I’m having a problem, and this is it. Typing one word and then the next. Forming coherent thoughts. Creating meaning out of nothing. Otherwise known as writing.
So, I’ve turned to other writerly activities. Reading books. Revising earlier works. Looking for publication opportunities.
In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been spending time on Poets & Writers, the nation’s largest nonprofit organization serving creative writers. I’ve only scratched the surface. They have an alphabetized database of over twelve hundred literary magazines and journals. I’m up to the letter C. Christian Science Monitor. However, it’s good necessary to actually read the journals and follow submission guidelines, check submission dates and reading fees. And that takes time. Lucky for me, I have some time, and today I read Christian Science Monitor. They’ve published Sylvia Plath. I’m probably a long shot.
Why publish elsewhere?
Well, I’m building my bio. For now, this is it.
Crystal Byers is an emerging writer and veteran high school English teacher living in Houston, Texas. She has a memoir-in-progress and an MFA in Creative Writing from Houston Baptist University. Her essays appear at The Porch Magazine, The Houston Flood Museum, and soon with Brevity. Visit her at crystalbyers.com.
And if you are visiting today, thank you! May your words flow, your thoughts be coherent, and your meaning worthy of contemplation.
I’m from wide open spaces, endless horizons, and Oklahoma skies. I grew up dancing in studios on Main Street and dreaming of city lights and bigger audiences. A performing arts high school was beyond my wildest possibilities. There was no such thing in the rectangular strip of Oklahoma called The Panhandle, but never mind all that.
This coming fall I begin a new chapter, post grad school, and an exciting upcoming job. 1) I’ll be teaching seniors at a performing and visual arts high school downtown. 2) In twenty years of teaching, I’ve never had the opportunity to teach whatever I want. Until now.
Back in May, I received an e-mail from my new department chair. He asked me for my book list. The PTO would be ordering the following week. I had no time to lose. I scrambled to put my list together. I chose some texts that have worked for me in the past and some I haven’t taught before but LOVE. In my experience, if I love it, the majority won’t hate it. I’m determined to make readers out of non-readers this year. Some of my choices are edgy. I’ll need to prepare for alternatives. We’ll see how it goes.
During July, I must go about deciding exactly how I will go about teaching my anchor texts, and so here I brainstorm. With my AP Literature and Composition classes, we’ll begin with a mix of short stories and poetry before they tackle Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The novel will pair well with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” probably William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” I’ll have to think more on poetry, but Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” should work along with Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.”
Published in 1847 under the male pseudonym Currer Bell, Jane Eyre is gothic, while contemporary and feminist. As for Jane herself, she was orphaned and outcast her whole young life. Despite it all, she makes her way in the world and finds love. Granted, the love she finds has major issues, and so Jane picks herself up and moves on. There are some big plot twists here that make this novel oh, so worthy of reading and, of course, a classic.
My English IV students will also begin with short stories and poetry that transition to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The title alludes to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1895 poem “Sympathy.” In Dunbar’s version, “the caged birds sings” as “a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core.” Angelou opens her memoir with herself at age three accompanied by her four-year-old brother Bailey and otherwise unattended on a train from California to live with their Grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. I believe that was 1932. It’s a coming-of-age story of a little black girl growing up in the Jim Crow South. As a child, Angelou faces racism and trauma and the setback of becoming a sixteen-year-old, single black mother in the year 1944. I guarantee you, someone prayed for that little girl from the heart’s deep core. I see opportunities for more Dunbar, more Angelou, some Langston Hughes, maybe “Theme for English B,” Alice Walker’s “The Flowers,” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” That should work. I need a calendar.
Both classes will end the fall semester with Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. The novel begins with the story of Kya, a young girl whose mother walks out on the family, leaving the children to fend for themselves at home in the North Carolina marshes with an alcoholic father. Kya’s siblings flee, her father is mostly absent. He eventually never returns. Kya must learn to care for herself. With gorgeous prose, a dual timeline, and the suspense of a murder mystery, Kya’s story is one of resilience. The same could be said of the stories of Jane Eyre and Maya Angelou. I may have stumbled onto a theme for first semester. Resilience. I know I’ll need some beginning a brand-new job, and I know my seniors will, too, as they prepare for their lives post high school.
After the winter break, both classes will read Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. In medieval Scotland, three witches appear to Macbeth and prophesy that he will be king, except there is already a king. Lady Macbeth convinces her husband to kill the king, and this murder causes Macbeth some post-traumatic stress. The witches return with another prophecy—Macbeth has a friend named Banquo, and Banquo’s son will become king. To keep his title, Macbeth hires assassins to kill Banquo and his son, but the son escapes. At this point Macbeth goes mad. Macbeth returns to the witches one more time. Their third prophecy is more bad news for Macbeth. Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out—” works well here.
