Sunday, May 03, 2009

Time, Space, and Commitment

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Two people attended class today.

This current series runs 10 weeks and is designed for any level of writer but specifically for those who are serious about their writing and want to deepen their commitment. Who want to have the “good excuse” and accountability that a class can provide a student for writing.

Eleven people signed up. Eight people have continued beyond the first class.

It’s very hard to make a commitment to a long-term workshop. Life is very busy and demanding for the average person, no matter your age or circumstances. Most of the time, two or three people out of 10 or 11 don’t make it through the series. That’s pretty standard. I don’t take it personally. This is how life is. Sometime it really is too hard to commit to something, even something you really do want to do…


Cut to my point.

I felt a familiar sensation as I looked out at the class and saw only two faces. Don’t get me wrong, these are two beautiful faces and class was still suburb with the small group.


I felt frustrated and even guilty that so many people were out.

These feelings of frustration and guilt are not new. In fact, I have felt these feelings before, many, many times, in my over-10-year career as a teacher.

When students are continually absent, late, or don’t do homework, I feel frustrated as the teacher. You aren’t letting me do my job, my job of teaching you, when you don’t show up/do the work/are late. You miss something and you invalidate the commitment that you want, that you seek, that you signed up for!

Next to this frustration is guilt. What can I do to make you fully committed? What have I not done, or, hell, done wrong to make you not be as committed as I think you can be–even with your life circumstances? Simply put, I tell myself that, somehow, it’s my fault, and I do that because if it’s my fault, then maybe I can change it and change you. Of course as a student of not only writing, but also personal growth and development (a.k.a I have had a LOT of therapy over the years), I know very well that, well, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him write– I mean drink. Also, truthfully, everyone has a process, and it is not always linear. Each person, when they are late or absent or don’t do their homework, usually does have a very good reason. But the problem is, if it happens more often than not, that reason is getting in the way of their commitment to themselves. Yes, it’s normal and happens–shit, happens. I know this. But, I also know that is takes tenacity and commitment to make a dream come true and sometimes you have to say, “Enough with my excuses. Enough!”


When I taught public school, and would see consecutive red marks in my attendance book, I would want to scream at that continually-absent student (but couldn’t because they weren’t there!), “But you get this for free (sort of)! You don’t pay a thing. Why not just show up? I mean, you don’t have to even do much, just take that first step and show up, and I promise you, that I am that good. So good, that soon you will want to do your homework, you will be dying to do it. If you just show up regularly, your life will change. Promise.”

And similarly, I had this moment standing up there looking out at my two-student class. “Why aren’t you here?” I wanted to ask my absent students and not just those that were not there today, but those over the years, who haven’t come back to class or who stopped coming without ever telling me why. I want to say, “You did pay for this. You do want this. Just show up. I don't care if you just sit there. I don't even care if you are late! Just show up. I promise I will make it worth it.”

In the initial moment of standing up there in front of my two-person class, a whole series of emotions and thoughts flooded me. The irony is, writing about it in the beginning warm up, helped me to let it go and teach the class, and in that, I was reaffirmed that writing is about showing up, showing up and doing the work, being honest, no matter how self-conscious and scary it is, and that I have to help my students continue to do that.


Analogy time.

Okay, you know how you decide you are going to, let’s say, start taking yoga regularly? You know your schedule is nuts with kids or friends or work or whatever it is, and, yet, something bigger than the guilt you feel about those obligations compels you to sign up and make the commitment¬– at least on paper. So, you force yourself, in a way, to be committed by buying a series of classes, so that way you have paid for it already. So, of course, you’ll go.

But, then, each week– I don’t know– something, your niece’s soccer game, your cousin’s birthday party or your husband or wife gets sick, something something gets in the way, and so that by the end of the series you have only taken two classes.

Or, substitute that analogy with a gym membership or, hell, one of my workshop series. Your intention is to keep the commitment, but along the way and the weeks, it becomes easier NOT to. On the surface you tell yourself you have a good excuse and maybe one or two times you do. But then, it becomes too hard to return, to get back to the commitment. Terry, who was in class today, said it’s like what experts say about being in a marathon. “Do not stop. Never stop. You may slow down to a walk, but do not stop, because once you stop, you will never start again. Your muscles will tightened, and it will hurt too much.”

Do not stop.

And then you do. You stop coming.


Now sit with that for a minute.

The thing is that it’s true. The more often you stop attending the class (any class, not just mine), the more likely it is that you will continue to stop, that the thought of going– the effort, the aggravation (or perceived aggravation)– will hurt too much, and you will become so sore and tight, well, forget it, you aren’t running again.

In my workshops, I warn people mid-way through the semester: “Guys you are going to want an excuse (unconsciously) to not come to class. Life is going to get in the way, if you let it.”

“Oh, no way!” everyone says, “This is so great! It’s so much fun…”

Uh, no it’s not. At least not all the time.

Writing is a craft and requires effort and exertion and it’s tough. It forces you to go within and observe. It forces you to be honest about your feelings and your life. And, if you want to get better, write more, not be blocked, you gotta show up¬– a lot. Butt in seat and WRITE.

Now, who the hell thinks that’s always fun or easy? No one. That’s why every workshop series, when life begins to interfere, and you stop attending class regularly, you start to avoid coming back because you stopped, and you got out of practice and your muscles tightened and now it hurts too much.

