How Natalie Goldberg Turned Me Into a Thief

People say TV and video games are bad influences, but it was a book that made me a criminal.

[This story was originally posted on my previous blog, The Black Cat Diaries, on March 4, 2013.]

How Natalie Goldberg Turned Me Into a Thief

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Books can be bad influences.

Today I bought Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg.  This book became famous for its inspiration to writers back in the 80s. After hearing it praised by several friends, I finally decided to see what the fuss was about.  Between errands, I popped into Barnes & Noble and picked it up. Then I stopped to grab a quick lunch.  But my quick lunch quickly became a slow leisurely meal as I dived into Goldberg’s book and found no desire to resurface.

From the very first page, I could not put it down. I suddenly felt like I was having lunch with an old friend, one who is really good at writing and really into Zen and who only came to lunch so that she could sit me down and tell me she believes in me and wants to give me a magical gift that will solve all my problems.  (Don’t you love friends/books like that?)  I wanted to linger in that taco shop all day and read all 200 pages, but I had more errands to run, so I ran.

My next stop was the car wash.  Not the drive-through kind, the hand-wash kind.  But not the hand-wash-it-yourself kind, the kind where you pay someone to hand-wash it for you. Specifically, I wanted the dog hair vacuumed out of the backseat before company arrives this weekend.

I drove to the car wash in an altered mental state.  I couldn’t stop thinking about Goldberg’s book.  In particular, I was contemplating her theory of writing as meditation.  I was concentrating so hard on this thought that I entered the car wash through the exit.  Whoops!  When I got myself turned around, I learned it would cost $25 to clean my car inside and out.  Somewhere in the back of my cloudy brain that sounded high to me, but… I was in a rush and decided that I certainly didn’t want to clean the car myself, so I nodded.

Besides, I still wasn’t REALLY thinking about car washes at all.  I was thinking about the part of the book that said, “Too many writers have written great books and gone insane or alcoholic or killed themselves.  This process teaches us about sanity.  We are trying to become sane along with our poems and stories.”  I tried to remain sane as I got out of the car and handed the keys to the attendant.  When he handed me a ticket in return, I (thinking about how nice it would be to write a book and not want to kill myself) said, “What do I do with this?  Put it on my dashboard?”  He said, “No, you keep it.”  So I put the ticket in my pocket, floated through the building to the outdoor waiting area, and sat down at a picnic table.

For the next forty-five minutes, I completely lost myself in Writing Down the Bones—reading, underlining, jotting notes.  Before I knew it, a man was calling out, “Honda Civic?”  I waved.  He walked over, handed me my keys, then turned and pointed across the parking lot to my car.  I became vaguely aware that I should tip him.  In my wallet, I had only a twenty and a five, so—what the heck—I handed him the five.  Then I moved to my car, still gliding in the pleasant haze of Goldberg’s words.  I got in, pulled out onto the road, and, realizing I was in heavy traffic, snapped out of my reading-induced fog.

traffic_lightAt the first stoplight, I thought, “Oh my gosh!  It’s 4:30!?  I still have to buy groceries and make dinner!”

At the second stoplight, I looked in the backseat and thought, “Wow, there is still a LOT of dog hair back there!  That stinks!  I’ll have to clean it myself after all!”

At the third stoplight, I thought, “I tipped that guy five bucks.  That means that was a $30 car wash.  And they didn’t even do a good job.  I wonder if I should go back and complain.”

At the fourth stoplight, I thought, “HOLY CRAP!  I DID NOT PAY FOR MY CAR WASH!!!”

Yep, it’s true.  A guy handed me a ticket, I sat down at a picnic table and read a book, a guy handed me my keys, and I left.  The assumption here is that I skipped a step somewhere.  I was probably supposed to hand that ticket to someone inside the building who would then have asked me to give them money.  But I didn’t.  The only money I paid was the $5 tip.

You can judge me all you want, but I didn’t go back.  I was already halfway to HEB in rush hour traffic, and I didn’t feel like driving all the way back just to say, “Hi, I forgot to pay you, so here’s the money.  And by the way, you totally need to clean my car again.”  I do feel bad, but I am hoping the universe will forgive me for this one.

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My new bookmark

Anyway, though I may be lacking in morals, this story is not.

Moral #1:  The key to stealing something and getting away with it is a complete and total cluelessness, combined with a flighty, head-in-the-clouds attitude.  In short, ignorance = confidence, and if you act confident, no one will stop you.

Moral #2Writing Down the Bones is such a good book it can turn you into a criminal.  Thanks, Natalie Goldberg.  You owe the nice guys at the car wash $25.

Advice From a Teacher, Part 2: The Spiral

On Wednesday, I told my seventh graders we’d be starting our expository writing unit, and they groaned accordingly. I then proceeded to pretend that they were whining for no reason and that writing expository essays wasn’t really that bad and might actually be kind of fun.

On Thursday, I put an outline of the expository essay structure on the screen* and my students did not whine. They simply gazed back at me with glassy-eyed stares. That’s when I realized three things:

  1. They had all seen this outline before.
  2. They obviously needed to see this outline again because their benchmark expository essays first semester were terrible.
  3. I had to find a way to make them not hate me for teaching them expository writing or they would never learn expository writing.

So, I dropped the act.

