The New Rope

Twist and shout.


November 17, 2013

My friend Frenchy, being a retired soldier, has many pithy sayings, but the one in my mind recently has been: “You’d complain if you were bein’ hung with a new rope.”

I’ve been hung with a number of ropes in my time—usually the kind in the saying, “give you enough rope to hang yourself with”—but seeing as I’m too dense to take the point, I keep climbing up on every knocked-together gallows on the edge of town, happy and expectant.

(“It is a beautiful world,” a notorious Illinois gangster said mirthfully, just before the hood; he’d rejected the state’s traditional pre-hanging narcotic injection in favor of his own marijuana. If you click through, here are a couple of other people with the same noose. Oddly, they too are happy, but then the lady did just successfully sue a museum for the rope—her granddaddy was the sheriff who put it around the gangster’s neck—and that’s her triumphant lawyer in the shiny suit. Plus the rope is barely used.)

Jobs can be like the joke about new ropes. Their demands are a good problem to have, we always say so, especially in this economy, but that doesn’t stop us from complaining. “If you’re not bitchin’, you’re not happy,” soldiers say.

Am I busy at my new job and in my new life? Yes, I believe I am, though I welcome you to outdo me in the comments below. Think of this post as the cloaca that purges us of stress. Better still, stop reading here. You carry your own load; why read about mine? In any case, here’s what I’ve been up to lately, so I’ll have it when someone says teachers have all that time off and don’t do anything for their magnificent living, or when grad students are freaking because it’s midterm and they think faculty don’t understand because they only give the assignments.

In general:

  • I taught grad workshop, undergrad workshop, and a grad seminar—three preps, each text-intensive. (If I’d become the photojournalist I intended to be at age five, I wouldn’t have had to wrestle the prose angel for so long every day.) In two successive weeks in grad workshop, for instance, we had proto-novel drafts; the rest of our time we’ve covered 18 stories plus their revisions (36 in all). There are 21 students in the undergrad workshop, so that’s 42 short stories plus revisions, and assigned readings from the packet. Just about every page of that student writing has my annotations on it, with letters at the end. In the seminar we read and discussed seven books of fiction or craft, with individual essays or stories to supplement. Students wrote response papers weekly in two of those three classes.
  • I ran the fiction side of the graduate program, troubleshooting, learning processes, and counseling on anything academic, professional or sometimes emotional for those in my charge. Bought or made food as I thought necessary to succor and lift the spirits of the troops. Stayed in touch with colleagues and administrators, when it might be easy to drop out of sight—particularly important when dealing with a difficult personality or in the absence of a colleague who’s had to be away for personal issues much of the year. The model of this program, two core faculty, with six to eight visitors each year, is a workable one, but even in the best of circumstances it means one mind serving the intellectual and artistic, not to mention spiritual, vocational, and emotional, needs of 11 very bright and driven grad students in a given genre.
  • Every weekday morning I’m up at 6:00 for my two sons, get them fed and watered, make their lunches, and stand with them at the street until their separate buses come. As we wait I walk our dogs, bag their poop, and try to keep them from eating the squirrel fluff left after my lawn guy mowed at dusk and ran over the corpse by the drainage ditch. Only when the boys are away do I get to eat, shower, dress and start my day.
  • If I don’t teach a late class, I leave wherever I am by 2:40 to be home when the boys get off their buses. Snacks, homework, quelling of mutinies, police actions on civil wars, fix dinner, serve dinner, clean up from dinner. Restart my work day by going to the back bedroom to read, grade, or write, interrupting it to forestall revolutions, break up gang fights, and eventually get kids into pajamas and bed. Stay up ‘til 12, 1, or more rarely 2 to finish something on deadline.
  • Care for pets, clean house, do grocery shopping, get auto inspection sticker, pick up meds, drive a child repeatedly to Houston for better doctors—those million little things of domesticity that probably take more time than anything else listed here.

More specifically, here’s what I’ve done in the last month or so, according to the to-do lists I kept in my spare notebook, crossing things out as they were finished:

