If you invite yourself to the party, who will find you entertaining?

the high school where I taught in Gabrovo, Bulgaria
the high school where I taught in Gabrovo, Bulgaria

Possibly I’ve picked this picture because we’ve had 55 days of triple digit heat here in Texas and I needed to be reminded how much I hate to be cold.

Classes started at 7am. Well, when we had the morning shift. The building was used by another high school, and so for one month we had the building from 7 until 1. The other shift was from 1 until 7pm.

Due to the water regimes I had running water in my apartment from 6am to 10am. And again from 6pm to 10pm. There was one space heater for the entire apartment. The walls and floor were concrete, which held in cold really well. My refrigerator, the kind that college kids rent for dorm rooms here in America, was on the balcony, but I discovered that my kitchen was cold enough in winter that I didn’t need the fridge at all.

There was no washing machine or laundromat. Everything was hand washed in a bucket and hung on the balcony to dry. I discovered that clothing can freeze and that you should never hang your laundry out when the baba upstairs plans on beating her carpets.

There was no money to de-ice roads or sidewalks. There was no money to heat all of the rooms in the school (or light all the hallways in the hospitals). They told me the school was up a hill. Hill, I discovered, is really a matter of perspective.

At the bottom of this hill were about twenty steps. The iced filled the steps and turned them into a slide. Someone would come by and hack grooves in the ice–enough room for one foot. Then the steps ended. I discovered I didn’t fall as much if I reached for hanging branches to walk up to the first turn in the path. Students passing me laughed.

Sometimes a fellow teacher took my arm and helped me up the next part of the path. I discovered at that height the thick brownish yellow factory-made cloud was at eye level. Sometimes the wind blew the cloud into the side of the hill. The picture shows the school from the last turn on the path.

I’d get to class and the students ignored me. The chalkboard had holes it. The bucket of water and a rag were the eraser. No fresh water for the bucket was available. I discovered that no running water isn’t that big a deal if the toilets are holes in the floor.

I had no textbook and no access to a copy machine. Some students played cards, read the newspaper, or didn’t bother to come at all. Some students, four or five out of 27 or 28, listened and took notes. Some students who had never spoken to me, suddenly had something to say when Kurt Cobain shot himself. I was not allowed to fail certain students.

Some fellow teachers became friends. Some were sure that something was so wrong with me that my government had sent me to them to get rid of me.

I discovered that few students cared how hard I thought things were. They didn’t care how raw my hands got hand washing sheets, how the first stage of frost bite felt on my feet, how long it took me to hand copy worksheets for them, or how many hours I spent trying to come up with lesson plans to educate and entertain 230 teenagers. It’s not like they invited me. It’s not like it was going to be my life forever.

I’ve discovered that agents don’t care what I go through to send them a letter. The writing and rewriting. The making of art. The giving up of most television and socializing. The nice things others say. The forgetting of birthdays and phone calls. The sacrifice of career advancement in order to write. The agonizing over every word on a query letter–and the formatting and the address labels and the everything. It’s not like they invited me to this writing life.

But it isn’t like the Peace Corps where I knew in a couple years I was going to pack my bags and go home.

What have you discovered through all your hard work?

14 thoughts on “If you invite yourself to the party, who will find you entertaining?

  1. I was going to complain, at first, about the process. Now, I think I’ll shut up and just realize how blessed I am and continue trying to learn how to jump through the hoops.

    No one invited me either. πŸ™‚

  2. The same thing’s true for readers that you describe for agents. Readers don’t care, either. They know what they want, and don’t care about the process which leads to their getting it.

    (Exceptions, always, for readers who themselves are writers. In fact, the one drawback to getting feedback from other writers is that they can be sympathetic to a fault, exactly because they know how hard it is to produce a perfect… well, let’s say to produce a perfect paragraph πŸ™‚ — let alone a perfect book.)

