Teacher as Writer: Fishing from the Wastebasket

Folks, we are over-the-moon excited to introduce you to our newest contributing writer, Stephen Briseño. This year, Stephen, an English teacher and writer, will be writing to encourage US to pick up the pen (or keyboard) and become writers ourselves. We are SO happy to have him on the Moving Writers team. Here’s his bio: 

Stephen Briseño HeadshotStephen Briseño teaches 8th grade ELA and Newspaper at Alamo Heights Junior School in San Antonio, TX. In 2017, he was the recipient of a Book Love Foundation Grant to grow his classroom library–thanks, Penny Kittle! He also leads writing professional development with his wife, Kayla, for Texas teacher/author Gretchen Bernabei. Stephen is passionate about all things reading and writing–in particular, poetry, picture books, and MG/YA–and is actively searching for the fine balance of teacher as practicing writer. His first book of poetry, What It Feels from Like to Be a Zebra, comes out in January 2020 from Finishing Line Press. Connect with him through email him at sbriseno@ahisd.net or on Twitter @stephen_briseno.

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Teacher as Writer Header

One could argue that Stephen King is one of the greatest living writers today–if not the greatest. Some may say that that title deserves to go to Cormac McCarthy or J.K. Rowling or Alice Walker. Regardless of where you stand on his writing, his power to draw people into his stories is difficult to deny. 

Case in point. At the moment, I have two students–Kevin and Enzo–both reading IT for reader’s workshop. Their facial expressions are near identical: an intense, focused glare at the page like they’re checking Instagram instead of reading about an evil clown. Another student, Tyler, is entranced by The Shining, and Olivia can’t bring her head up from The Waste Lands, the third installment in The Dark Tower series. 

How is that a 71-year old author from the northeast can capture the imaginations of Texan 8th grade students in 2019? The only answer that makes sense to me is darn good stories told in a darn good way. But that wasn’t always the case.

Before he claimed the throne as the master of horror, King worked as a high school English teacher in Maine. During the summers, he also doubled as one of the school’s part-time janitors. While cleaning the girls’ locker room, he had the seed of a thought. That seed of a thought–a little too inappropriate for our little corner of the internet–together with another thought on telekinesis, festered into what is now his debut novel: the pig blood-drenched Carrie

Initially, he wrote three pages, a snippet of a pivotal scene from the story. If you’ve read or watched it, you’re probably aware of which scene I’m referring. He poured over it all through the night.

And promptly threw his work in the garbage the next morning. 

After returning home from his English classes, he discovered his wife, Tabitha, had fished out the pages, read them, and wanted to see more. As King puts it, “she wanted to know the rest of the story.”

The rest, as they say, is history. He finished the novel, sold it, and the paperback edition went on to sell over 1 million copies in its first year. King made so much money he bought a Ford Pinto, went out for a nice dinner, and resigned from teaching. Not a bad way to go out if you ask me.

But did you know that while Carrie was his first published novel, it was actually King’s fourth completed novel? 

Yeah. Three finished novels lay in his desk drawers, collecting dust. Three attempts at bringing a story into the world. All three rejected, never to see the light of day.

What if King had given up after his first novel? Second? What if he was about to start his third novel and instead of going on with it he had thrown in the towel? Or, something smaller still, what if Tabitha hadn’t noticed the crumpled up pages in the wastebasket?

So what does all this have to do with anything? 

Well, over the last 18 months, I’ve decided to take a pretty intense risk, a risk beyond my classroom: put myself out there and practice writing with the goal of getting my work published. It has not been an easy road in the least. My writing has been rejected countless times–so much so that I subconsciously expect a “no” instead of a “yes” for every poem or story I’ve submitted to literary magazines and lit agents. Just like King, I too have wanted to take my writing and shove it in a drawer so that it never sees the light of day again. I’ve also taken countless bits and pages and thoughts and chucked them in the trash. Despite it all, though, this combo of risk and rejection, of creating and hitting a brick wall, has single-handedly shaped how I approach writing with my students. But more on that later.

 

Submittable Declines 2019
Two screenshots of my DECLINES on the website Submittable, a submission website used by many literary journals and publishers, from this year alone.

My main focus during my column over the next few months is to explore the idea of teachers as writers.

Now, I’m not only talking about the occasional journal entry where you highlight your day, what you’re going through at a given moment, or family milestones. This type of writing is important and definitely serves a purpose for all of us in our writing identity. No, I’m writing to those of you out there who have a desire that’s been buried, hidden, or dare I say, neglected. Those of you that have a dream that you had when you finished a book that moved you. I’m talking about that seed that is lying dormant.

Right now, think of me as a proxy for Tabitha King. I’m the one noticing the three pages in the wastebasket, fishing them out, asking you to tell me the rest of the story. 

Will you be brave and tell it?

Here’s our first challenge:

  • Grab a cup of coffee and a bit of quiet space.
  • List out every story, poem, or book idea that has ever skimmed across the surface of your mind. Get it all out, but most importantly DON’T SHOW OR SHARE YOUR IDEAS WITH ANYONE! 
  • Sit on that list for at least a week and add to it as the week goes by. Once the week is up, choose at least one item from that list and flesh it out. Whether it’s a poem, a memoir, a short story, an opinion, whatever it is tell that story.

 

Happy writing!

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