Give Me Everything You Have

For awhile now I’ve known I need to go back and finish out my teaching career if I want to receive my pension. I gave myself time to write all the books in my head, and I resolved to start teaching full time again for just the semester or two it will take to make my 10 years. I’ve been teaching, off and on, for 20 years, but most of it was part time, and that was my choice. I’ve been able to write and teach and it’s been a perfect combo for me. Most of the time.

I’ve had issues with students over the years, but nothing as serious as what James Lasdun encountered when he met a talented creative writing student he calls Nasreen. His memoir of being stalked by her over many years is every professor’s worst nightmare. And yet he mustered the creative spark to tell the deeply instructive tale.

My life is typical of many writing lives: teach part time for money, write part time for a lot less money. Lasdun set himself up in the same way, but on a much bigger scale than I’ve ever achieved. He’s taught at Princeton and other high brow institutions; his books are brought out by a New York publisher. I teach at a community college and have an e-Publisher. Lasdun’s life is big, mine is smallish. And, after reading all he’s been through, I like it that way.

Lasdun has a wife and children. He did a good job keeping his family safe and mostly out of Nasreen’s destructive path, but he took so many hits, I’m amazed he even wanted to write about it. And so grateful he did. I’ve heard for years about the harm people do on Amazon review pages. It hasn’t happened to me, but then I might have the lowest number of reviews ever. Nasreen did more than write bad reviews about Lasdun. She accused him of stealing her work, wrote to his publishers, and even sent out emails supposedly from him. She was an internet terror. And there was almost nothing anyone, not the police, not the FBI, could (or would) do.

This is a horror story. But it is also true and teachers of creative writing everywhere should read it today. When I decided to go back to finish out my teaching career, before I read Lasdun’s book, I decided I’d like a new direction. I have asked my dean for courses that teach the students who need to learn the basics of grammar and sentences and three paragraph essays. After reading Lasdun’s harrowing nightmare, I’m really glad I made that decision.




My husband and I have had a long disagreement about my retiring from teaching. It started maybe six years ago, when I found out that if I worked in the public school system for ten years, I was entitled to a retirement. Age 51 is not a great time to begin strategizing a career that had always felt part-time. Age 51 is a great age to begin dreaming of dusting off those accumulated rejected manuscripts, whip them into shape, and indie publish them.

I liked teaching because it gave me spending money, got me out of the house, made me think about more than just the current novel-in-progress. Writing, if nobody’s told you, is lonely work. Of course being the old lady in a room full of texting young people who do not want to learn to write is not so great either. Hence my life’s dilemma.

I did a short little teaching stint this summer at the college I work for. Six weeks, May into June. I took Fall and Winter 2011 off to get those novels on the internet, and since I only managed to publish two of them, am taking Fall and Winter 2012 off as well. I am adjunct faculty with senority at the top tier of our pay scale (which, believe me, is not saying a whole lot).

Our differences of opinion on this matter of me retiring, if I wanted to put in the time required to receive a pension, has two main prongs. The “how much will I get” prong and the “how long will I need to work” prong. Michigan Public Schools has a great website that let’s you see all this and calculate answers. We did this once six years ago, and have been disagreeing on it ever since. I think I’ll get $100 a month. He thinks it’s much more than that. I think I’ll have to work 3 or 4 more years, he thinks it’s much less than that.

It is long past due for us to go over the paperwork again, revisit the site, see who is closer to the truth. On the one hand, I am right. On the other, he is. I will qualify in as few as two or three semesters, depending on how my classes are distributed, but, after taxes, I’m not going to receive much more than that $100 I predicted.

Al is a numbes whiz. He quickly said “If you live 25 years, that’s $80,000.” I have no idea if this calculation is true or not. He also is worried about insurance. I could “buy” for both of us at a super-reasonable rate if something ever happened with the UAW. I point out that teacher’s pensions and benefits are being chopped just as quickly, but it all really boils down to one thing: will I do this? Al votes yes, but leaves the final decision up to me.

Reader, I think I have to do it. But not until Fall 2013.

Gratitude & Grading

Yesterday was my last day of school for who knows how long, maybe forever. I now have at least a year off to focus on my writing and my website project. There is of course one little thing  to finish up–grading. My least favorite part of teaching.

Most of these students will get good grades and it  helps to know that going in. I just finished reading a poem by one of the less vocal people in class and it really touched me, made me realize how grateful I am for the good people I had the honor of mentoring this summer.

The poem starts out negative: all about how his summer has been ruined by having to be in class. The beautiful mornings, the shining sun, the sweet freedom of summer–all of this is taken from him because he has to spend four hours in my class twice a week.

Then the poem takes a turn as the poet realizes he likes being in a room with other writers. He enjoys how the course transforms him into someone who is serious about writing. He no longer feels that class is a prison but rather a haven where he gathers with others sharing the vibe of creative expression. Something in him wakes up and realizes this is what he is, a writer. This is what he wants to do, write.

Gotta say, it made my day!

Teaching News

I don’t say this to my students, but teaching is not a great career choice for a writer. It’s a very demanding job if you do it right. It depletes you mentally and emotionally, and when that happens, you feel physically depleted too.

I work part time now, but I remember when I had a full time job with those at-risk kids. I got no writing done. Even working part-time, there’s a lot of paper checking and prepping to do at home. There are many good things about teaching, especially teaching what you love to do, which for me is writing. The interactions with students are great, the lectures are fun to prepare, the time flies as we read stories and critique them.

But still. It takes a ton of time. So…I got my fall schedule in the mail yesterday. I was surprised it came so soon. I should have spoken to my dean about taking fall/winter off in 2011/2012. Even though I’d made the decision long ago and Al was on board with it and we even have a trip planned in September (to see both of our sons!) I was hesitant to turn down those classes. It was a good schedule, it’s decent money (not really, but it’s better than what I made as a book critic.)

I just had a hard time saying “no.” But then I thought of all the papers I’d have to check and how much personal time is taken up with school stuff, and what I wanted to do with my novels, and I zipped off an email to the dean. He responded with a curt reply that made me think he was at least a little ticked off. Nothing I can do about that. There are many people who will be happy to take those classes, people who need the paycheck to put a roof over their children’s heads.

And so that’s it. I’ve got a year off to work on the master plan.


After finishing the latest revision of Luke’s #1 Rule, I’m taking a rest from revision. For the moment. It’s a strange thing to find myself with four novels in various states of almost-readiness. It’s even stranger that I’m not pushing myself to get back to Sugar Shack, which I still have a feeling will be my first Kindle novel. It is soclosetothere.

I’ll get there, but meanwhile, I’m enjoying a very pretty and extended spring in Michigan. (We tend to go straight from winter to summer, so this is a thrill. A real spring!) My class this mini-term is also filling me with a deep sense of purpose and dare I say it? Happiness! Is this really the best class ever or am I going to wake up Monday morning to confront a bunch of surly hipsters who’d rather be anywhere than in my class? 

I’ll take happiness and give the angst a rest.