It’s been ages. I know. I don’t know where I’ve been, probably buried under paper grading, dealing with teenagers and even worse adults that act like teenagers, trying to figure out the balance between discipline and patience (in regards to the toddler that now shares a roof with me and Mr. One Mean), doing hot yoga a couple times a week, attempting to do something with my lawn, and the like. That rut I was telling you about ages ago still plagues me. I can’t quite seem to find myself. I have been writing and publishing and working towards that elusive academic job, but, of course, to absolutely no avail. This past year was my best writing year in a long time, probably since grad school, but as Mr. One Mean likes to remind me, who is calling to grant you that interview? Dude is tough, but he keeps it real. I appreciate that. I need that.
I keep trying to visualize myself on a college campus, making a living wage, in my office with students who want to discuss craft. It’s a real dream. In terms of the craft of teaching, I’m definitely improving. In my classrooms (high school and college), I’m doing good work. I can feel it. My students seem to be receptive, hell, some of them might even be learning. In regards to the rest of my life, that is not the case. So much of it is messy and chaotic and I definitely am in the midst of an existential crisis, though what writer isn’t?
So, as summer approaches, I’m eagerly beginning to form my writing plan. Look, I know a lot of you are already on summer vacation (lucky academics!), but where I live we still have 2 more instructional days and 4 days of exams. It’s really quite horrible. As much as I enjoy teaching (and strangely enough I’m kind of passionate about it), I’m ready to not see the stinky faces of the teenagers I’ve attempted to impart some knowledge on. Everything is moving in slow motion, and I just want summer to be here because summer (even the oppressive heat that comes with it) is the greatest time of year. You pumpkin and fall lovers need to can it. The leaves are pretty, but raking, while an excellent workout, is not my idea of pleasure. I mean come on, multicolored leaves versus lush green and hazy, hot days? There is nothing better. Okay, the crisp air is nice in October. Hush. I’m coming around to the other seasons.
Summer has often meant laziness for me. It’s been a time to decompress the daily interactions with young people that I so love but often find myself getting irritated by. It’s writing that helps me quell the crazy. This summer I’m definitely going to need to get some of that crazy out. I need the nourishment.
Recently, I started writing a short story. I hadn’t written fiction in years and while I teach the craft of fiction and am specialized in fiction, I find the personal essay a more natural form, so when this character popped into my head, I thought, “One Mean, you need to get this chick out of your head and onto a Google Doc.” So I did. And it’s been fun, but I’ve totally hit a wall, and frankly, I don’t think it’s the character or what I presume will be the plot of the story that is stalling me. I fucking rusty, folks. My fiction chops need warming up.
Years ago–like high school years ago–like when volcanic rock was beginning to form land masses in the ocean–I played the trumpet. I was (am) a terrible trumpet player. I was good enough to get through the music and not good enough to warrant pursuing a career as a jazz artist. I was self taught and was transiting to the trumpet in order for the marching band to have balance. The band didn’t need another flute player. I was a good flute player and decent enough musician that I taught myself the notes on the trumpet (mostly by banging the keys of the piano at home and matching the pitches on my trumpet) and called it a day. Honestly, I have to think my poor parents regretted the day they brought home that piano and then later the flute and that trumpet. Anyway, I digress. The hardest part of learning the trumpet was getting my embouchure right. The flute was vastly different from the trumpet, both required the same muscles but not in the same way, sort of like nonfiction and fiction. My mouth was sore for months. My lips would feel numb, though I have been told–not that I would know because I’m such a prude–brass players make the best kissers. In high school a dated two boys, one in band (a baritone) and one not, and I can attest to the fact the baritone was hands down the better kisser so maybe there is some truth to this. My band director was a trumpet player, so he took great care making sure the brass sections were warmed up. We would buzz on our mouthpieces, take great care with our breath, buzz without mouth pieces to enhance the strength in our mouths, and we’d finally put our mouthpieces in our horns and play. When concert season would start, I’d happily put my trumpet away and resume (Confession: I never stopped practicing the flute, which is why I was first chair) my flute practice. My flute embouchure was always working (just like my nonfiction chops are stronger), but in the spring when we’d reveal our fall season opener, I’d have to dust off my trumpet and once again the soreness to my lips would return.
When lips are sore from playing a brass instrument, the whole mouth is involved. The sides of your mouth–the muscles you forget are there unless you play an instrument–ache. Your lips feel mushy (I know I’m so articulate) and numb. It feels as if your lips are full of push pins or maybe what tenderized meat would feel like if it had feelings if it was, you know, alive. When you cool down your lips (like the way you cool down after a jog), your lips don’t fully regain feeling until you’ve had a cold drink. In fact, drinking cold water during a performance is frowned upon–nay, forbidden–because all that warming up gets washed away with the ice.
It is in this way that I feel about my fiction writing. I’ve been practicing my trumpet for a few hours, and my chops are busted. My brain mushy and numb. I’m dusting off my instrument after several seasons of it being enclosed in a case and stored on the top shelf of my closet. The case nearly falls onto your head as you stand on your tip-toes to reach it. It’s heavy and cumbersome, but when you open the case, you’re glad you did because you know good times are about about to roll.