Tonight is Meet the Teacher night at my school. I will meet with my advisee’s parents and then I will have 8 minutes with the parents of each of my classes. It is a whirlwind and definitely a high stress evening, but it is always lovely to meet the parents. I teach all day (with a lunch meeting thrown in) then my husband (who also teaches at the same school) and I will rush home, get the kids from day care, get them fed, and then hand it off to the babysitter. Back to school to spruce up the room and prepare to meet the parents.
I wanted to share with you the letter of introduction I wrote to my students this year. I’ve done this every year and it is one of my favorite rituals. As you will see, students write me a letter back. I keep these letters and return them right before they graduate. It’s a nice time capsule.
As I was getting dressed last week, a stray sticky note fluttered to the ground. It must have come home stuffed in a pocket, only to be dumped onto my dresser with the loose change and paperclips, where it then it fell into my drawer. The note was only about an inch square and it said—in my own handwriting— “We are all a work in progress.” I often find notes like this with unlabeled phone numbers, or something someone said that I want to remember. By the end of the year, there are a bunch of them littered across my desk and I guess this one hitched a ride. It feels like kismet. (Do you know that word? It means destiny or fate.)
Maybe I am reading into it, but the moment felt magical. (BTW, I think it’s okay to read into things, but I’m an English teacher and that’s basically my job.)
So I wrote this letter in the dark. My three year old son gets scared, so my husband and I take turns sitting with him in his room as he falls asleep. And sometimes an idea you want to write about will not wait and I’m worried that scrolling through Facebook on my phone might make me forget that little sticky note.
Until that night, I wasn’t sure what I would write about in my ninth letter of introduction to my new students. The letter wasn’t my own idea—I learned it from a professor at NYU (where I got my masters). Write your students a letter, he told us. Then have them write you one back. I’ve done it ever since.
So, hi. I’m Mrs. Griswold and I am your English teacher. This is my fifth year at Harpeth Hall and my husband also teaches here. We have two kids, a dog, and 5 chickens. We moved here from New York 4 years ago.
I went to middle school in Mexico City, high school in Caracas, Venezuela and then college in Cleveland. I spent my junior year living in London and then I lived in New York where I went to NYU and then taught. I guess you could say that I am international work in progress. I have tried out a lot of cities and now here I am. As a result of all of my years living abroad, I speak Spanish fluently and Portuguese conversationally—as in I can only speak in present tense and my vocabulary isn’t awesome.
The kismet part of the sticky note is that this was my work in progress summer. Three years ago I decided that I wanted to try to write a novel. I signed up for NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. In 2012, for the month of November, I wrote about 1,700 words each day and at the end of the month I had 50,000 words. It was hard work and I was so proud of myself. I did it! I was done.
But my novel wasn’t really done. I hadn’t finished telling the story, even with 50,000 words. Then I read that I needed more like 80 or 100,0000 words. (I am so glad I didn’t know that before I started.)
So, I spent the next Winterim and summer writing more.
Then I did it! I reached 75,000 words. Except I had only barely edited any of what I had written. It was 75,000 words of first draft filled with typos and dead ends. So, I started re-reading from the beginning and editing as I went along. I thought writing the first 50,000 words was hard. Editing a novel is even harder.
I just wanted to be done. The end, perfect book, someone publish it now.
Another summer and Winterim and I reached the end of the second draft and thought, okay, maybe I am ready to send it to agents!
But then I realized that one character’s backstory didn’t really work and it was sort of haunting me. Not to mention that I had written the book from two different points of view, and I wasn’t sure if all the facts lined up. I also got some feedback from a writing group that one of my two narrators was less compelling and interesting than the other.
There was also the problem of the timeline. In addition to having two narrators, the novel bounces around in time and it isn’t chronological.
Then came this summer. I changed the verb tenses of my narrators and I really tried to hear the characters speaking in my mind. I reordered all of my chapters chronologically, and started editing for event and plot clarity.
As I did that, I decided that one of my characters, the one whose backstory felt a little wonky, would be a dancer and I started interviewing dancers. I went to the School of the Nashville Ballet. I watched a dance company rehearse. I kept writing and editing.
I went to coffee shops and I wrote every day. Hours of writing. I would get into that magical zone that psychologists call Flow. I would look up and three hours had whizzed by.
All along the process of writing this novel, I keep thinking that this summer, this Winterim, I’m going to finish the book. But I keep learning that it is still a work in progress. At this point, I can’t imagine it ever not being a work in progress.
To give myself a break from my novel, which happens to be sort of sad in parts, I worked on a children’s book that I wrote in 2007. I edited it, I sent it to friends for feedback, and then I sent it to agents that represent children’s books. Out of 6 agents, I have received 2 rejections, and I’m super pumped. To me, a rejection meant I was really a writer who was really trying to get a book published. People who just dream about being a writer never get any rejection letters. I know that on the other side of rejection is that magical Yes.
I remember thinking in high school that at some point I would just get it. That all adults had reached some sort of finish line and were just hanging out in the victory tent. I remember feeling like I had so much to work on and so far to go, but maybe someday I’d be done.
Writing is reminding me that we are all constantly a work in progress.
Just as important, however, I’m learning that we have to find ways to be a work in progress, to attempt big, grand, scary things in life—like, say, high school. Anne Lamott, who wrote Bird by Bird, my favorite book about writing, says:
E.L. Doctorow said once said that “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.
I’m so glad I took on the challenge to write a novel. Even if it is a work in progress forever. Even if it never gets published. I stuck with it. I’m learning to be patient. I’m learning not to quit on myself.
Okay, your turn. Write me a letter. As long as it’s about you, it can be about anything you want. Maybe something I said has got you thinking. What are your works in progress? What big mountain do you want to climb? What did you do this summer? Don’t feel like you have to answer these questions. I just want to get to know you.