Crafting a Life between Just and Too
Some writers clean their houses in an attempt to procrastinate before sitting down to a blank page. Tonight I will perform this magic trick in reverse as two fairly significant blobs of Badger sunscreen residue wait patiently for me under the dining room table while I wander around the Internet watching TED videos and trolling Facebook for any news from anyone on any subject. In about 800 words, I’ll mix a paste of Oxi-Clean, but for now, a story.
One of the best parts of summer for me is time spent wandering the library stacks for new books about teaching, writing, and learning. Due to a slightly busier work schedule this season, I set up a reading program that would help me move through a different topic each week. Last week the topic was ADHD, which was perhaps not the ideal way to kick off this one-woman book club. Oh goodness, I got sad. It turns out that I probably fall a bit higher on the spectrum than I realized, and while I fully believe that knowledge is power, reality can be a bit of a nag sometimes. I wrote up a bibliography and moved on to writing week. Now I find myself with a bit of a crush.
Donald M. Murray published a book called Crafting a Life in 1996 toward the end of a long writing and teaching career at the University of New Hampshire. Before he died in 2006, Murray had a lot to say about writing as craft. (That word is often presented with a bit more pretense than I think it deserves.) The best explanation I have heard for craft is that it is never finished. We never reach the day when we breathe a sigh of relief at the perfect piece of writing, the ideal chest of drawers carved from the best specimen of wood, the most flawless exhibition of our skill. Craft is practiced repeatedly as we mark our progress along the way with artifacts we show to teachers, readers, coaches, and peers. We crafters know that we can do better, go faster, make it lovelier, and after some rest and a snack, we will create again.
We are at the halfway point between 800 words and my date with carpet cleaning, so I’ll pause here for a thesis.
We are craft. We are never done. The day will not arrive when I am fear-free, flawless, and ready for primetime. Tomorrow I will say something I wish I could take back, forget to drink 64 ounces of water, and not make my bed. If I put in the effort, I could easily get better at these things, and then they would quickly be followed by three more things I didn’t do just right.
When I was a little girl, teachers reported that I was too quiet and shy, while classmates complained that I walked funny, my hair was too red, I had too many freckles, and laughed way too loud. So I lived my life for a long time under the impression that my job was to speak up, walk slower, not laugh out loud and locate the most effective covering for freckles. I solved the red hair problem by simply telling people my hair was brown. For me, reality was optional until 35 (and more recently in some areas).
My kindergarten teacher explained helpfully to my mother that I was a late bloomer. This gave me cover for “too shy” for a long time, and later helped me rationalize why declaring a major in college took seven tries and twelve years. When I finally chose Education, my professors and cooperating teachers seemed to want me to help my students get rid of their Too’s.
As a student teacher, I learned which children pushed the teachers’ buttons the fastest. Unsurprisingly, it turned out not to be the too shy/quiets with or without freckles. The loudest, silliest, funniest students took turns collecting lunch detentions for disrupting the day’s lesson on ancient China. The shy/quiets gathered at my desk before and after school to tell me about their weekend, and show off letters from their fathers and brothers in Iraq. The loud/funnies told me about their weekends in the middle of our lessons on ancient China. All of this brought back memories of my Tooness which compelled me to tell my professor about the late bloomer diagnosis. With shock registering on her face she replied, “You should stop saying that about yourself.” That’s when I realized that for some people, being not just so is very uncomfortable.
It turned out that I was too something or other to be a classroom teacher. I found myself too tired after saying the same thing to the same people seven periods a day and too busy talking to the loud/funnies to be useful to the rest of the class. I wanted to know too much about what made people too quiet or too loud. So I found a way to work with the too’s one at a time. Now they and I get to learn how to steer our lives without trying to be somebody else’s idea of just right.
Best of all, I have learned that my too shy/quietness makes me really good at listening to other people, and helps me sit down long enough to read and write coherently. My loud laugh matches that of my dear friend Elizabeth. We are too-loud laughers who no longer care if we’ve interrupted your dinner – we are reminiscing about decades of good times together – deal with it. Also, freckles and red hair are extremely cute. Because I said so. My walk, which was never an issue except for that one bizarre day at recess in sixth grade which stuck in my brain for 30 years, is what gets me through miles of hills and dales on a hot summer night. The problem, should someone decide one exists, lies not in the freckle or the laugh, but in the judgment itself.
I told someone recently my story about being a late bloomer. Instead of responding with shock and horror, he kept walking and said, “At least you bloomed.”