Five years ago, my father, grandfather, and I remodeled the bathroom in our family cabin. This was no luxury ski chalet or time share condo masquerading as a cabin. My great-grandfather built it himself in the 30s with the help of his five daughters and the boy scout troop he lead. Great-grandpa was not a master carpenter or plumber, so as we tore away the rotting drywall and jackhammered the cracked cement floor, we discovered an unexpected and unconventional layout of pipes. It was a map of kludges, improvisations, and applications of sheer brute force.
The more Dad and Grandpa studied how the pipes were fashioned and connected, the more it became clear that the success of the remodeling job became dependent on interpreting Great-Grandpa’s plumbing choices, and then predicting where the pipes would take us. They had to think like Great-Grandpa, and in the process, his cognition and imagination became reanimated. The pipes were a network of thought like the neural pathway of synapses in his mind. Debates between Dad and Grandpa over the next step in the project evolved into nostalgic appreciations of Great-Grandpa’s resourcefulness. They were once again enveloped in the creative vision of a man who built his own carnival rides and managed to keep a citrus grove thriving during the severe rationing of WWII.
If you clicked over here from Facebook or Twitter, you are probably wondering why I am beginning a remembrance of Okla Elliott with an anecdote about plumbing. My Great-Grandpa died well before I was born, so the experience of a man’s resurrection through exploring his handiwork was only secondhand. I could see it in Dad’s and Grandpa’s faces, but I could not feel it directly. Last August, when I took over As It Ought To Be following Okla’s untimely passing, I finally experienced this phenomena first hand.
As the new Managing Editor, I have been combing through nearly a decade of articles on As It Ought To Be. This has meant figuring out formatting, style, and organization as Okla had established them, and charting how he evolved in these ways. I’ve read through all of the posts Okla authored from the beginning of the site to his final article about Lent and its political and social possibilities posted just weeks before he unexpectedly passed. Just as the plumbing revived the spirit of Great-Grandpa for my father and grandfather, so too has editing and organizing As It Ought To Be kept Okla’s voice as a writer and thinker perpetually resonant in my mind.
Although I have known Okla since right around the founding of As It Ought To Be, one tends to forget how people were when you first knew them. You don’t always remember them as they ended either. Rather, you remember people for their established role in your life and you preserve them in that stance. You build a home for them in the structure of your existence, and when they die, that’s where they stay, beautifully enshrined in your memory as a witness and an ally. This would be the Okla of 2010-2014, when we were grad students drinking Bushmills, debating Sartre, and geeking out over the genius of Professor Cary Nelson. Like so many published here on As It Ought To Be and in many of his other creative endeavors, he encouraged me to expand my mind, amplify my voice, and apply my sense of reason and empathy toward engaging with the world’s social issues and political problems. Continue reading “In the Mental Architecture of the Deceased”→
I miss teaching. If I could find the time in my days, I would return in a heartbeat to Eastern Michigan University. Not that this is possible with all the other irons my fire is heating, and with my wife’s threat to leave me if I take on one more freaking thing! And true, too, even when I had my gig as a writing professor, I was operating outside the norm; able to pick the time I taught and the one class I would teach a semester to upper level writing students. I didnt have to commit to a full-time course load, didnt have to participate in the administrative bullshit that can suck the soul right out of an already stressed writer working a heavy teaching schedule while trying to squeeze out time to actually do their own writing.
Most of my writer friends who have gigs as professors or lecturers at a University find the job has a combination of cool and cruel to it. They enjoy being able to spend their working hours invested in the near and dear of literature and writing, but the grind of the long hours and trying to impart their knowledge to students who – most at least – wont ever demonstrate any appreciable skills as “real” writers has an exhausting effect. You can’t teach writing. I have heard that phrase tossed about so many times that before I began to teach I almost believed it. The fact of the matter is the claim simply isnt true. You can teach writing. You can’t give someone talent. But you can teach someone the process of writing and improve what skills they have. And isnt this what teaching is all about? Not to make rock stars out of the tone deaf, but to share what you know and help those who sincerely want to improve. The best experiences I had as a teacher were working with my less gifted students who nonetheless truly wanted to learn how to write.
