Disciplining the Ego or Teeth Marks of Reality

Week 24

Disciplining the Ego


The Teeth Marks of Reality

I spent this morning preparing for the third session of my ABE class for this academic year. Translation: five hours of copying, sorting, stapling and organizing eight weeks of lessons that may or may not keep my students focused and help them absorb the important information. For all the finger-drying paper, jammed copiers and staplers, and aggravation of finding that, in two cases, I’d stapled the wrong reading comprehension to the right grammar review, I’m not half done. Yet.

If I haven’t mentioned it before, for my “day job,” I teach Adult Basic Education (ABE) or the lowest-scoring of adults who need to brush up skills for job retraining and/or need to earn a high school equivalency certificate. Too frequently, this entails what most of us would consider basic math skills, reading comprehension and grammar. I can’t accurately say how many times I have had to explain long division without a calculator. It makes the algebra and geometry I know I cursed in high school seem like a far distant reward for all the slogging through fractions. Reading? Well, there’s something like that going on daily. Don’t ask about Main Ideas and Author’s Purpose, though. We’re still deciphering the words themselves, as if American Standard English has become a foreign language. And commas? The bane of my students’ existence, what with all those pesky rules to which there are countless exceptions. It’s a slow go, with fits and starts and absences that pile up because Life will get in the way.

What has all that to do with writing, particularly writing magic realism or fantasy or any other genre of writing?

Well, for one thing, my day job defrays some of the bills. Not many, but it doesn’t hurt.

For another, there are those who say teaching ABE keeps me “busy.” Right. Bring around those who call what my colleagues and I do to help others reach their goals “keeping busy,” and I will gladly head-slap them, ala “NCIS.” Then I would have them do hours of preparation, delivery and reflection. Then let them tell me about “keeping busy.” To return and rephrase the insult so popular among those who couldn’t teach their way out of a paper bag: Those who can, do. Those who can do more, teach. Those who can’t, criticize.

So why do it, when, “obviously,” I should be spending all my time at the keyboard, writing the next Great World Novel, to be translated into every written language with sales and royalties to support myself and my heirs for the next seven generations?

The answer lies in the question itself. Read it again and tell me you don’t think it demonstrate a disconnect from reality. Boiled down, it reads, “See goal, set goal, achieve goal, retire in comfort.” I hear some of my past students here jeering, “As if!” The reality of it is, a wholly writing life is deception.


Writing imposes an order on events. Beginning, middle and end: those are the way we understand as well as expect a short story or novel or even a history to proceed. We tell ourselves we know what to expect and what can be ignored. Surprises or twists get retro-analyzed to fit the storyline we construct or we toss it to the critics to devour and growl over before they tell us “what it all means.” Loose ends or red herrings lead to critics chewing up columns with venom or to sequels. And, as a writer, I think myself pretty darned marvelous for being able to do it.

If it gets messy in between, well, that’s as may be, and it comes out by the end. All the plot elements, including so-called twists, lead to the end’s conclusion and the overall “message” of the writing. Life isn’t like that. If I did not learn that from having three children who grew up quite nicely more to spite me than because of me, I learn that in every one of my ABE classes. There can be a plan, a loose structure, even a goal in mind, but the path there? A labyrinth of will and circumstance and the variable some call Luck (substitute Divine Providence, Coincidence, Murphy’s Law, or whatever you prefer). Some days, nothing makes sense, no problem can possibly be solved, the English language has dissolved to gibberish. Others, it’s light bulbs of understand aplenty and for everything. Most days, we’re lucky to have one or two lit among us. And I, for one, most days have little or no idea how that light turned on or why. It simply does.

I wrote last time that I could not explain the “meaning” or “purpose” behind the experience of spending time with my family. I still cannot. I am not sure there is meaning or purpose to be taken from it. It simply was. And I accept that.

Perhaps, then, that is what my “day job” does for me as a writer. Teaching my ABE students not only gives me meaningful work to do, of course, but it also keeps my literal and figurative feet on the ground. It teaches me patience, flexibility and circumspection. It disciplines my writer’s ego. It makes me whole.

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