On Thursday, September 13, QuoinMonkey and ybonesy interviewed Robert Wilder, author of the recently released Tales from the Teachers’ Lounge.
The interview was so rich, so chock full of good information for writers, that we decided to publish it in its entirety.
Robert took a break between classes to talk to red Ravine for about an hour. What follows is the first half of our interview with him, where he talks about his latest book and how he wrote it.
Interview With Robert Wilder – Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge: An Irreverent View of What It Really Means to Be a Teacher Today
red Ravine: As we recall, this book came out pretty quickly on the tails of Daddy Needs A Drink. The question we have is, had it been percolating? Had you been thinking about writing it even before Daddy Needs A Drink?
Robert: I actually thought about writing it around the same time. When I was writing Daddy Needs A Drink, I thought, yeah, there are a lot of parallels between being a parent and being a teacher. Every day I do my parenting thing — and I also do my teaching thing, and I see connections. I also see some of the same complications and humor that I find with kids.
It’s funny when you’re a teacher, colleagues will ask, “How are your kids?” and sometimes you don’t know whether they’re talking about your own biological children or your students. So I’d had files and done some writing on the teaching before and during Daddy Needs A Drink. I also handed in Daddy Needs A Drink almost 2 years before it came out. When I handed it in, I started working on the teaching book.
red Ravine: That makes sense. How long did it take you to write Tales From The Teachers’ Lounge?
Robert: Well, you know it’s hard because I had been working on it, all in all, I’d say a couple of years because I had been working on pieces of writing for different teaching magazines. And I had been journaling and keeping notes. I still do, even though Tales is out. I took notes this morning and I take notes when I teach.
Yesterday I was handing out note cards; I do a writing exercise where I ask students to describe their face. And then I read them and we try to guess who is who. It’s a description exercise, it’s a voice exercise, it’s a lot of different things, it’s a memoir exercise. And so, I’m handing out the note cards and one of my students, this kind of jockey boy who I really like, he’s like, “Dude, I hate note cards.”
I mean that, for me, is hysterical. So I have my little planner and in the back I make a note about the idea of being a teenager where your initial impulse is resistance, even if it’s something as mundane as a note card. I even take notes as I’m teaching and I’ll always stop and write things down, like if the kids introduce a new word I’ve never heard of or a new sense of fashion. They all come in wearing this new thing and I’ll say, “What is that?” or “Where does that come from?” because I’m fascinated by them.
red Ravine: What surprised you most about Tales From the Teachers’ Lounge?
Robert: About writing it?
red Ravine: Yeah, or after it was done and you looked back on it, was there something in particular that you thought, “Wow I didn’t realize that was going to happen!”
Robert: Well, you don’t know when you’re writing it. When I’m in it, it all seems totally full and real to me. I try to get it as real as I can make it. So I never understand what I’m doing as I’m doing it. But now that I look at it, I realize it’s more complicated than I thought it was.
I wanted it to be, I hoped it to be, sort of smart/funny. But now that I’m stepping back and hearing people talk about it, I realize that there’s more edginess. You know, someone said to me, “Wow, this is a really edgy essay.” And I didn’t see it that way because that’s sort of the way it is, you know.
A lot of teachers have been responding just great, saying, “God, this is exactly what I feel like when I’m in the classroom, and this is what I’m thinking and I never get to say it.” So, for me, I didn’t realize how dangerous it is to tell the truth about being a teacher in this time.
It’s a little dangerous to know that a teacher has human feelings and a range of emotion and teachers can get mad and sad and be funny and be irreverent…and so it’s a little more risky than I thought it would be when I was writing it because when I was writing it I was just writing about what it’s like for me to be a teacher. And I don’t consider myself an especially edgy or risky person.
I’m a dad, you know, I like my health insurance, I don’t bungee jump, I don’t have any major addictions, so I just think of myself as a dad and a teacher and a husband and just sort of a person. And then when people respond to it, they respond to the work in ways that maybe I hadn’t really considered when I was writing it because when I was writing it I was just trying to keep my head down and tell the truth.
red Ravine: Yeah, as you talk about that, I’m in the second section, Chapter 5, and that’s exactly what I’m thinking, “Wow, this is edgy, this is bold. He’s revealing who he was as a student…” and, you know, your students are going to be reading that, and so, I had that same reaction about how courageous you are to really just tell the truth about who *you* are, who the real you is.
Robert: Yeah, I guess I don’t feel it’s courageous when I’m doing it at all. A lot of my students have already read the book, they were dying to read it much more than, obviously, the parenting book. I think, as a teacher … when you see a kid sitting alone in the cafeteria, you recall those moments in your own life. That’s the great blessing and curse of being a teacher … it’s sort of like Groundhog Day. Every year you see the kids make the same mistakes and go through the same awkward moments, and you can’t save them. That’s part of who they are.