I’m thinking this semester will be loosely connected to avoiding traps. I have some related short stories. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates is dedicated to Bob Dylan and influenced by his song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Hopefully, I can squeeze them in along with Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”
After Macbeth, my AP Lit students will read Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Did I mention edgy? I’ll probably need a Plan B here. This seems like a good time for a movie—Oedipus the King. Maybe my Plan B is the Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles. (That just sounds mean. This is supposed to be a brainstorm.) In the novel, fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura runs away to escape his father’s house and an Oedipal prophecy and to search for his long-lost mother and sister. His name isn’t Kafka, by the way. (We should probably discuss the real Kafka). Anyway, our protagonist travels incognito. Kafka’s story alternates with a man named Nakata. After a childhood accident, this sixtyish-year-old simpleton lives on a government subsidy and communicates with cats, literally. Add in fish and leeches raining from the sky, Johnnie Walker—collector of cat souls, Colonel Sanders—a seedy pimp, and some graphic sex scenes, and well, that’s Kafka on the Shore. It’s a surreal story within a story within a story, laden with purposeful references to pop culture and literature, music and history. No one is who they seem. Most detail serves a metaphorical purpose. Jewels of wisdom abound. In my eyes, the novel is a guide to life. I’m thinking my English IV classes will read a book of choice during this time, which gives me the opportunity to recommend a plethora.
Both of my classes will end the year with Andrew Sean Greer’s Less. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2018, it’s the story of a failed failing novelist turning fifty. Unable to accept the invitation to his former long-term lover’s wedding, Less tours the world in the name of literature and grapples with aging, loneliness, creativity, grief, self-pity and more. It’s a love story, a satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time, the human heart, and our shared human comedy.
These are the books I’ve chosen to reread with students, and they have been ordered. Of course, I’m nervous about how the ones I haven’t taught before will resonate. Now what’s left is my mission to make Year 21 the best one ever—for me and my fellow creatives. I’m guided by this thought: The kids won’t care what I know until they know I care, and I do. That usually takes care of the rest.
The year was 1981. I was in the fifth grade. Outside my classroom window, the trees were budding with green, and the playground called my name. Inside, I was being called to the fiery pits of the principal’s office. That’s where the bad kids went.
The principal was a tall, stern man with deep lines on his face. The corners of his mouth gravitated down. He stood up from behind his desk and motioned for me to sit. We both sat. He leaned forward, steepled his hands, and gave me a grave look. “Do you know why you’re here?” he said.
I might have had an inkling. During music class, we were learning to square dance. It was a piece of our historical Oklahoma land run curriculum. We would dress in western apparel, and our parents would be invited for the culminating hoedown. The music teacher had asked if anyone couldn’t dance for religious reasons. Despite the dance lessons I took on Mondays after school, I raised my hand. So I had lied. My religion did not forbid dancing. I didn’t want to square dance. Truth be told, I didn’t want to touch the boys’ hands. Is there anything wrong with a fifth-grade girl having boundaries?
The principal said, “You’re a leader,” along with other words that sounded like blobbity blobbity blah blah blah. In the end, guess who square danced?
As a girl, I was taught two big lessons: Be nice and respect authority. That day I learned two more lessons: Do what you’re told and what you feel doesn’t matter.
I sometimes wonder about the correlation among my fifth-grade self with boundaries, my seventh-grade self who lost them, and my adult self who is still learning assertiveness. I wonder about the roles of society and family, hormones and people pleasing. I don’t have the answers. Different people react and internalize differently. Forty years later, I realize two more things: Some lessons are hard to unlearn, but it’s never too late to try.
This past week I had a long phone conversation with one of my childhood friends. We caught each other up about our kids and our lives. The details were a little messy. She told me about a concept called purge emotional writing and later sent me a link to an article with more information. My first thought was, “I write about my emotions all of the time.” Then yesterday morning, I read the article.
Normally, I type my words. Yesterday, I tried something new. I wrote on paper, as directed for twelve minutes, fast and furious. And I realized—I was furious. That’s probably why I was so open to this exercise. Next, I burned the page and watched a small fire consume it. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. And then I swept it all from the concrete pavement into the grass. The exercise says to do this for the next five days.
Cue Sunday. PEW Day 2. The sun arose, and so did I. I walked the neighborhood and listened to Black Pumas and Michael Kiwanuka through my earphones. Along the way, I thought about what I might write in twelve minutes. Already, I could feel the difference one day had made. Some of that comes down to circumstances. Some is perspective.
Back at home, I made coffee and grabbed my spiral. I checked the time and started writing. Twelve minutes. Today there were no f-bombs. Today there was more pity than anger. There was some acceptance of things I cannot change. There was some courage to change what I can. I’m still seeking wisdom to know the difference. Part of me wanted to keep today’s words. I walked the page through my front door and burned it anyway. I watched it char black, then to gray ash.
I’m interested to see what happens over the course of the next three days. Already, I’m thinking —
This morning, I sat on the couch with my laptop, and I drank my coffee. These words jumped off my screen. They resonated.
