Letter #4: Where Our Teaching Takes Us

fontana lake, nc mountains, blue ridge

Note to readers: My friend Katie Rose Guest Pryal (who is also a talented novelist) and I are writing letters to each other on our blogs. I’m posting them here, and she’s also posting our letters on her site. Previous letters are in the archives.


Dear Katie,

Remember that time we were both teaching English Comp? You lasted a whole lot longer than I did. We were a little out of touch for a while and I probably never told you about some of the odd jobs I did instead of teaching. And I mean “odd” in the strict sense of the word. Things got weird now and then.

Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of things I love about teaching. The adjunct mill wasn’t one of them.

During grad school, I taught some classes to help with tuition. I also picked up other jobs. My art and writing degrees were supposed to help me get a job teaching one of those subjects while I worked on my own novels and artist books. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Did I ever tell you about working in the veterinary clinic? I did that until they wanted me to insert things into cats. (I was their receptionist.) I worked as a contract archaeologist for a couple of years, which meant digging holes every thirty paces through fields and swampland (I had this delusion of being Indiana Jones). I slung coffee in cafes, filed papers in a university law office, worked in a chocolate shop, and when it closed moved to the factory. (It was not as funny as that episode of “I Love Lucy,” though I did manage to knock over an entire baker’s rack of chocolate truffles.) I was a studio coordinator, a retail clerk, a web illustrator, a teacher at a military academy in middle Georgia. I did data entry for tax forms, and sometimes I got lucky and taught letterpress-printing classes.

What do all of those jobs have in common? Ha! Nothing. But here’s the thing: I wouldn’t trade those experiences (well, maybe the one with the cat). Each one taught me something I carried with me, and gave me a different kind of education that college doesn’t prepare us for. (I wrote about that here, and called it “How Liberal Arts Saved My Life,” because IT DID.)

Now I teach workshops in writing and letterpress printing, but on a part-time basis (you know, when I’m not writing those novels that you so generously beta-read). And now I work for the National Park Service. And guess what? I use a lot of those seemingly unrelated skills that I learned in all of those jobs I held for a year or less. AND I still get to educate people—just in a different way. Instead of sitting in a circle of desks, I stand outside and chat with park visitors about those elk they’re watching graze as the fog rolls into the valley. (Sometimes these folks have never seen a wild animal before.) We talk about why we have those new regulations about firewood, and why it’s important we protect the species in the park, because some of them are growing rarer by the day. After all, we want to keep our parks are around for another 100 years. (This is our centennial, did you know that? Google that to see just how many special events are happening. Did you know we have over 400 national parks? There are some nice ones near you.)

Just yesterday I read a job posting for a creative writing instructor at my alma mater, and for a moment I thought about applying. Then I thought, “I’ve been out of the teaching game too long. They’d laugh at my resume.” And they might—it’s all over the place. But then I remembered that what’s happening now is the right speed for me. (Sometimes when the grass starts to look greener, you have to check around your own feet again.) I don’t want to worry about teaching loads anymore. I don’t have the resolve to grade the endless papers. I’d rather stand in the drizzling rain, watching kids get that look of wonder wash over them as they tug on my sleeve and ask what that big animal is strolling through the valley. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s this: people can affect us deeply in the briefest of moments: a day, a week, a minute. I’ve got a long list of people who have affected me that way, so this “job” is a way for me to balance those scales.

Until next time,




pictured above: a view from Fontana Lake, near the dam, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

Letter #3: From Student to Teacher

Note to readers: My friend Katie Rose Guest Pryal (who is also a talented novelist) and I are writing letters to each other and cross-posting on each other’s blog. Check out her site here, and see our previous letter in my archives. 


Dear Lauren,

We’ve been writing about how we met 14 years ago at a writer’s workshop, and I was just thinking: Now we’re both teaching workshops. I’m teaching narrative writing through a university here in my town, and you teach book arts at the very same retreat in the mountains where we first met.

The students are now the teachers. That’s a trip.