And I think it’s really good to remember what it was like for you as a kid to be in the classroom when things were really boring. Or no one was listening to you, or people were making fun of you. Or you were having a great day and you wanted someone to acknowledge that. I think it’s important for the teacher not to lose touch with that. Because that’s in a sense who you’re dealing with. You’re dealing with past versions of yourself in a sense. And …I think for a lot of teachers, well, I’ll just speak for me, (we became) teachers because maybe there wasn’t something we got. Or maybe someone inspired us. But the other side of that is maybe there was something we needed as students that we never got.
For instance, for me, in high school, I was a soccer player, so my teachers and a lot of people, all they cared about was what I did out on the field. And not that much about what I was doing in the classroom. And so, for me now, when I’m dealing with athletes, I want to be equally interested in both. I want to show them that you can be very smart and a good basketball player and they’re not mutually exclusive. Or if a person is only … known for their performance in the classroom, to show them that you went to their athletic game and you noticed that side. Or you went to their music concert. For me, it’s important to remember what it felt like to be a student, because then I can respond to the kids in a more authentic way.
red Ravine: So, so far, you said one kid read the book?
Robert: Oh, more than one. A bunch of them got a hold of it and there’s been stuff in the local paper. The reporter printed the first essay, which is pretty edgy, I guess (laughs).
red Ravine: uh huh (laughs)
Robert: So the kids are excited … because the other thing is, they want to know that teachers are human beings. I don’t know if you feel this way but I remember in classrooms when my teachers would tell stories about their lives, I was just fascinated. And those moments were very few and far between. So for them to hear that I’m a human and I have flaws and that I struggle, and, you know, on 9/11 I felt really sad because I lost friends in the Trade Center, or whatever it is.
I think sometimes as teachers we think we should shield all that, that it’s unprofessional to be human. I think that’s a ridiculous concept. And I know for students, they love it when you tell stories about your life because they want to know who you are, not just what you have to say about Faulkner. They want to know that there’s a real, full human being standing in front of them for a lot of days in a year.
red Ravine: Okay, before I switch gears and just talk a little bit more about your writing practice, I do want to share with you, when I went to first get this book, I went to Borders and the book was indexed in the Education section. And I was just curious what you would think about it when you found out it was indexed there. Is that where you’d expect it to be found?
Robert: Well, you know what, it drives me a little crazy. I think it drives most writers crazy, especially writers of non-fiction. It’s hard, because Daddy Needs A Drink is indexed in the parenting section next to Dr. Spock. And I’m not in love with that. But I can’t do anything about it except move it when I go to the local Borders (laughs).
I’d love for it to be in humor or memoir, but, you know what, I can’t control that. I had a feeling they were going to put it in education but as a writer, once your book comes out, in terms of controlling that, you have no control. You’ve got to concentrate on things you can actually deal with. Otherwise, you’ll drive yourself crazy.
What you hope is that people like the book, and they talk about it, and they make people go find it. And once in a while, actually, I’ve seen bookstores respond. If a lot of people ask for the book and it’s sold in the back section in education and parenting, they’ll bring it up front if people ask for it. So that’s what you can do but it’s a hard thing. A lot of writers have written about where you’re shelved and there’s not a lot of control you have over that apparently.
red Ravine: Okay. I’m going to switch gears, Rob, and we want our readers to know about your writing process. We want to know about, for example, how you get your writing done while maintaining your job as a teacher full-time.
Robert: Well for writing both of the books, a couple things have happened. One is that my regular writing practice for both the books is to get up very early. There are a lot of reasons for that. First of all, I’m better in the morning. I think morning is the best time of day. But also in the morning, as a parent and somewhat with a job, it’s a time when the phone doesn’t ring. And the time where you really don’t have to check your email.
And being a teacher, I think it’s even more difficult because once I step foot in the school, I’m pretty much available to everyone at all times. Like right now I’m talking from Natalie’s house because there’s no privacy from school. I can not have privacy, even if I go in the bathroom, there’s no privacy (laughs).
There were times when I was working on Tales and I had done all my prep and everything and I had an hour. And I put loose leaf paper taped up against the window and the door of my English office, which is very small and I share with a bunch of people, and I’d just be writing away, and, literally, people would knock and I wouldn’t answer it. And the students would come around to the window, and they’d knock. They would not accept that I had a right to privacy.
Plus if I was on the phone, like if I was on the phone with you right now, there would be people coming in and out and, literally, students stop and talk to you, even though you’re on the phone, because they think you’re at school and you’re accessible to them. So there’s absolutely no way for me, unless I’m just in the zone, to get anything done at school. So I found that getting up very early worked and during both books, I’d get up around 4 or 4:30.
In the beginning, I’d usually start at 5 but then I’d realize I didn’t have enough time because I’d start shaving off moments from my alarm clock. So I’d get up at 4 and I’d go to school when there was no one. I couldn’t do it at home because if my kids heard me up, they would get up. So I’d go to school around 4, 4:30, and I’d work until around 7 and then I’d start prepping for classes. And I did that every day and I’d do the same thing on the weekends. I’d get up very early because that’s the time when I can be alone and also my kids don’t need me. I did that pretty much all the time writing through the book.