    In a post a few months ago, Dennis Cass talked about writing what he called “tent-pole moments” in a story. I commented, something about not wanting to pay too much attention to writing the big scenes because they’re too much fun, and all that’s left after them is the grunt work of tying them all together. His reply (not verbatim, I think): I don’t care how much fun you have. I only care if your story’s good. It was a little brutal but, really, that’s the bottom line for most readers who don’t know the writer in some capacity.

    So for me, the hardest part is to sort of abstract myself from the process, too, and to see what some unknown reader will see. I can’t do that while I’m in the process, though. I just hope to God I can do it later.

    1. Dennis can be a wee bit on the stingy side, but he’s right. The story has to be good. Although I can’t stop myself from thinking that if you have writing, the reader has more fun reading. Certainly a bored writer means a bored reader, right?

  3. Wow. That was some experience. I shouldn’t complain about my first year of teaching in a NYC public school that almost ended in a nervous breakdown… well, exhaustion, anyway.

    What have I learned from the hard work? That we make more of our hard work than we should, We complain about it and whine about it and are afraid of it and avoid it when really, if we just sit down and tackle it without emotion, we will find out it’s really not so hard. Piece by piece it’s not nearly as hard as the whole picture seems.


    I don’t know if I should talk since I’m in the avoid stage with my novel. Whine whine whine.

  4. This always happens. I read all the way through the comments and then forget what the question was.


    I guess I’ve learned I don’t care if they care. It’s just business. I don’t care how much rock they have to chip away to get to my diamond, either. The huge piles of crap books they have to deal with just to find one they like…Sorry, but that’s part of the job. Just like I have to sit over here for a year waiting for a response. I don’t necessarily think it would be any shorter, either, if the slush pile were smaller. They know we’ll wait, and so they take as long as they want. The pubs who are conscientious about a quick reply somehow get it done. And yet I don’t hold it against the slow ones anymore. I think this last crisis I went through drilled home exactly what “just business” means. I finally internalized it.

    I’m just ranting. I guess the hard work has taught me how lucky I am. Probably exactly the same thing you learned through your hard work in Bulgaria.

  5. I learned:

    That the world, or fate, won’t treat you more kindly or take care of you if you are a kind person. That being a kind and good person won’t prevent sickness. Or poverty. So I can stop trying to be good enough to avoid bad stuff, and can just take care of myself.

    That being someone who really, really wants to be a writer isn’t enough to make anyone else care. Or do anything about it. Only I can do something about it.

    I’ve found that realizing the world doesn’t care is really very freeing. Now I can do things because *I*care.

  6. Through all my hard work I have learned that I would rather be the world’s worst writer, more awful than Maureen Dowd, than a good anything else.

    I have learned that I often have to write things for myself in order to have something interesting to read.

    I have learned that at any given moment I can bore any given person, and that the person I can least afford to bore is myself.

    I have learned that the best sauces for pasta are those with the least ingredients, the best short stories written in this century were written by Louise Erdrich, that dogs have a sense of humor, that dialogue is vastly misunderstood, that university administrators tend toward paranoia and formality, and the Gerbera or African daisy will droop if you put too much water in the vase. I have learned that following rules, particularly when it comes to making things, is a bad business because of the persistent wonder that you either followed the rules too much or not enough, either way taking your eye off the target,

    1. Yes! That’s it! I would rather be a terrible writer than no writer at all. There’s a belief I shall carry with me. Thanks for your gift to say just the right thing.

  7. Hmm. I think I’ve discovered that since the world didn’t ask me to be born, I should show I’m worthy to be here. I’ve also learned that sometimes we just have to “cowboy up” and do what needs doing instead of looking around waiting for someone else to get to it – if I notice it, it probably means that I’m the someone else.

    I’ve also learned that the world in general doesn’t give crap one about me, but a few do and that’s enough.

    I’ve also learned that money makes the world go ’round, and there is no life apart from Christ.

    How’s that? πŸ˜€

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