the difference.  The constant personal evaluation of what am I doing, why am I doing it, and is it working for these kids?  Better known as WithItNess.  Not every teacher has it.  But every teacher needs it and more importantly every kid deserves it.

Standard operating practice in my classroom from year one was writing a lot.  As a high school English teacher I needed to see what they wrote to know what they learned.  Being a National Writing Project Fellow this is what I know best:  writing is reading, reading is writing, both are learning.  Participating in The National Writing Project the year after my internship and before my first year of teaching was a unique situation.  It set up my teaching career to deal with this burn out phenomena.  But more on that later.  Writing was an important way for me to get to know them and connect to them individually so we journalled and I commented back to them; reading every word they wrote and making sure they knew I had.  I wrote back to them in the margins, in between sentences, above the brainstorming, on the back, anywhere I could or needed to in order to respond to their writing and to them.  I never used a red pen either!  I didn’t bleed all over the paper regarding their mistakes.  I simply read their thoughts and responded.  Then there was the phase of state mandated writing instruction requiring a piece of writing be produced each week by each student.  Try assessing over 150 essays every week.  Hard work!  And that is beyond teaching literature, reading, grammar, etc.  To top it off start with a class load of students behind their grade level in reading. 

Even though I continued to look for those fresh ways to connect the content with the students and their world or use the technology and their media to my advantage, I struggled with the paper load it produced.  And then there was the total knee replacement fail.  Three revision surgeries and rehabs made sure I didn’t make it back to my previous position.

After the knee revisions forced my role as English teacher out of that classroom and into another one, I found myself recreating my remaining teaching career.  I am now a credit retrieval teacher.  This computerized program allows students that failed courses to regain their credit by mastering the content via a computer course.  My job is to facilitate and monitor their progress.  Chosen because I was good with computers, very detail oriented, knew how to and often used data to drive my decisions in the classroom, but most importantly I had the knack of reaching those students that other teachers often turned tail and ran from in sheer panic. 

Now after three years of this transition and having successfully regimented the credit retrieval program to run in a more ethical and efficiently systematic way than previous to my arrival, I find a need to do more for our school and its ambition to be the best.  More important than my need is the need to do something for my principal who has had the vision that every educator should have; kids deserve the best learning experience we can give them. 

So I have written a proposal that will probably shock my principal who more than likely thought I was down on my last knee.  He will think I have lost my mind or have suffered a concussion.  Spring break is coming and then the mass of state testing followed by graduation and another summer break.  Since my principal is a fermenter when comes to ideas I need to give him time to think on this one.  My only qualm now is should I gift wrap it or is that over the top?

Stay tuned for more. . .