Tag Archives: teaching

The Artist’s Way Week 8: Created to be Creators, Ashley

Not that long ago, I was on a date. Inevitably we were talking about our professions and I had to confess: I am an English teacher.

Whenever I tell someone my profession I can expect one of two responses: “Wow” accompanied with wild-eyed shock, bewilderment and confusion. Stuttering, and maybe a bit of awe.

Or something that resembles disgust, an evoked memory of sorts surfacing and as I watched this man’s face fall, almost contorting, I was sure a second date wasn’t in our future.

It wasn’t long before I found out why: “My senior English teacher,” he said, bitterness dripping from his tongue to the now cold chicken, half-eaten parmesan on his plate. “She crushed me. I spent hours on a paper and when she gave it back to me it bled with all the red, judgmental ink. An F, for all that hard work.”

He poked at the chicken. I wondered whether or not you could taste the tangible bitter drippings.

I don’t remember how I responded, I don’t suppose it really mattered. I wasn’t the English teacher who crushed his creative soul, but I might as well have been. I know I have done the same. Not on purpose, of course, but by the very nature of my job—I deconstruct, I judge, I take apart, ripping work to the very seams. It’s what I’m paid to do. I quantify creativity that is never really meant to be quantified and for students who actually work hard to produce that piece, it can be debilitating to their creative egos.

I never get to appreciate my student work for what it is—a beautiful process of self-discovery.

Granted, this process is supposed to help them improve on their process of self-discovery, but as an academic I have to be careful. There is a fine line between butcher and doctor, destroyer and healer. Like a tightrope walker, one step in the wrong direction and I will plummet taking delicate psyches with me.

Through the process of reading The Artist’s Way I am beginning to understand not only more about myself, but the importance of what I do as a teacher—not only of academics but of creative aspirations. Not all of my students are writers, readers, or academics. But all of my students have creative souls, in some way shape or form, because they are all humans and it is a basic human need, maybe even a right, to create.

If we are created in God’s image, then we are created to be creators.

But Ms. Carmichael…It’s FRIDAY!

Yes, my children, I’m aware of what day of the week it is, but just because Friday it is, work we still must do. And, did you know that Friday is a regular occurrence? It actually comes once a week…

And thank God it does.

My students today, some of them, had some difficulty focusing on research. Thus the title and inspiration for this post.

“Ms. Carmichael,” one scholar gabbles as I walk by on my circular rounds through my ever studious class. “If someone gave you a million dollars, would you give them an “A”?”

First, this is a preposterous proposal. I should have ignored it…but it’s Friday.

“Absolutely not,” I assert with a superior moral air. “I cannot be bought.” Which is probably true.

They don’t believe me and immediately several of the less than focused scholars begin to protest.


“Children,” I begin (they may be 18, but I still call them children…because, well, they are my children). “I assure you, I would not be able to live with myself if I accepted any kind of bribe and deprived someone of the education they deserve.”

I feel pretty confident this is true. I found $20 in the hallway earlier in the week. I spent a good deal of time trying to track down who could have dropped it. I ended up giving the money to a more worthy cause. I couldn’t keep it for myself. I didn’t earn it; it wasn’t mine; I felt guilty keeping it.

“But, Ms. Carmichael. It’s a million dollars.”

“Yes, but it’s not always about the money. And at the end of the day I do have to live with myself.”

“Which you could do a lot more comfortably with the money,” he sneers.

“Do you think I couldn’t make more money at another job if I wanted to? I didn’t become a teacher because I had to. I could have done a number of things. I graduated third in my class from high school and had  a near perfect GPA in college. I am perfectly capable of choosing a profession and excelling at a profession that could generate a much higher capital. I teach because I want to.”

Another student smiles and puts in, somewhat smugly, “And if you do what you love,  you’ll never work a day in your life.”

I turned to this student. “No,” I said. “That’s not true.” It’s total poppycock actually.

“But it is true!” he insisted. “Because if you are doing what you love, you aren’t actually working.”

“That’s a naive cliche,” I said simply. “I do what I love. Every day. I teach you all, then I go home and I write. But I also work my tail off.Constantly, without reprieve sometimes. Just because you enjoy your work, doesn’t make it any less complicated, hard or grueling–Life is hard. The only way to be successful is to work at it. Any thing worth doing is worth working for.”


For a Friday, I think we learned a lot.

Finding Powerful Actions



That’s what gets an audience’s attention. It’s why we are engaged and why we are interested. Activity is what makes us want to me more involved in the characters, plot, setting and situation.

Without action, you have very little with which to engage your audience.

So how do we write with better action?

IMG_1618 IMG_1615

My students struggle with this every year and so we have a talk about verbs. There are occasion verbs and being verbs and helping verbs—you know those auxiliary verbs. But those are kind of boring verbs. They do a lot of telling. No one wants to be told what to do. For teenagers, this statement really hits home; they are, after all the kings and queens of rebellion, are they not?

So, I tell them, we want to use POWERFUL verbs. And powerful verbs show rather than tell.

But again, telling them this is not nearly as effective as showing, so it then becomes example time.


Is this showing or telling?

It’s telling—sure, you’ve told me the man is a monster but you have really limited what I know about him. I have no information about him other than ‘monster’. Do you mean literally? Figuratively? What has he done to make himself a monster? Is he an evil monster? A good monster? How do you define monster? You have really done nothing more than given a description and required too much work of your reader.

