Month: October 2015

The Value of a Reader (and a few other things I’ve learned from blogging)

Goodnight Already had it’s first anniversary last January. I published my 100th post in June. I kept meaning to mark these small milestones, but they came and went quietly while I continued to write posts about rats and forest fires and birthdays. So I’m pausing now finally to reflect on what the last twenty months of blogging has offered me.

1: Numeric Feedback

I spent two years in the early aughts earning an MFA in Creative Writing. Those were good years. I got to immerse myself in the creative process, write new stories every month, and get immediate feedback on those stories from a community of peers. The feedback came in the form of written notes and long discussions about what was and wasn’t working.

Blogging doesn’t offer that exactly, but it does offer something else of value: data. The number of views, likes and shares I get on any given post is often as instructive as any workshop letter ever was. The numbers don’t tell me where my typos are, or where the story lags, or if my characters are interesting. But they do tell me if anyone’s reading, if they connected with the work enough to pass it on to someone else, and if they stayed long enough to click around and read other posts.

I’ve learned to appreciate these numbers for the objective truth they offer. They aren’t too generous or tactful. They also don’t judge. They don’t tell me that a post was poorly written, that it was too self-indulgent or too sappy. They simply tell me: people were curious about this, or moved by this, or else they tell me: they were not.

2: Process

When I started blogging, my goal was to post at least once a week. I assumed I could just carve out an hour, sit down and write a post, edit it once, and hit publish.

A few of my posts have gone that way, but most of them haven’t. Instead something happened that’s either annoying or magic, depending on how I look at it: a process took over. It demanded things of me. I started to move through my life with an eye out for possible posts. What was I worried about this week? What was I learning? Sketches of these posts took shape in my brain every day as I walked from my car to the office, or as I cooked dinner. Once I sat down to write them, they came out scrawled as half-formed paragraphs that needed active shaping and several visits of revision. I couldn’t sit down once and press publish. I had to return to them, learn from them, refine them at least a little.

Over time, I’ve learned to trust the process. I’m excited, not scared, when my first draft is a chaotic mess, when I can’t tell where something is going, or when a draft takes an unexpected turn. After dozens of posts, my body seems to know the rhythm of this thing. Like going for a long run, it’s work, but it’s pleasant—mostly—and it helps me feel expansive in my body and my life.

3: Practice in Letting Go

A related point: blogging has taught me to let go of my work, to make the distinction between the best I can do and good enough for now. If I manage to publish the book that I’m working on, I hope that I will have the patience to make to see it through countless revisions, to send it into the world not because I’ve grown impatient with it but because I’ve reached the limit of my skills.

But blogging has helped me learn that it’s okay to aim a bit lower than that in the service of experimentation, of getting things down and letting them go. Most weeks when I put up a post, some part of me considers what I could do with it if I spent another two weeks refining it. And then I shrug and move on because blogging should move in real time, and life won’t always wait for my revisions.

4: Understanding the Value of a Reader

This is, by a long stretch the most important thing that blogging has taught me: no one—not even my best friends, not even my mother—owes me their readership. The world is full of words and diversions. If I want you to read I’ve got to earn it.

Sometimes keeping a blog feels like keeping a home–the kind of home where people drop by because they were in the neighborhood, and they’re hoping you might have coffee on hand. When I was a teenager I had one friend whose house we always went to. In my gang of friends, we had a number of places to choose from, but we didn’t rotate. We always wound up at this one house. This friend had a comfortable kitchen and parents who didn’t mind having us around but who stayed out of our way. The refrigerator was full and sometimes there was a box of Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies on the counter. Sometimes I think that’s how I want my blog to feel: like a place that’s comfortable and there for you when you need it. Sit down. Eat a cookie. Eat five.

Anyhow, that’s really the point of all of this. Thank you for reading. Thanks for checking in once in a while, or subscribing via email, or telling me when I run into you at the grocery store that you read my last post. Having readers makes my day. You are the gas in my engine, the butter in my mashed potatoes, the honey in my hive.

image credit: Message in a Bottle, Suzanne Nilsson, cc by-sa 2.0  https://www.flickr.com/photos/infomastern/12407730413

To my Beloved: the last days of six

October 5, 2015

It’s just after eleven pm on your seventh birthday, and you are sleeping in my bed, snuggling two of your favorite stuffed animals.

It’s been years since we co-slept, years since you hollered for me in the middle of the night most nights of the week. These days you are a bunk-dweller. You climb up past my reach and stay up too late with your comic books and your headlamp. When I tell you to go to sleep you sigh and say “Just two more pages.” When I climb up to change the sheets, I can feel the traces of you in your empty bed, the grit and the scent, as if I’ve invaded your lair.

But tonight for your birthday you asked to sleep in my bed. You said that you wanted to listen for the owl who’s been hooting outside my window for the last two weeks, the same call I heard seven years ago as I lay in this same bed breathing through contractions.

You are seven already. How is that?

I’ve been thinking all week about things I might want to tell you in some future year.

