Writers on Writing #11: Caleb Curtiss
Writing, Not Writing, and Mitigating Self-Hatred, or How I Spent My Summer Vacation
This past summer, I spent a few weeks participating in the University of Illinois Writing Project. If you’re interested in learning more, click here. If you aren’t, suffice it to say UIWP (or #UIWP (hashtags are a special part of the culture at #UIWP, and as a writer I must be keenly attuned to how cultures and such function in society)) is/was a federally funded professional development opportunity for teachers who want to focus more on writing in the classroom. As an English teacher and as a writer, I felt like I was uniquely qualified for this endeavor and was not intimidated and did not personally feel inadequate about it at all. I thought of many analogies (in my business, these can also be called similes, and in some cases, metaphors) that might support my overwhelming feelings of ableness and competence, including but not limited to the following:
- I was like a serial killer wearing his normal clothes at a Halloween costume party wherein guests are invited to come dressed up as serial killers;
- I was like NBA Great Donyell Marshall at a friendly neighborhood pick up game of basketball;
- I was like a dog with a proclivity for playing poker at a photo shoot trying to reenact that one famous picture of dogs playing poker (I will not link to that picture, as I am sure you have seen it and currently have a very clear image of that picture in your head right now due to my very well crafted allusion);
- I was like (insert Ancient Greek God here) engaging in (insert banal and relatively simplistic task here);
- and so on.
After careful consideration, I settled upon the following: I was like Hermes running in his annual company picnic’s footrace (I chose this simile over all the others, as I believe it will function nicely as an extended metaphor for my writing process, though I’m personally very partial to the basketball metaphor as I am an amazing basketball athlete (last week, I nearly registered a triple-single in my recreational basketball league, but was accidentally blocked by one of my own teammates as I was aggressively advancing towards the basket (we’re 0-2, but not for long!)).
Anyway, I believed that I knew most of the stuff I needed to know about writing and the teaching of writing and so I’d be able to spend my time at #UIWP relaxing and drinking coffee and writing a book of award winning poetry. It soon became apparent, however, that this was not on the agenda given that #UIWP is structured and there are expectations and projects and such, and those were the things I was expected to focus upon as opposed to my award winning poetry book, or, as I had modestly supposed, the award winning novel I would write upon completion of said poetry book. As it turned out, I was like Hermes running at the company picnic race, but it was a three-legged race, and my partner was Mercury (the Roman version of me) and he was running in a direction that was different from the direction that I was running in and so I had to either conform or risk being unproductive (extended metaphor success! +1, Caleb!!).
And so it went. The first half of my summer was spent learning how to become a better teacher instead of composing bowel-shaking works of contemporary American poetry. But this was okay, I theorized, because the tension created by my desire to write and my inability to do so would function as a rubber band stretched back and back, until, upon the completion of my #UIWP experience, I would snap forth into a scholarly fervor certain to produce great works of immortal literature.
This turned out to be a very shitty theory, as I spent the second half of my summer indulging in food and drink and travel and also perfecting my basketball game. Conversely, I spent much less time engaging in the sort of cloistered meditation I had imagined for myself.
Of course, throughout all of this not writing, and travelling, and gin drinks, and thinking about writing, and ball handling exercises, and afternoon napping, and so on, every now and then an idea would drop out of the sky and kiss me on my brain, right below my anterior lobe (where I can’t reach by myself without the help of a stick or a back scratcher, but usually not even then) and I would write it down and then spend the day writing and writing and deleting and deleting and writing and so on, and then sometimes not writing and reading instead, and thinking about my idea and how great it was, and then a second later about how stupid it was, and how pointless it is to try and write when there are people like Carl Phillips and Roxane Gay and Phillip Roth and Aaron Burch and Denis Johnson and Kyle Minor and Bob Hicok and Henri Cole and David Lee and William Shakespeare and hell, even Michael David Fucking Madonick, who do it better.
And then, once I’m done feeling inadequate, and once I’m done overcompensating for my inadequacy, I keep writing, and what I’m left with is a sort of knot that sometimes gets untied and discarded, and other times stays all balled up, deep within my hard drive, waiting for future me to discover it and fiddle with it some more until I either find a way to destroy it, or I find a way to like it for a few minutes so I don’t have to hate myself anymore.
Caleb Curtiss teaches high school English in Champaign, Illinois, where he also helps organize a semi-regular reading series called Stories & Beer. His poetry has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from Redivider, The Literary Review, and Weave Magazine. If you aren’t one of his students, you can follow him on Twitter at @cdcurtiss.