I remember when one of my long-time– and truly brilliant might I add– students lost her partner of over 20 years. He actually passed away the night of one of our classes. She continued to come to class in those weeks after he died. She showed up because she knew what she needed was time and space to write. She just showed up, and I believe that even though most of the time she didn’t write and couldn’t write, she was more afraid of what might happen if she stopped. That if she stopped completely, she would tighten and then when she was ready to return, it might hurt way too much.

I thought about her today while I stood up in front of my students. About her commitment, which goes beyond not only that time in her life, but even now, as she is trying to figure out a new career and a new place to live. She still shows up. She still comes to class.

I also think of Shakay, who, today, told me proudly that each week when another obligation comes up on the day of our class (a Saturday), she boldly tells her loved ones, “Nope, I can’t. I gotta go to my class.” Because it matters. It matters more than someone’s BBQ or another person’s favor they need. It matters more than anything to this student.

The truth is this. What will work, what will bring release and contentment to yourself, is making the time and space and commitment to study writing and to do your writing.


As I write this, during warm up today in class, I stopped at this point because, to the left of me, one of my two students, Terry, dropped his pen and pushed his chair back with a self-satisfied smile. He stopped writing in the middle of the writing portion of the warm up. I didn’t say to stop, but he did. Drank his coffee and then folded his arms.

Oh, hell, no. I mean, Terry is that good of a writer, and later, when he shared his piece– oh, it was brilliant. But the point of class is NOT to stop, but to keep going and going.


I didn’t say any of that to Terry. Instead, I whispered, “Keep going.” And he did.


But I’ll admit. I feel frustrated. I sit in this room, this beloved room where I have been teaching you all for the past three years, and I look around, and I think about all the people who have stopped coming to class over the years and all the excuses and reasons they have given. I think about those things, not to judge the reasons and excuses, just observing. I think about current students who didn’t come today and their reasons and excuses. I think about the people, over the years, who have signed up for an eight-week class and only come to two.

I think about one of my professors at school (MFA program at Pine Manor College), how he told me, “Watch. We are going to lose people in this program. More people will drop out than graduate.” That depressed me, although it’s something I know well.

I think of one of my yoga teachers who often asks, if not now, when?

So I ask you all, if not now, when?


Even now Terry stops again. Drinks his coffee and folds his arms again. He is wasting this precious time NOT writing. Damn it, Terry! This is your writing time, and you are stopping. You aren’t writing. Why? Why is just a little enough?

“Keep writing, Terry,” I whisper, and he, reluctantly, with a soft chuckle, does.


Isn’t this what you want when you take class from me? Sometimes I am afraid to say these things because I don’t want to scare or offend you. But, I realize, now, just having pushed Terry, that– so what? My intention is NOT to offend or scare you, but to get you to write. That's my job. My job isn’t to help you with your excuses to not write. My job is to help you overcome those excuses. Overcome those stresses and fears that prevent you from following through on your commitment to write, on your commitment to class, to show up.

So I will tell you all. Start attending every single class that remains in this series (there’s only three more). And try to show up on time. Try to do your homework. Show yourself, me, and the craft, the respect and the commitment you seek. When you continually show up late or miss class, it just reiterates the part of you that says, “I can’t.” That part is wrong. YOU can.

And, tell the people in your life, even if you feel guilty, even if they are more important than writing, that you need this one time and space of the week for you, for your writing. Make them get it. And if they don’t, come to class any way. (Easier said than done. I know.)

Also, I know very well that, as Terry said to me in class, “I can push you. I can pull you. But, I can not carry you.”

But, I can try.

1 comment:

Joanne Carnevale said...

As one of the no-shows I was already feeling a load of guilt over the way my day turned out when an earlier event ran far longer than I expected causing me to miss class. I hadn't really thought of it as "my excuse" but simply what happened.

Sometimes it's a challenge to complete everything and go to class (evidenced by my frequent lateness) but I show up late and suffer the embarrassment because I would miss much more than those few minutes if I elected not to go just because it was hard. Hence, missing class bothered me so much that I had to remind myself that normally I have near-perfect attendance, that the special event in my granddaughter's life will not happen every week, and that I'll soon be back in class again and working on catching up.

Obviously, all my efforts to stop beating myself up have flown out the window now that I've read this. Is it just a case of my bad luck for missing class on a day when so many others also missed? Or, would I still have read this had I been the only one (as I had assumed)? My former guilt seems to be morphing into paranoia. I think there's a lesson here for both of us. :)

Like you, I overthink stuff. Maybe I deserve to feel guilty over missing a class - although probably not as much as I heap on myself, but you definitely don't - not even a little. You share your talents and make writing accessible and possible for lots of others. When someone doesn't take advantage of that, it has more to do with their own stuff and very little or nothing to do with you.

Remember, too, that some students only sign up because they have the wrong idea, then quit when they realize there is no magic bullet that will make them instantly into best-selling authors. They don't actually want to do the work that writing requires. That's not your fault.

For people with that mindset it matters not how good you are or how much knowledge and enthusiasm you have to share, but only what they can take as easily as possible. They are the same ones who stop going to the gym when the results fail to show in a week or two. All you can do for them is be there if they overhaul their thinking and want to start again in the future.

Blah, blah, blah . . . Like the Led Zeppelin song - I ramble on. Does any of this make sense? Does it speak to the issue? Is it helpful - at all?