“It’s a real privilege to have talented friends”

Back in spring of 2015, I was looking for fresh material to bring into my composition classroom, and I happened to have a batch of students who were itching to break out of the essay rut and write in response to some literature. So I shared some widely-anthologized essays and some interesting editorials from major newspapers, but I also offered them an essay by my friend Monica Drake, an essay by my friend Chloe Caldwell, and a trio of poems (this one, and these, if I remember right; I might also have shared one of these) by my friend Brianna Pike. My students loved the work — a few students interested in examining their local neighborhoods wrote their own versions of Monica Drake’s essay, the whole class spent quite a lot of time debating the inner workings of Chloe Caldwell’s story and one student attempted to emulate Caldwell’s structure, and a few students latched onto Brianna Pike’s poems — one even donated to the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project that Bri was participating in, and Bri wrote a poem especially for that student.

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 10.42.06 AMThe other day, Bri reciprocated by bringing my story “Lightning My Pilot,” from Where There Is Ruin, into her own classroom. Which is a HUGE thrill for me — from my earliest daydreams of being a writer, I have held as one of my highest standards of success the idea that I might get taught in someone’s classroom. This has especially been the case from my undergrad days, when my own professors either brought visiting writers into the classroom (writers are just ordinary human beings? I was floored) and/or were authors themselves. The idea that, as a student, I could meet and interact with actual, living writers thrilled me, and it was no great leap to begin dreaming of the day when I could be that writer meeting and interacting with students.

That’s one reason I made it a goal, early in my teaching career, to bring the work of friends and colleagues into my own classrooms. I began this back in my teaching-assistant days, inviting grad school classmates like poet Steve Bowman into my undergrad literature courses to discuss poetry; and in my first years of post-graduate teaching, I made a point of working Tom Franklin (whose debut collection Poachers was the subject of my masters thesis) into any class I could. I’ve taught poems by Beth Ann Fennelly and Robert Lashley, essays and memoirs by Kevin Sampsell and Kristen Keckler, short stories by Leesa Cross-Smith and Ryan Werner, craft textbooks by Jesse Lee Kercheval and Bill Roorbach. I teach these texts because they’re wonderful works that I genuinely admire and feel students can learn a lot from, but I also have at least a passing acquaintance with these writers and I know from my own days as a student how much students can learn from the writers themselves. So when I can, I bring these writers into the classroom, either in person or via the internet, and when that’s not possible, I can at least speak to my own relationship with these writers’ works.

And that’s the real benefit, I think — the proximity to working writers and their brains. It’s certainly one of the most valuable things I got in my own undergrad and graduate education, and it’s something I have wanted to replicate for my students (and for myself — I still learn so much from these encounters with writers!).

But it is a special thrill when I get to be on the other end of that exchange, the writer whose work is under discussion in a classroom. This moment in Brianna Pike’s classroom this week wasn’t my first experience with this — I visited Bri’s creative writing class at Ivy Tech in Indiana while on tour for Hagridden back in 2014. Steve Bowman has Skyped me into his classroom at Indiana University-Southeast. Poet Russell Brickey has taught a few of my short stories at Youngstown State University, and I’ve answered his students’ questions about the work via email exchanges. I’ve also visited the classrooms of friends at colleges and universities in Oregon, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Abu Dhabi, and my own undergrad alma mater of Schreiner University back in Texas — in fact, I visited the classroom of Kathleen Hudson, in whose classes I had first encountered writers like Kirpal Gordon and Paula Underwood when I was Kathleen’s student.

So thank you, Brianna Pike and all my other colleagues who’ve been kind enough to bring my work into your classrooms. It is literally a dream — the dream — come true.

And dear readers: if you teach a class and want to use my work, drop me an email and I’ll try to set you up with copies via my publishers! Also feel free to email me about classroom visits, because I love talking with learning writers!

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