Some Experiments Don’t Work

A lot has happened since I walked away from a well-paying but mind-numbing career, and started working the only job I’ve ever wanted to do — writing. But aside from posting links to articles I’ve written, I haven’t said much about my new occupation. And since I’ve enjoyed reading insights into this profession, I’ve decided to provide my own limited perspective

Soon after making my leap into uncertainty, I revisited one of my former occupations — teaching composition as an adjunct instructor at a community college. I knew the pay wasn’t going to be great and I’d have to re-learn how to teach after almost two decades away from the classroom… but I remembered feeling satisfied in the last couple classes I had taught, and it was the quickest way for me to make a steady if unspectacular income. This was going to be a challenge, but it wasn’t like I was starting from scratch.

The semester began in late August, and by Halloween I had come to three key realizations:

  1. Re-learning how to teach wasn’t going to work, because I had never really learned how to teach in the first place. My pedagogical strategy back in the day had been based entirely on improvisation, and that’s not a healthy approach for someone who’d been away from the classroom for so long.
  2. Students respond well to teachers who address their needs. But as I had completely misjudged those needs at the start of the semester, I was not getting the response I was looking for.
  3. I wasn’t writing. Preparing for classes and grading papers was taking too much time and mental energy. A part-time job had become a full-time occupation.

By Thanksgiving, as the English Department at my school asked for my teaching preferences in the coming semester, I knew there was only one good decision. I had to stop teaching. I had embarked on this journey in order to write, and after a few months of failing to write much of anything, I knew changes needed to be made.

And yet, I don’t see my teaching last fall as a mistake, but more like an experiment that didn’t work. There will be plenty more experiments as I continue on this path, and some have yielded more positive results lately — I’m writing, lots, which has always been the priority. But in the coming months and years, there will be many more projects which will blow up, and I’ll by wiping soot off my face plenty of times. Sometimes the only way to figure out what works, is to discover what doesn’t.



PHOTO PROMPT © Sandra Crook

The bay had been a busy lumber port a century earlier, but had lost most of its traffic when cheaper timber material became available elsewhere; after the hydroelectric dam was built a mile upstream, the shoreline had receded too far for the bay to have any seafaring value. A single beam from a loading dock beam was the sole relic of that era. Suspended far the new shoreline, decades of fungal detritus dangled from its sides like icicles. On mornings after a long summer rain, its damp weathered features seemed ready for the arrival of ships from its forgotten past.

Friday Fictioneers is a weekly flash fiction contest which challenges you to write a complete story of up to 100 words based on a photo prompt. I cheated a little bit this time, as the bay in the photo looks to be on the ocean rather than a river, but what’s the fun in always playing by the rules?

An Invisible Disability

Sejal A. Shah has posted an interesting personal essay on bipolar disorder in the Kenyon Review Online. While I haven’t experienced the degree of illness described by the author, I’ve had enough of my own mental health challenges in the past decade to recognized many of conditions she describes:

  • The exhilaration of mania — There was something frightening in the chaos, beautiful and disturbing. The outlines, “POW!” as though a comic book, a superhero. I did, for a time, feel powerful before crashing. It’s a seductive power, and avoiding this emotional drug comes only from discipline and the experience of repeated failures.
  • Becoming a target for predators at your most vulnerable moments — when they sense you are unsteady, ill-equipped, unable to fight back.
  • The unrelenting pressure to hide the disorder — Disclosures of cancer elicit sympathy, gifts of casseroles, rides to the hospital, or other support. Disclose a mental illness and observe the response. Our culture finds mental illness distasteful, unfortunate, a moral failing.

I’m still searching to find my own voice in the public discussion about mental illness. I respect those who are already speaking out.

Information Infestation

The twentieth anniversary of the Columbine school shooting will occur in a few days, and today I stumbled across an interesting series of essays on the incident’s aftermath from Denver-based 5280 magazine. Among those essays were two pieces of information I have known for years about the killers:

  • They were members of a brooding clique of social outcasts at the school known as the Trench Coat Mafia
  • They had created levels in the game Doom
  • What I didn’t know until today was that both of these items are pure bullshit. In the days after the massacre, these were among the many rumors that journalists scavanged from the ruins of the community’s shattered psyche, and they did as they were trained — run with the story, and get the scoop on your rivals.
  • Then ask questions.
  • And if the answers you get suggest your scoop may have relied on a falsehood… the falsehood you reported becomes urban legend despite numerous updates and corrections… your emphasis on the sensational and salacious inspires copy-cat atrocities…
  • Well, you were just doing your job.
  • Maybe I shouldn’t care so much about two trivial details of this horrific event. And yes, shame on me for not conducting the five minutes of Internet research that would have disproven these myths. But I can’t help thinking that information has become a disease, an infestation of deception that has crippled our ability to think critically. A little learning may be a dangerous thing, but the way out of our predicament is not through more learning, but better discerning — sorting fact from rumor, no matter how appealing the fiction may be.
  • Un-promptu

    Wasn’t inspired by this week’s photo prompt on Friday Fictioneers — it happens — and I’ve obviously been away from The Daily Post for too long, as I discovered just now they no longer offer daily prompts. Don’t have the energy tonight to evaluate the hundreds of other prompt sites available, so I’m going with an impromptu admission of failure — call it my un-promptu.