And you know … I find that once you start doing that, just realizing that’s your job and that’s what you do, it’s okay. And I think the hard part about it for a lot of people is trying to carve out time and during the day, it’s more difficult.
The other thing I’d do, which I think is important, is I’d take weekends where I’d go up to Taos or go to Albuquerque and, a lot of writers do this, hole up in a hotel and just write non-stop for the weekend and get a lot of writing done, away. My wife is very understanding about this and a lot of times I’d hire babysitters to help her.
I think there are a lot of times where you do need those long stretches of days, like where you’re trying to structure a book, figure out how you want to structure all these pages you have, and you need to lay them out and really look at them. So I’d take weekends away and get little retreats and that was really helpful for me to do.
red Ravine: Rob, has this method of getting up early and taking your long retreats every now and then, is that now what you consider your regular writing schedule where you maintain it now that you aren’t necessarily writing a book?
Robert: Well, I should tell you, this year I have gone to part-time, which for me is three classes. So I’ve allowed myself a little more time. I’m not going to get up as early because I teach three classes in the afternoon now. It took me a long time to feel like I could actually do that, you know, move to part-time, to consider myself a writer *and* a teacher. So I’ve gone to ¾, and instead of getting up at 4, I’ll get up at 6. And what I’ll do is I will go to the St. John’s library, or something like that, and write and then just come in later to school.
But the thing about teaching high school, which is different than college, is that there’s something every day. So even though I teach from noon to 3 or noon to 3:30, at 9:45 I’ll have to go to the assembly where people will talk about the upcoming soccer games. That’s required of my job. So then I’ll go do that and I’ll go back to writing. Or every 10 days I have lunch duty, which is probably the worst (laughs) duty you can have.
The thing about being a writer while you have a job is you have to be really good at your job. I tell writers, and especially teachers who write, I’ll say, “Look, you can write, you can take those days, but it means you have to be a really good teacher when you’re in the class room. And you have to fill your obligations to your job. That’s fair. So if someone says, ‘Look, what are you doing?’, you can say, look my job, I’m a 100% solid here and I think it’s okay that I go.”
red Ravine: So you’re very familiar, obviously, with writing practice and we’re curious about whether you use writing practice to write your books.
Robert: See this is the thing, and I’ve talked to Natalie about this, everything is writing practice to me. So when I sit down to write every morning – that’s writing practice. Right? See, I think it’s interesting that people separate them. But when I was writing the book, sometimes I’d just write what’s going on, or what I need to do, or how I’m feeling. But then some days I’d say, okay, if there’s a chapter on “Substitute Teacher,” (there’s one in the book called Sub-Par) I’d write everything I know about substitutes, right? And then, that becomes the early draft of that chapter. And then I’ll write it again the next day.
So, for me, writing practice is when I sit down to write, I still write in longhand in the mornings… and writing practice has helped me immensely because it doesn’t allow my monkey mind to freak myself out. Everyday I could say, “God, you’ve got to write a really good chapter for a book.” But then I tell myself to shut up and just start writing. You know? Don’t listen to that pressure. Just start writing everything you know about substitutes and trust that will eventually lead me to where I want to go in the chapter.
So I literally sit down and do writing practice every day and some days are great. Some days I’ll get a lot of stuff that I’ll use eventually in something that will see an audience. But … there will be days and days and days where I’ll just write and write and write and it’s just for me, finding my way. And figuring out a way to land before I get to that. Does that make sense?
red Ravine: It does. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
Robert: Because a lot of people do separate it, writing practice and then book writing. Well, writing does writing. So if you’re writing a book, you have to write. So you sit down and do writing practice. And what I’ll do is, I’ll take that and transcribe it and then I’ll start shaping it. I’ll take that rough writing and I’ll find the stuff that I need and I’ll start revising and revising and revising. But it all comes from writing practice for me. Without writing practice, I never would have written these books. Or anything else. It saved me in a million ways. You know, I could talk on and on about how much it has saved me, also from going nuts.
red Ravine: (laughs) yeah.
Robert: People think having a book will make you happy – it can also make you desperately miserable. And jealous. And petty. And mean and insecure.
Stay tuned for “Interview With Author And Teacher Robert Wilder -Part 2,” where Rob expands on finding his voice, what he’s working on next, what success looks like, and advice for new and emerging writers.
About the Author: Robert Wilder currently teaches high school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he is inspired daily. He has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and has a monthly column for the Santa Fe Reporter called “Daddy Needs A Drink.” He has been published in Salon, The Greensboro Review, The Colorado Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review and regional magazines and newspapers. He is a Frank Waters fiction prizewinner and two of his stories were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. He lives with his family in New Mexico. Visit him online at www.robertwilder.com.