  • Finished my essay on using Chekhov in the undergrad creative writing classroom for an MLA volume coming out next year. Reformatted citations per the editor’s request. Got student consents to quote from their response papers in my essay, including trying to solve the mystery of the one brilliant young guy who dropped off the face of the planet after graduating with honors, eventually tracking him to his current place of employment, a strip club in Texas, where at least he’s the manager.
  • Responded to requests for a reprint, and a solicitation for an original story, for anthologies.
  • Corresponded about doing a two-book review for a magazine and arranged to receive one of the books myself.
  • Queried a publisher for an advance review copy for another book I’d like to review here and began reading it.
  • Arranged for our program and lit journal to be at the big AWP conference in Seattle in a few months, got our table assignment at the book fair there, etc.
  • Submitted book orders for classes next semester. (I have a problem with this, since I nearly have to teach the class in my head before I can commit to a reading list.)
  • Read a visiting writer’s book in preparation for his visit.
  • Gathered packets of student stories and mailed them to visiting writers before they arrived.
  • Hosted two visiting writers for long weekends. Made arrangements for travel, lodging, and pay, got them where they needed to be, scheduled conferences, wrote introductions for readings, hosted parties, picked up food and drinks for receptions, shared meals, and generally tried to fete and honor them as they deserved.
  • Arranged and scheduled my third and final fiction visitor to be part of the big campus-community reading series next semester, including negotiating fees and providing publicity materials to the series coordinator.
  • Arranged my own reading in that series next semester, after my new book has come out.
  • Reviewed edits made to the book and rewrote some things and responded to the editor on every suggestion.
  • Filled out a multi-page marketing questionnaire, which took some research, from the publisher in order to serve its release.
  • Emailed with designers, marketing, PR, and production staff in and out of the press.
  • Cold-called bigtime writers about blurbing the book, by request of the press.
  • Totally re-did my personal website in anticipation of the book’s release.
  • Coordinated a panel on campus for the professional development seminar series on student retention. I know nothing about student retention.
  • Cogitated on then nominated grad students for two writing awards.
  • Submitted my own work to a writing contest that would let me travel abroad briefly.
  • Dealt with a student whose writing portrayed campus violence, in consultation with counseling and student services on campus.
  • Made brief suggestions on a couple of portfolios submitted last year for application to the program, for students not accepted but who were intelligent and wanting input. (Not something I usually have time to do, but I’d promised.)
  • Birthdays.
  • Blogged. Solicited and edited guest posts for the blog.
  • Did paperwork to get myself reimbursed by the university foundation after paying for our lit journal’s submissions management system myself, when funds ran out over the summer.
  • Asked program alums to discuss their writing lives and careers since graduation, for the edification of current students.
  • Filled out an application for an endowed professorship, which I received and will spend exclusively on students and the program.
  • Did required state ethics training, and sexual harassment training, and took tests for certification.
  • Opened talks with a Russian museum for rights to use some of their art on the cover of the new issue of our literary journal. Sent the contract they sent for its use to my Russian friend for translation, so I knew I wasn't not signing over all my oil rights to the Russian state.
  • Spurred grad readers for the Review to keep reading and making decisions for the next issue. Read things myself and voted on our electronic portal.
  • Solicited other work for the Review from writers and artists, independent of what came over the transom.
  • Supervised the adding of new content to the Review’s website and Facebook page by grad editors.
  • Sent copies of my previous books to a nonprofit for auction-fundraising, per their request.
  • Wrote several former or current students rec letters for grad school, law school, and jobs.

Things I need to do yet:

  • The book will come back to me for final page proofs on Monday, for quick turnaround.
  • The week of Thanksgiving we’re finally taking the boys to Disney. They’re 11 and 8, and we don’t want to put it off any longer. I’m comically puzzled at how far the park still is from us here, a 12-hour drive. It was only, like, 16 from Illinois. I feel like the protagonist in the novel Running Away, who lives in a kind of dream cloud of movement between destinations. Also: I have a photo of me at Disney, taken several decades ago, in which I’m exhausted, greasy, and frowning, under a sign in the parking lot that marks the section designated “Grumpy.”
  • Read graduate and undergraduate class portfolios—all those stories written so far this semester, re-envisioned. Read 20-page final grad seminar papers. Tabulate and submit final grades for all classes.
  • Continue to read all 30-page fiction applications to the program as they come in.
  • Make travel arrangements for the conference for myself.
  • Talk to neighbor about his downspout that drains half the roof area of his house against my foundation during tropical downpours, so water comes up under the floorboards and ruins anything lying around one bedroom.
  • Get my new veteran friend and his family to the house for dinner. I worry about him. Ditto with one of my grad students who’s headed for a thesis and watches the boys sometimes.
  • Write comments on two theses in the making.
  • Blog again. (BTW this is, first, paid writing, and, second, I’m told it’ll count toward tenure.)
  • In lieu of having the time or focus to be able to write the novel I’ve been working on lo these many months, at least trick myself by making a list of the scenes yet to be fully written.
  • Fulfill a promise to a friend to read aloud and record a story he published, so it can go up online with others’ readings of his work.
  • Help our MFAs create a jobs board and contacts rolodex, since there’s no grad-specific career center at this uni. What I’d love to have one day, perhaps just before I drop dead, is some sort of interactive site for them (and made available to all MFAs everywhere?) that would explain what people actually do in the day-to-day course of their employment after the MFA, whatever it is, with oral narratives about how they got those jobs and how it allows them to live, the amount of writing they get done or not, etc. I think of this site by the University of Illinois’ Ethnography of the University Initiative, which I used to work with, as a possible model.
  • Put the new issue of the Review into editing and production mode—something likely to take my whole winter break and beyond—so it’s printed and out of the bindery in time to ship to the AWP conference. Need to consider designing and printing a broadside to be sold with it, or at least find all the geedunk and geegaws we’ll give away at the book fair table. Last year, Frenchy and my grad assistants gave away hundreds of beads salvaged from Mardi Gras parades, which fairgoers seemed to think a nice Louisiana touch, even though they resemble the noose.

Have I forgotten some things? Sure—I haven’t even looked at the hundreds of emails in two accounts that’s I’ve sent and received this semester, in order to add their issues to this list. But I have nothing to complain about; after a dozen years as an adjunct I’m now standing exactly where I wanted. Cherish your ropes, I say.


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