As I have now been a writer going on – Christ – 40 years, I also found what I love most about teaching is the ability to explain the process and get students to understand there’s no such thing as a muse, what there is to writing is a blue collar roll up your sleeves and just do it attitude that Nike be damned existed well before the running shoe.
When I first started writing, I had the passion but was otherwise clueless about the process. Leaving talent out of the equation for the moment, it is most often the lack of experience that undermines a well intended would-be writer. When a young writer has a bad day, their immediate reaction is to question their abilities, to think they must suck and what the hell what the hell what the HELL!! It is only after staying the course as a writer that we begin to learn that the process doesn’t ever change, that having a rough day – or week or month – doesnt mean one cant write it means you are a writer experiencing the inescapable torture. The only thing important is doing the work. Daily. Where I used to go crazy with insecurity, I am now totally calm about the process, know a rough day is still a productive day, that the key is just working the page.
This is what I tried to convey to my students, how writing is a freakin discipline, that you have to work hard. There is never – and I mean never – a day when I finish writing that I am not completely physically and mentally exhausted. If anyone has the misfortune of trying to deal with me in the hour after I finish my writing day, well lets just say its not pretty. Writing is hard. It takes a focus like none other. You cant write if you are distracted, the application of one’s efforts have to be total. And you can’t write if you aren’t willing to commit.
An older and quite successful writer once told me it takes 10 years of writing shit before one even begins to know what they are doing. Well, as much as I didnt want to believe this at the start of my career, I can surely attest to this now. So, how to convey this to a classroom full of young and eager students who think they are top dog and ready to publish. What I did in my class, which cut against the grain and shocked the hell out my students each and every new semester, was to tell them instead of writing 5 stories during our term together, we were going to write one story each and rewrite it at least 5 times.
“WHAT?” was the response. “Rewrite? What the hell is that?” They all just wanted to crank and move on to something new. I held my ground. Class after class. And class after class, always, within 3 weeks these students who had never rewritten a story before, had never put themselves back into a work, began to groove on the idea of actually reworking a story. At the end of every semester, always, these initially dubious students thanked me for showing them what is the essence of all good writing – the rewrite.
That the art to writing is in the rewriting is, for me, a given – now. Along with understanding the process of writing, these two rules are invaluable. (The third rule would be to read read read and READ. The fourth to drink, but I digress.) Everything in life evolves and changes, requires a rewrite and a knowledge of what is going on. Relationships change, how we keep our love life going. I have been married 17 years and the totality of my relationship with my wife has evolved in 1,000 different ways since we were 17 years younger. What is the same about me is no doubt my extremes have become more understandable – at least to me if not my wife – my settling into the routine of what I need to achieve in my personal and professional life. Everything is a process. Everyday a writer must apply his/herself to the challenge and run the risk of writing shit, of exhausting one’s self physically and emotionally and intellectually. The same as we do with any worthwhile relationship. What is essential to whatever it is we want to do is hanging tough. With writing – and in life – the process doesnt necessarily get easier but it becomes more readily understood the longer we stay the course. An old dog of a writer knows how to get through bad days, knows not to panic in the face of a rough stretch. As said, in this way the experience one gathers as they commit to the process of writing is much the same as the process of maturing in our everyday life. Understand the effort, know not every day will be a success. Be aware that not everything goes smoothly and most things require a rewrite. This is what I’ve come to learn and is the best advise I can give.
Steven Gillis is the author of Walter Falls, The Weight of Nothing, Giraffes, Temporary People, and, most recently The Consequence of Skating (October 2010). His stories, articles, and book reviews have appeared in over four dozen journals, and his books have been finalists for the Independent Publishers Book of the Year Award and the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year. A three-year member of the Ann Arbor Book Festival Board of Directors, and a finalist for the 2007 Ann Arbor News Citizen of the Year, Steve taught writing at Eastern Michigan University and founded 826michigan in 2003. Steve is the co-founder of Dzanc Books www.dzancbooks.org along with Dan Wickett. All proceeds from Steve’s writing go to help support Dzanc Books. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org