    HJD Poetry

    I have an odd fascination for dark poetry, especially written by women (I would tell this to my therapist, but some truths lose their significance once diagnosed), and today I came across an interesting essay/lyrical meandering from HJD. I especially enjoyed the insight on “things they only speak of in hell or lower elementary school.”

    Letting Go

    If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’re probably familiar with the fiction I’ve occassionally posted. You may also have noticed that, aside from entries for Friday Fictioneers and similar contests, I haven’t posted any new stories for a while.

    I’m finally getting around to explaining why.

    Some of the stories I’ve drafted here have some potential, I believe. All of them are rough, but if I may use a familiar metaphor that has lost none of its power from overuse, each contains the seed of a story which, with a properly nurturing revision strategy, could bloom into an arresting flower. I’ve chosen six, and a seventh that I drafted this past year entirely outside this blog. My goal for this year is to revise all seven, and by year’s end begin submitting them to literary journals, genre magazines, fiction contests, online collections — any place that will get my name out there, or at least send a rejection to add to my collection. Party at my place when I reach 100!

    This ambition comes at a bit of price, however. Every writer I’ve heard speak, every editor I’ve spoken with, every submission guideline I’ve read, have been consistent in one message: no story will be published if it exists in a previous version available anywhere, including a rough draft on a blog. Those half-dozen stories I feel have promise? They’re no longer available on The Diligent Dilettante. And going forward, I’ll only be posting flash fiction, and stories I have no intention of publishing elsewhere.

    While this action obviously needed to happen, I didn’t enjoy letting go of these stories. I’ve enjoyed sharing them with you, and have learned from your comments. Taking the stories down sounds similar to preparing a good dinner for my friends, and taking the food away before they can finish. Sure, I’m investing far too much significance to taking these stories down — but I’m gonna channel my inner Lesley Gore, and proclaim, it’s my blog space, and I’ll moan if I want to.

    But here’s the good news: you’re going to see these stories again, as soon as I have the URL that points to its online publication location.

    Bad Timing

    “Then it’s final,” Trudy said. “You’re leaving.”

    Malcolm’s head nodded slowly, like a pumpkin falling off a scarecrow. “The plane leaves tomorrow morning.”

    Under a leafless tree, Trudy put her arms around Malcolm, who hugged her affectionately as he looked up. In the winter moonlight, the bare branches resembled a spider’s web.

    Trudy broke their embrace, and stepped back just in time to avoid the maddened rush of a werewolf, who tore open Malcolm’s belly, casting his entrails onto the ground.

    After gasping in horror, Trudy glared at the retreating lycanthrope. “You couldn’t wait until I fucking kissed him?”

    Over the past couple of years, I’ve been a semi-regular participant in Friday Fictioneers, a weekly flash fiction contest which challenges you to write a complete story of up to 100 words based on a photo prompt. I’ve enjoyed taking part, but have decided there weren’t enough werewolves in my stories.

    Feats of the Feet

    The sport of fencing engages the entire body, even the parts that are not targets or directly involved in scoring. Feet are especially critical, and to illustrate this idea I’ll use video I recorded at the recent NCAA Championship. (You’ll see the back of a lot of heads; I’m a fan, not a professional.)

    As the footwork is very different for the three weapons, they’ll each get their own example.


    In foil (where touches are scored with the point of the blade only, and the target area is limited to the torso), the feet are constantly moving, either forward or back. The fencer advances not only to come within striking distance, but to probe for weaknesses. Retreats can also be used strategically, as shown in this video. Notice how the fencer on the left comes in close and flicks his blade at the opponent, hoping to elicit a reaction; he then abandons his attack and moves backwards, drawing in the fencer on the right, who advances too far and gets hit with a perfectly timed attack from the left.


    If foil is about constant back and forth, epee (touches scored only with the point, but the target area is the entire body) is about waiting. Epee fencers bounce on the balls of their feet as often than they advance or retreat, looking for an opportunity to attack. In this video, the fencer on the right matches the steady rhythm of his opponent, and strikes when the fencer on the left extends himself too far.


    Nether the strategy of foil nor nuance of epee is anywhere to be found in saber (touches scored with any part of the blade, and the target is anywhere from the waist up). Don’t think — just go. Both fencers show remarkable athleticism in this video, and I’m not sure which is more impressive: the leap from the left, or how the fencer on the right was able to stand up after he ends up like he does.

    I’m not going to reach the level of expertise I witnessed at the NCAA tournament, but I came away convinced more than ever that you fence with your feet.