I wrote a blog post recently about how amazing my creative writing students are. How brave and bold and kind and full of spirit. I think you have to be brave to sign up for a writing (or any arts) workshop. In the end, what are you doing in a workshop but saying—to what are probably total strangers—“Here, here is the work of my soul. Do your worst.”

Most people, probably, would rather jump off a cliff.

So I adore my students. From your instagram feed, I can tell that you adore your students, too. Your students’ creations are incredible. I don’t have to be in the room to know you are a great teacher.

Today, at the end of class, my students clapped. They actually clapped. It’s not even the last class. I called my husband and told him, and he asked, “Did you blush?”


And you know me. I blush for no one. But I didn’t mind. These courageous, kind, bold, brave students can make me blush all day long.

I’ve been bringing them books as presents, too. I’m going to run out of books if I keep doing this, but you’ve seen my house—I’m overrun by books. So today I brought in books to give out as gifts, books that might inspire, or help lead a new writer down a new path. It felt good to give away books that had once inspired me.

It felt good to become the teacher.

Talk soon,


Need a Creative Kick in the Pants?

One of the hardest things about writing is getting into a rut. Too little variation (even in my day-to-day patterns) creates a breeding ground for a funk. We all know that the easiest way to get out of your rut is to shake things up and do something different, but sometimes it’s hard just to think of what that different “something” might be.

[Sidebar: I say this is about a writing funk, but really, it’s about any funk.]

Sometimes, the answer is quite literally at your fingertips. There’s something to be said for the tactile—for gripping, holding, touching, grasping.

See, you’re excited already, aren’t you?

After a long winter of being cooped up inside (compounded by a temp job that had me sitting at a desk for 10 hours a day), the solution for me is to get moving. Not necessarily to get outside and exercise and hike my 100 miles in the national parks (though I need to do that also). No, I mean touch things. Build things. Make things. I say ‘things’ because what I make in this scenario really doesn’t matter. It’s time to engage a different part of my brain so the part that’s overheated doesn’t go kaboom. Because believe me, it’s close. We’re at DEFCON 1.

If you’ve had a winter like mine, you know what I mean. So it’s time to use my hands to create something physical. Gardening would be an obvious choice, but since I inherited a black thumb, that’s out. I know I said the “thing” didn’t matter, but I’d prefer to avoid casualties—flora included.

So. Drawings, making prints, carving linoleum blocks. These are things I do better than gardening. This is how I get my hands moving. Today I spent an hour printing book covers for my new batch of Migration books. Small step, but it’s a start.


Next week is when I make bigger steps toward my normal. I’m fortunate to be teaching a short printmaking workshop April 18-22 at the lovely and amazing Wildacres Retreat in western NC. I’ll be teaching some simple monoprinting and block printing techniques for students of all ages and interests who are attending the “Try It On” program, which for me is the perfect get-out-of-your-rut program. It’s not quite an annual event yet, but the workshop offers classes in photography, pottery, painting, writing, and more. It’s the perfect opportunity for folks who are in a rut and want to jump start their creative spirit and try a new craft for a few days. Get your hands into some clay. Or paint. Or ink. (Want to join us in the mountains? There are still spaces left. Go to the Wildacres website to check out the details. Did I mention how affordable it is? Meals are included, you stay in adorable mountain lodges, and the people are unforgettable. This place will seriously change your life. It did for me, but that’s another story.)

Need something closer to home? Check out your local bookstores, art centers, and community colleges—lots of places offer short workshops for beginners that are 1-2 days and perfect for trying your hand at something new—without spending a lot of money and making a huge time commitment.

So get out there and get your hands into something. Your brain will thank you.

A shorter version of this post appeared in my April newsletter. Want to subscribe and have things like this sent to you 1-2 times a month? Click that big orange box on your right. 

Download Your Free April Calendar

Behold, the leafy sea dragon! April has begun, and that means it’s time for you to download your new desktop calendar. Click the image below to open to full size and download. Happy Spring, everybody!


This month’s calendar is based on the April edition of The Wild Around Us, a monthly illustrated letter I send out by mail to subscribers. Here’s the original letter, with fun facts about the adorably kooky sea dragon.

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