I need to relax my brain.
People who don’t step foot into the auditorium during the week think we English teachers have it easy. The week is exhilarating, enriching, educational, but easy it’s not. Listening is work, but you want to do it because that’s a necessary part of the equation, what you put in to gain something back.
I led off today with a short story from my book, If You Eat, You Never Die. Always hard to gauge how your own presentation goes over, but I was pleased with the pace. I’ve learned to slow down and live in the story. To prepare, I honed down a 12-page story to about eight pages, always a valuable exercise. In the same period, my good friends and colleagues, Gary Anderson and Kevin Brewner, shared their work as well. I never tire of hearing Gary’s poetry. There’s a wholeness and goodness and decency that comes through in every line. And Kevin usually reads a short story, but this time he read an essay about connections that was both nostalgic and mysterious. And he got to perform his famous eye-popping trick during Q & A.
Next came Dave Cullen, author of Columbine. He was at Columbine HS one hour after the first shots. He spent five years researching and writing, then threw out the pages and began anew and spent another five years creating the final manuscript. That’s ten grueling years. Many of the official documents (the police reports, the journals) weren’t released until seven years after the attacks, so his patience and diligence were necessary in order to get the story straight. Rather than list the details of his talk, I’ll recommend that you read his book, which explains why one of the killer’s journals was filled with the word hate, the other’s with love, as in, he didn’t feel loved, the result of his depression.
The best part of having Cullen visit our school was the post-visit. He sat around in our hospitality room for hours, encouraging questions from about a dozen or two students and teachers who straggled in during this time. He was conducting an informal seminar, and I felt privileged to be there. He had copies of the killers’ journals, and to have them in hand was chilling. One student asked, “If Eric was so smart, why did he make so many mistakes with his bombs and other plans?” Cullen: “Psychopaths with their sense of superiority and contempt believe they can’t make mistakes.”
Next was my good friend and old writing group colleague, Billy Lombardo, who has three fine books of fiction on the shelves. Billy’s work and presentations are filled with quiet intensity. He writes about baseball, family, being a dad, being a boy, nostalgia, and the ways one struggles to maintain decency in a world that’s sometimes harsh. His solution to writer’s block: “I think of occasions...things people say.” On the importance of creative writing: “The hard work at creating the language of poetry and fiction will carry through to more analytical kinds of writing.” ACT anyone? I’d add that simply listening to the sophisticated language of poetry and fiction will help as well.
FANBOYS performed next. Hard to explain. This is a teacher-band at our school that takes real songs and adds their own lyrics about proofreading and school rules and other school-related subjects. Then they rock out, and the auditorium is standing room only. Pretty cool. They work hard, practice in the basement of one of their mom’s (how fitting), and they show another side of themselves that students never get to see. Modeling playfulness should never be underestimated. At one point, they asked students to wave their cell phones. I peeked over, and only one or two of my AP kids had their phones out. I’ll give them a hard time about that on Monday.
Finally, our last guest, Kathryn Janicek, executive producer of NBC5 morning news, and former Fremd student, took to the stage. Her energy was boundless, another good lesson for students and adults alike. She puts in 12-14 hour days deciding and managing what gets shown on the morning news, and she had captivating and often hilarious behind-the-scenes stories of what can go wrong that early in the day. She balanced practical advice with genuine encouragement: “You can make money writing. Let’s hear a clap for that.” It was quite apparent that she loves what she does and that she enjoyed being back.
After all was said and done and our Writers Week “set” was stored, someone said, “This was the best Writers Week ever.” I didn’t disagree, but I hear this every year, which strikes me as some sort of impossibility of physics or nature or something. In my mind, every year has been packed with life-affirming moments that cause one to pause and take in the wonder around us. It was as true at Writers Week I as it is now, during Writers Week XVII. I wish you could have been there. There’s nothing quite like it.
So far, four other schools nationwide host their own versions of Writers Week, modeled after ours. If you teach and have questions about how, feel free to drop a line. The week will transform your school.