Thursday, April 7, 2011

Work and the Work

I work with "at risk" high school boys in an alternative school setting. It is challenging, terrible, rewarding work. The sort of place where I might be cussed at one minute and privy to the most intimate details the next. I have been at it for over 11 years now, and forget what all the teaching manuals tell you, it doesn't ever really get easier.

I like to say I've managed to put up a sort of emotional wall, that the harshness of my work doesn't seep into my everyday family life or my writing, which is its own sort of challenging work.

But last week was a tough one, several long-time students made some pretty awful life-changing decisions, we lost a colleague. Hard stuff all around. And I realized-- as I do periodically-- that my "emotional wall" is about as thick and as strong as tissue paper.

I took it home. In fact, I wept on the way home and then took it inside the house with me where it colored my interactions with my own kids. And kept me from writing anything more emotional than a quickie blog post.

Um, what does this have to do with writing? you ask. Because this IS a writing blog, after all...

Well, a lot really.

For one thing, like all of us, I filter the world through the lens of my work-- both school-work and writing-work and my characters-- who I put through all sorts of horrendous things, who are not always sweet or nice, who make bad decisions all over the place-- are informed by the sort of work I do.

I would never (never!) write one of my students into my fiction, even indirectly. To me, this is disrespectful to the nth degree. It presumes to understand and to capture and it just feels terribly, terribly wrong. (When I was much younger and teaching in a rural Florida classroom, I wrote a poem from the point of view of one of my 4th graders and I still cringe at its memory. ugh!)

But the writing does relate. To be successful as an educator, especially with challenging students, I believe one must truly "see" them. (Deep end alert: I am going to get a little mystical here...) One must see the good stuff-- the sweet, smart, curious kid-- under all those layers of grump and anger and fear, and reflect it back so that the student can see it too. This is by no means easy. I often find myself frustrated or short with students, thinking "Why can't you just....?" but really what's the point in that? If it was as simple as "bucking up" as "dealing with it"-- they would have managed it long ago.

And so I must take that deep breath and try to understand, to absorb and reflect.

Good fiction is not so different really. Good fiction reflects for us-- an image of ourselves that is almost as complex and intricate and messed up and wise as our real lives.

At least, this is true of the sort of fiction I most enjoy, the sort I aspire to. I can't tolerate cardboard bad guys, because I know (from that other, everyday sort of work) that there are no real bad guys-- at least not the kinds that rub their hands together and chuckle maniacally as the train runs over the lady tied up on the tracks.

And this understanding extends to all my own flawed characters and their bad decisions, to the way I approach a page and what I hope you might get from it.

So yes, my work does impact my writing, beyond just making me so tired I can only manage new pages on weekends.

How does your work affect your "work"?


Pam Harris said...

I work as a school counselor, so I completely understand how both frustrating AND rewarding your job could be. I never base a character off any of my students--rather, I take the experience sometimes and apply it to my stories.

JoLynne Lyon said...

Thanks for a window into your writing and work life--I'm sure it gives you a deep well of experience to draw from, but it sounds like a terrible week. I agree good fiction deals honestly with real life, while of course it never violates the privacy of real people. The trick for me as a writer is to look true ugliness in the face and acknowledge it without letting it take over the story, because I don't want to be the writer who only does depressing stuff.

Melissa Ann Goodwin said...

So sorry about the loss of your colleague! This week I've been bobbing between short "nothing" posts of part of this A to Z challenge I'm in, and long emotional posts. My mom died recently so there is both the shutting off and then the opening of floodgates. I work for a yoga studio, so my work doesn't affect my writing much, but my LIFE totally affects it. I find now that I am obsessed with finding out more about certain aspects of Mom's life, and that this will evolve into a story. In a way, for me, writing is how I honor the legacy of my family.

Tele said...

Thank you for sharing this, Perri. I was a social worker with homeless youth for 7 years before fleeing back to my other life as commercial fisherman. Your reflections on your experience deeply resonate with me. Although I've almost been gone from that work for as long as I did it, it continues to have a deep impact on how I look at other people and myself - how I want to "be" in this world, what I can impact and how, what I can't. That relationship of social responsibility and letting go to let things be is definitely a recurring theme in my writing.

It's lovely to meet you, Perri. Sending thoughts of respect and appreciation your way for all that you do and give. Be well.

Anonymous said...

I remember how relieved I was when I found out the Madeleine L'Engle's stargazing rock was a real rock in her backyard. I thought that writer's imagined every detail from scratch, and I just didn't know how I was going to do that.
It's not so much that characters from my real life leak onto the pages of my manuscript as it is that my feelings for the people in my life are smeared into the fabric of what I am writing. This is a lovely blog entry, and I am so glad there are educators like yourself you dare to do hard things!

Amy LV said...

Thank you for this post, Perri. Its words and thoughtfulness say so much about you as a teacher and a writer too. A.

Perri said...

You guys are so sweet! I was afraid this one might be too personal... or touchy-feely

maryw said...

Beautifully written, moving, thought provoking. Thanks, Perri! For the post and for the work you do.

Samantha Sotto-Yambao said...

I am in AWE of the work that you do. Thanks for sharing this part of your life with us. Insightful, inspiring and thought-provoking post.

Anonymous said...

Thank goodness for people like you. Not everyone can handle a tough job like that.

I work with children who have multiple disabilities. It's hard not to become completely enmeshed in their lives.