So, instead—show your audience and let them draw conclusions.


Okay, now we’re talking. I still understand  that the guy is pretty monstrous, but now I am able to infer much more about him based on the action! You have told me 3x as much about the man and you didn’t have to do much more than change the wording to an action filled sentence.

BUT it did have to change.


And that’s hard. Changing our writing habits is never easy. We fall into patterns and part of this makes up our own unique voice, but at the same time we have to be willing to change and adapt our work in order for it to reach its optimal potential.

So I start looking at my own work.

How often do I use powerful verbs?  This often makes me think of the scene in Dead Poet’s Society where Mr. Keating is teaching his students the power of words. He tells them to“ avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose.” When you search for the write words, you are able to create something magnificent, which is why one of the next scenes in the movie between Keating and Todd is so powerful:

John Keating: Close your eyes, close your eyes! Close ’em! Now, describe what you see.

Todd Anderson: Uh, I-I close my eyes.

John Keating: Yes.

Todd Anderson: Uh, and this image floats beside me.

John Keating: A sweaty-toothed madman.

Todd Anderson: A sweaty-toothed madman with a stare that pounds my brain.

John Keating: Oh, that’s *excellent*! Now, give him action – make him do something!

Todd Anderson: H-His hands reach out and choke me.

John Keating: That’s it! Wonderful, wonderful!

Todd Anderson: And all the time he’s mumbling.

John Keating: What’s he mumbling?

Todd Anderson: Mumbling truth.

John Keating: Yeah, yes.

Todd Anderson: Truth like-like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold.

John Keating: [some of the class start to laugh] Forget them, forget them! Stay with the blanket. Tell me about that blanket!

Todd Anderson: Y-Y-You push it, stretch it, it’ll never be enough. You kick at it, beat it, it’ll never cover any of us. From the moment we enter crying t-to the moment we leave dying, it’ll just cover your face as you wail and cry and scream.

[long pause then class applauds]

John Keating: Don’t you forget this.

I get chills every time I watch and think about this moment of recognition, of learning, of embracing language as a way to communicate on multiple levels. Because that’s what the goal of a writer is. To communicate.



2-3 AM


It’s amazing to me how often what I teach coincides with my world. Maybe its coincidence, but I doubt it. Literature is supposed to reflect the human experience and this week I am living proof.

It’s 2 am. I’ve become friends with 2 am. Not by choice, but by some weird insomniatic habit. It doesn’t seem to matter how early or late I go to bed, if I’m going to be hit by a bout of insomnia, it’s coming on at 2 am. Pop! My eyes open, I look at the clock and yes, 2 am. I have no explanation for it. I try to go back to sleep. Sometimes I try for hours with no success. Tonight, however, I don’t. I know why I’m awake tonight, so I succumb and I do the only thing I know to do to cope.

I write.

Earlier this week I read the Robert Burns’ poem “To A Mouse” with my students. If you are familiar with the poem, you’ll recall that it is an apology from a farmer to a field mouse for destroying her home right before the winter ‘hoar frost cold’ is about to settle over the land. There is much to glean from the poem. Empathy for creatures, unity with nature, but what strikes me the hardest actually comes in the last stanza:

“Still thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me
The present only toucheth thee:
But, Och! I backward cast my e’e.
On prospects drear!
An’ forward, tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!”

I always ask my students if they think the poem is really just about a mouse after reading the last stanza and inevitably they always  say no, because they realize that the farmer is projecting his own worries onto the mouse. We speculate about what the farmer may be worried about, but in the end it doesn’t matter. The point is made. Humans are cursed. We worry. Beasts plan, thinking about the present and what must be done now with an innate sense of survival implanted in them that helps them survive in the future, but they don’t worry about the future. They simply deal with what is in front of them. Humans aren’t like that. The past haunts us. Memories, like cobwebs, weave through our heads trapping our thoughts in endless suppositions of “what ifs” and “couldawouldashouldas”. The future, though never attainable, is our constant goal. Like the carrot at the end of a stick, we keep lunging for it, thinking we are just about to get it, just for it to be jerked in another direction or for it to be just out of our reach, because the future is simply unknowable.

And yet, we insist on worrying about both the past and the future.

Constantly. Without fail.

And I know that is why I am awake now.

I find that I am frustrated with myself, knowing that worrying is foolish and a waste of time energy and obviously sleep. After all, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go askew”. But knowing it is one thing, being able to do something about it is another. So what do you do, when you recognize a problem and you can’t fix it?

You consult an expert.

It’s interesting that I know this particular verse backward and forward, but how well it relates to Burns has escaped me until now. Matthew 6:25-27 reads:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; Or about your body, what you will wear; Is not live more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

The idea of beasts not worrying is prevalent in the verse (birds, ugh, but point made). No past haunting them, not future looming before them. They are cared for. Then the stinger. Does worrying actually do anything for you?

No, actually I think science is even proving that it harms us; worrying is toxic.

These are big words, true words even, and easy to say. Not so easy to put into practice. So what do I do next? I’m currently suffering from insomnia, so obviously this is still a struggle of mine. But, I will tell you what I’m doing right now. I’m going to stop thinking right now about the past and the future and think about right now.

It’s 3am.  And I am thankful for…

Sunlight…Air…Hot, soothing tea…friends who listen…a God who cares…sleep…