* I don’t actually have a screen for my projector. In November, while I was out of the classroom to grade the students’ benchmark expository essays, my sweet little substitute accidentally broke my screen when it got stuck while she was teaching and she tried to unstick it. For about a week, I didn’t have a screen at all. Then, when I remembered that I work in education and probably wouldn’t be getting a new screen anytime soon, I improvised. My “screen” is a bed sheet.

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Exhibit A

I told my students that I knew they had heard all this before. They nodded. I told them I knew they’d written expository essays before. They nodded again. I told them I didn’t want them to think that I thought I was telling them something new and exciting that they’d never heard before. I said, “I know you’ve learned expository writing before. You’ve also written personal narratives before and read short stories before and analyzed poems before.” (More nodding.) I said, “If it feels like you do the same thing in Language Arts every year, it’s because you do.”

They seemed sort of shocked at this, like they didn’t know I knew it or at least never expected me to admit it. That’s when I told them that Language Arts is different than their other classes. “It’s not linear,” I said, making things up on the spot and trying to sound intelligent. I explained how math is linear. “You have to learn how to add and subtract before you learn how to multiply and divide. Everything builds on everything else, and eventually you’re doing complex equations, and you have to know how to add and subtract to do them, but you’re not still being taught how to add and subtract.” I talked about how in science, you study different topics each year. “But Language Arts isn’t like that,” I said. “Language Arts is a spiral.” I talked about how reading and writing are skills you learn over and over again, only with new material. I said, “The skills may not change, but the complexity does. You’re still reading short stories, but they’re longer, more advanced short stories. You’re still analyzing poetry, but it’s higher level poetry. You’re still writing narratives and essays, but they should be higher quality, more mature narratives and essays.”

Then I drew this elaborate diagram to illustrate what I meant and projected it on my sheet.

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Exhibit B

The kids** actually seemed to listen to what I was saying. They seemed to get it. And for the rest of the period, as we took notes (again) on thesis statements and body paragraphs and conclusions and color-coded an example of an expository essay, no one groaned or whined or said, “We’ve done this before.” They were quiet and attentive and on task and maybe, just maybe, seeing the lesson in a new way. It was nice.

** When I say “the kids” I’m lumping all 129 of my students together, but in reality, I teach ELA five times a day to classes that range in size from 16 to 31, and no class is ever exactly the same. Here’s how this little teachable moment actually broke down:

  • 1st period: I had no epiphanies first period and made no grand speeches about the spiral of Language Arts. First period is always known as my “guinea pig class.” It’s where I test out my lesson and see if it works. This year it’s even worse than usual because my conference periods are 2nd and 3rd, so I can totally revamp things if necessary before more students come in, and I often do. I often console myself by reminding myself that there are only 16 students in my first period, so if the lesson doesn’t go well, I’m only damaging 8% of my students, but then I remind myself that I really should try to give them a kick-butt lesson someday to make up for it, or at least some candy.
  • 4th period: I had the epiphany about the repetitive nature of ELA and improvised a short speech about the spiral but used no visuals.
  • 5th period: I gave a decent speech about the spiral and actually drew a small spiral on the board.
  • 7th period: I gave a good speech and illustrated it with the elaborate and impressive diagram you saw above.
  • 8th period: I drew the same illustration as above but more neatly and with a purple marker, while giving a moving speech about the spiral that ended with me saying, “So, Language Arts doesn’t change, but—I’m about to blow your minds—you change,” and the students let out a collective “whoa” of appreciation.***

*** I’m not kidding.

Then on Friday, we took a break from expository writing to start our nonfiction book clubs, and my classes were all ridiculously loud and squirrely and unfocused, and I ended up threatening, “If I have to tell you to get quiet again, you’re doing book clubs by yourself!” which makes no sense. But I blame the _______________ [Choose your adjective: excitement/horror/bewilderment] of Trump’s presidential inauguration for that. ****

**** In case my actual teaching advice got lost in the writing of this post, here it is:

  1. Be honest with your students. They will respect you for it.
  2. Once in a while, try to wow your guinea pig class with a great lesson. Or, failing that, give them candy.
  3. In a pinch, bed sheets can be used as projection screens. Also, broken desk arms can be used as crowbars, but that’s a whole different story.

 

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Exhibit C

Book Title Poems From a Stormy Night

Last night, thunderstorms and a pot of evening coffee proved to be the perfect combination for pulling books off my shelves and making some more book title found poems. Here are a few of my latest creations:

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The Arrival

In the lake of the woods,
strange little girls
wait ’till Helen comes
out of darkness
(beautiful darkness)
the girl from the well
extending the shade,
inhaling the silence.

Old friend from far away,
time you let me in.

*

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Growing Pains

hard times,
brave new world–
the flag of childhood
catching fire

*

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Why the Dwarf Had to Be Shot

Miss Nelson is missing!
The walls around us red as blood,
the creeping shadow leaving a trace
a darker shade of magic.
Mortal coils fuel
smoke from this alter.
All that lives must die.

I am not a serial killer.

*

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Journaling the Apocalypse

Vampires in the lemon grove
howl the sound of water.

Snugglepot and Cuddlepie
speak of the devil.

Places left unfinished at the time of creation
linger

The sky is everywhere
when you are engulfed in flames.

*