The words were only part of a sentence, part of a bigger thought from the goop article I was reading, an excerpt from Habib Sadeghi’s book The Clarity Cleanse. Dr. Sadeghi believes in the transformative power of writing to heal from the inside out. He says, “Words have tremendous power, and whether their effects are positive or negative depends on how we choose to use them. I can’t express how powerful a tool free-form writing is to expel negative energy from our minds and hearts. I used it daily during my recovery from cancer. I also return to it whenever I’m feeling emotionally oversaturated.”
I was feeling emotionally oversaturated, and so I read on. Dr. Sadeghi suggests an exercise called PEW 12 (Purge Emotional Writing), writing on paper for twelve minutes about whatever is disturbing my peace. At the end of twelve minutes, he says to take the page(s) to a secure, non-flammable area and burn it. “Fire is transformative and healing,” I read. “Your goal is to neutralize the negative energy, and the fire does that by transforming the chemical composition from paper to ash.”
The doctor warns that re-reading my page would only re-infect me with negative energy. He says never to direct the negatively charged words toward myself. I know these things intuitively. Sometimes I need reminders.
And so I found a spiral and noted the time and wrote for twelve minutes. I dropped F-bombs along the way. Then I ripped out the page and found a lighter and walked through my front door. I lit the page, watched it burn, dropped it on the concrete driveway, and stomped on it. I swept the ashes into the grass.
Dr. Sadeghi suggests doing this every day for five days before moving on to the next step. Except I don’t know what the next step is. His book is on my to-read list. I suppose I have four more days to find a copy.
In a lovely little chapel on the campus of Houston Baptist, I received kind words, a pen, and a pin. This was the last Friday night in May. I had taken the classes, put in the work, and completed requirements for my MFA.
Now, I hear Frank McCourt in my head, and he says, “Stock your mind. It is your house of treasure and no one in the world can interfere with it.” I notice his two polysyllabic words and the strength of his monosyllables. Now, I will work with my tools, read books, study language, and hone my craft. I will put my bloody manuscript in a drawer and let it rest. Same for me, sans drawer, just rest. I’ve learned that good art takes time.
Even though my angel mother grew up in the Baptist church, the “B” in HBU filled me with trepidation. I leaped with faith anyway. God played a role in my story, and I wanted to do Him justice. Still, I never imagined I would find my tribe of like minds at HBU. Now, I see God’s plan. I’ll be forever grateful for these people—my cohort and professors. They became my friends and family, encouraging and inspiring me with their ideas and insight, persistence and growth, love and prayers. All of this without judgement. Even their criticism was kind.
At HBU, I’ve learned to make time and space for my writing and for me. And I’ve realized we all feel like imposters sometimes. I’ve learned to be scared and do it anyway. And I’ve realized the power of continued progress. Anything is possible with belief and persistence. I’m still learning trust and patience in God. At the same time, I believe He is using my story in a way I never could’ve imagined.
I just found out that someone besides me published me. If you’re interested in a preview of my memoir Help in theTime of Schizophrenia, please click the link below. This is the beginning of my journey with my son for help.
I awoke to May raindrops falling outside my window and Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman singing in my head: “Come what may / Come what may / I will love you / Until my dying day.” I’m a sucker for a love story, and their song comes from one of my favorites, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!
But I was stuck on the words of the title “Come What May.” Maybe because May is here. Maybe because I’m entering a transitional time and have no idea what may come. Did you know the phrase comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth? In medieval Scotland, the three witches have just told Macbeth that he will become king. Macbeth can hardly believe the news because Scotland has a king, and Macbeth isn’t in direct line to the throne. He says, “Come what come may / Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.” He means whatever will come will come. Enter Lady Macbeth. She convinces him to murder the king.
And so this May. I will try to just be. Be present. Be myself. Be patient and kind. I won’t try to manipulate fate like Macbeth did. Instead, I’ll trust that everything will be okay come what may.
I clicked into the online class because the title said, “20 Minute ZUMBA Fitness.”
I said to myself, “I can do anything for twenty minutes.”
From the first downbeat, the instructor Ayhan Sulu is high energy. His sleevless shirt says, “EGO IS NOT YOUR AMIGO.” And his smile—well—you might just need to click play to see for yourself. Better yet, stand up wherever you are, set your ego aside, and give it a try.
Let me warn you, at about the seven-minute mark, I nearly cried mercy, but I couldn’t stop smiling. Just when I found myself almost dying, the music switched, and we slowed down. Not for long. The intensity built once more. But if this guy’s energy doesn’t make you smile, then picture me—a 51-one-year-old woman who has never ever Zumba-ed, trying to keep up with his moves. Maybe you had to be there, but I’m still tickled.
Around fourteen minutes, I hit pause and went to pee for the sheer excuse of taking a time out. The workout would be over at 22:17. “I can do anything for eight minutes,” I reminded myself. Just as I hit play, there was another slowdown. And then another speed up. And then somewhere in the nineteen-minute range, we started cooling down. I had made it! Through the class. Through my A-Z blogging challenge. Through my month of action. Miracles do happen. Bring on May.