  1. Last week I brought you to the free movie night at your school. You’d been begging me all week and so I hustled to get us all fed after work and make it to the gymnasium by six. I was surprised to see a girl your age greet you and chase you across the gym, and then more surprised when the movie started that she took a seat next to you on the floor. And actually, she wasn’t just next to you, she was against you. Eventually she rested her hand on top of yours. You let her. And in the moment a part of me cried out NO! Not Yet! while a larger part of me soaked up the feeling I felt between you. It was sweet and expansive. It was warm. My boy is loved, I thought. I took comfort in it.
  1. The week before that I was extra busy at work and had places to be in the morning. I didn’t have time to park the car, to walk you inside of your school, to battle your brother to get back in the car, and so I bribed you to do something you didn’t want to do. I offered you two dollars if you’d let me drop you off at the curb like some of the other parents do, if you’d walk your own self to the door. “Okay,” you agreed with a sigh. I had no idea how nervous I would feel watching you walk alone to the school entrance. All this time I had told myself that you just needed a little push and you’d be ready. It hadn’t occurred to me that I wasn’t ready to watch you walk away. All day I worried about you, as if somehow you might have gotten lost in the twenty feet between the heavy doors and the first grade line, as if you might be wandering our neighborhood, lost and alone.
  1. Your gait that day was excruciatingly slow. You looked at your shoes as you trudged along, and so many kids passed you. I felt sad watching you. That night I asked you, “How did you feel when I dropped you off this morning?” and you gave me a blank stare. “I mean are you sad, or is it okay?” “It’s okay,” you told me. In my mind’s eye I watched you inch so slowly towards the door, and that’s when it hit me: that’s your pace. Slow is how you go when I’m not pulling on your hand, or running after your brother or asking you to CATCH UP.
  1. We don’t talk about your R’s anymore, about the fact that you can’t pronounce them. After seven months of speech therapy, I wanted to give you a break. But I still hear you pause over words that feature R’s. I hear the intention in your voice when you try to say “Grandpa Richard.” I know that someday you will pronounce them, that your struggle to be heard and understood will be just a memory your body carries. I know this, but I can’t yet picture it. To picture you with fluid R’s is to picture you as a grown man, tall, quiet, freckled, and totally independent.
  1. Earlier this month, a kindergartener shoved you on the playground and called you a loser—three times in one recess you said. Apparently this is one tough kindergartener. And though this isn’t the kind of situation I wish for you, I enjoyed hearing you and your best friend brainstorm solutions to the problem. Your friend pointed out that the principal walks through the cafeteria at lunchtime and you could catch his attention then. You reasoned that next year, when you were in second grade and this student was in first, you would no longer share a recess period. You could simply wait it out. But you instantly questioned this strategy. “That’s, like, one hundred and eighty recesses away,” you realized, and recommitted to solving the problem.
  1. You never forgot about Jeremy, the child with a tiny voice who was your best friend for two months in kindergarten, and who moved away and left the school suddenly. I kept waiting for you to forget him but every few months you mentioned him again, pining a bit for the friend you lost. This year, when I asked whom I should invite to your birthday party, you rattled off a few names before you came to Jeremy. You said his name casually, but then looked me in the eye to see if I had heard you. “I’ll see what I can do,” I said. For all I knew he had moved to Kentucky, but I found his mother’s email address in last year’s school phone book. (By the time this phone book arrived it was spring and Jeremy had already been long gone. I doubted you’d ever see each other again.)

Jeremy’s mother wrote back within an hour. They hadn’t moved across the country; they lived a half an hour away. Jeremy’s grandmother would bring him to your party. I was filled with joy for you, but also a little worry. You hadn’t seen him for nearly a year. Once he arrived, would you even care? Would it be awkward? It wasn’t awkward. Jeremy arrived, six inches taller but with the same tiny voice, and carrying a giant box of Transformers. I watched him shadow you for the whole party, and I watched you keep him within the realm of your attention for the full two hours.

I’m not sure why your seventh birthday has hit me so hard—maybe it’s because Kellie is away for work and there’s no one around to distract me from my nostalgia. Or maybe it’s because seven is serious. You have left your baby-ness behind forever. Your mouth is a mess of teeth falling out and growing in, giant grown-up teeth sharing space with wiggling baby teeth. I can see you transforming away from cute and into a self that will continue to stretch and gain angles.

And somehow I wonder, are you going through this too? Do you get a little wistful at your birthday? Is that why you’re snuggled up now with your smallest stuffed animals, your chipmunk and your dog, sleeping in the bed that smells like your moms? Or do you just sense my own wistfulness and respond, as you do, with kindness. If that is the case, well then thank you for humoring me. Thank you, forever, for your patience.

We’re Not Numb; We’re Desperate

I’ve taught English at a community college for ten years. I wasn’t always afraid. But ever since the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, fear has become an undeniable feature of my work life.

Last week I didn’t learn about the shootings at Umpqua Community College until the very end of the day because I was busy on my own campus, preparing for and teaching a writing class. In my car, after picking up my two-year-old from the care center on the campus where I work, I put on NPR and expected the usual weary commute home. Instead, I learned that nine people had been killed in a neighboring state, at a campus not unlike my own.

I spent the next forty-eight hours or so dwelling on how common these incidents (or variations of them) have become, and how little control I have around whether or not such violence will directly touch my world.

I wrote about these thoughts in an essay for the Washington Post On Parenting blog.

On Thursday, in response to the tragedy at Umpqua Community College, President Obama gave a speech in which he claimed that Americans have become “numb” to the violence of mass shootings.

I am a parent to two young children who also teaches at a community college three hundred miles north of Roseburg, and for the last several years—ever since reports of public shootings have cycled through the news with stunning regularity—I haven’t been numb, I’ve been afraid. At the beginning of each school quarter, I find myself scanning my classroom, wondering if any of my students are dangerous. I find myself watching the door when I work late in my office, wondering how I might react if a disgruntled student hunted me down. I find that I often move through my workday in a low-level state of alert. Though I never intended to choose a career that might put my life in danger, I worry daily that my sons could lose a parent.

And of course, I worry about my children’s safety, too. Every morning when I use a magnetic card to open the door to my 2-year-old’s daycare center or every time I sign myself into my older son’s first-grade classroom, I can’t help but remember the scenarios that have made such security measures necessary.

You can read the full essay here.