Tag: journaling

How I’ve learned I will always be a teacher

Tomorrow morning, I will be talking to some students at my former graduate school, Florida International University, where I used to teach composition and received my MFA in creative writing (one of the best programs in the country!). The class is English Composition 1102, and it’s taught by one of my friends and former colleagues. She’s always looking for new ways to reach her students. She believes that writing and rhetoric can change a student’s future and provide them with the skills necessary for success — even if they’re not an English major.

Miami Horizon

So tomorrow, I’m going to Skype into their class from my new office and tell them about how the skills they’re learning in comp class transferred into my job, my life, and my personality. And I’ve got to say, the lessons I used to teach my students (plus the lessons I learned on how to teach from my professors) has played a gigantic role in my life, but it’s impossible to ever measure.

Journaling and freewriting 

If you’ve ever been in my class — or you ever really got to know me — then you probably know that I write in a journal all the time. I have countless journals with my thoughts, my dreams, my visions, my story ideas, and they’re probably the most prize possessions I own, because I can look back on those books and understand that it is the material of my mind.


Maybe that sounds strange. But when I was in graduate school, I took this pedagogy class with Kimberly Harrison. We read a bunch of theory, and I enjoyed it, but what I took away from the class, which impacts me everyday, is freewriting. Writing without thinking; writing without censoring; writing without blocking…searching, groping, hoping for some understanding to pop out of the page like a message from a dream.

In the most basic sense, learning to write write without judging was an important hurdle I had to overcome before I could actually communicate with others or myself. How often do we judge our writing? How often do we judge what we say in class? And how often do we stop from saying what we actually want because of fear? Well, freewriting taught me to believe in my words, to write them, to say them, and never look back.

Of course, this has some drawbacks. If I’m just saying whatever the hell I want, well, I’m probably going to say something stupid and offensive. But here’s another way I use freewriting: When I know I’m going into a difficult situation, when I know I have to talk to my boss about a sensitive issue, even when I know I have to talk to a loved one about a pressing matter, I write about it. I see what’s on my mind. I learn about myself. I learn about my fears. I learn about my thoughts. I learn about my insecurities. And what I’m really doing is strategizing by voyaging into myself.

You know, I could probably go on about all the things I’ve learned from teaching, but here’s something I’ve learned that seems important right now: Sometimes, you can plan an entire lesson down to the minute, but sometimes you just have to move on from that routine in order to find the point you wanted to make.


I’m getting married next week. Actually Saturday. I proposed to my lady, Heron, while I was teaching at FIU. Teaching, strangely, had a big part of this decision. And what I learned while teaching is that you always have to know your audience; you always have to know your genre; you always have to know your purpose.

Well, those are basic lessons for writing a paper, but those are the basic lessons for living a successful life. We teach our students to wallow in complexity, to not take the easy way out, and to find the right answer to complicated questions. And when I was trying to figure out if I was going to propose, I asked the same very questions I use to brainstorm a research paper.

So I looked at my life, and I wondered, who was the audience? Who was I living for? Ultimately, it was me, but it was my future wife. It was my dog. It was my family. It was my students. It was the voice I hear inside my head that tells what I’m doing is right or wrong.

And then I thought about the genre. What kind of a life did I want to live? Because I want to be a writer, part of me thought that I had to live some tragically beautiful life and suffer. I could have lived my life like a tragedy. I could have chosen to be alone and a wandering Gypsy. But no, I wanted to make my life another genre. I didn’t want to live a tragedy. I wanted to be happy. And I know what made me happy. I mean, I knew who made me happy.

And finally, I started to think about my purpose: The ultimate question. With my students, I asked, “What is it that you’re trying to accomplish in your paper?” With myself, I asked the obvious: What did I want out of life? And yes, life is tragically short, but I often imagine that when I die, I could be forced to watch my life on repeat, and back in graduate school, I knew that I wanted Heron to be in those scenes. I knew my purpose: to have an incredible family and be one hell of a writer.

Some might even say that being a writer and having a family is a paradox. But I’m the one writing this story.

Purpose, audience, and genre…

On the Importance of Journaling–Paris and Joan Didion

So I’ve been having some trouble writing my memoir the last couple of days. It’s just been going like I’ve been writing with shards off glass on sandpaper.  I hate it.  I’ve been typing a lot recently, and it’s a different process than I’ve used before.  I always started out with a pen and paper and wrote the entire story by hand — then typing up the document at the end.

My journals on the shelf.

Well, I realized earlier today this was my problem.  There is something just too robotic, uncreative, mechanical about typing.  It makes me feel like I’m transcribing from a metal box rather than the unconscious.  So, I’m going to head back to that routine and see how it goes.  But it made me reflect some on the importance of journaling.

When I was in Paris, I wandered around a lot by myself.  I just walked around at night, and I remember I walked down the stairs at Le Petit Pont to sit by the Seine River and write.  It was night, and the Notre Dame was behind me.  I watched someone inside turn the lights off in the famous cathedral.  So I sat on the cobble stones, when a man in a full suit walked up to me.  I was sitting next to a trash can that was overflowing, and it kind of smelled.  The man said to me, “If you keep a journal, then a journal will keep you.”  It was like a dream.  I couldn’t believe it happened.

And after this mysterious person uttered that line, I wrote this in my journal: “That saying is pretty perfect for the way I feel.  I feel that my trips, my life, can somehow be captured in here.  My attempt to breakdown the boundary of the dream and reality (being awake).  Now I listen to reggae music on the crackling cobbled sidewalks running with the Seine.  On the other side, a man wails on the saxophone.  On the river, a boat churns the water where lights dance on the tiny waves.  I don’t know how to describe how I feel underneath the shadows of the Notre Dame…I’m supposed to be here.  However, this isn’t that romantic, because I’m by myself, and I can smell the trash.”

I will never forget what that man said to me.  “A journal keeps you.”  Well, I look on my shelf, and I see all my journals.  I have about 20 or so.  That’s where I am kept.  I exist within those notebooks.  My thoughts, my journey, my dreams, it’s all there.  And it’s only for me.

And it’s also the journey I took to learn how to be a writer.

Every time I take a road trip, I bring my journal.  I make sure to document as much as I can, while still living the experience.  But to me, writing about my life, writing about my thoughts, is my way of understanding my world.  Because the only way I really know how to think, to know something true, is to write about it.

Finally, I will leave you with a quote by Joan Didion from her essay: “On Keeping Notebook“: 

“Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearranges of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”