Samuel J. Tanner 6 minute read


April is the cruellest month.

T.S. Eliot said that. Well, he wrote that. In a poem. Was he right? I don't know. He was a white American who pretended to be a white British person. T.S. even pretended to have a British accent. I'm sure it was a bad British accent. Anglophilic, much? I still think his poetry is badass. But the guy clearly had issues.

Why is April the cruellest month for T.S.? Because it breeds lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory with desire, and stirring dull roots with spring rain. Or something like that.

I don't know. March felt like a dead land. Gray skies. Snowy drifts. Freezing tempratures. I've spent another season inside, hiding from the cold. Dull roots being stirred by spring rains? I do desire warmth. I'd like to see living things. That's for sure.

Am I really going to write about April this week? T.S. Eliot, even? Maybe. These blogs often surprise me. I rarely approach them with any idea of where they'll go. That's improvisational writing at it's finest, baby.

Improvisational writing is scary. What the hell will I write? What if I can't come up with anything? What am I trying to accomplish?

Certainly, I have more strategic writing projects than this blog. I usually know what I want to say in an academic essay. And if I move into a memoir or even a novel, I have a sense of the stories I want to tell. But I can't deny that those projects are improvisational too. I think, write, and let things emerge. And whatever emerges changes the trajectory of whatever it is I'm making. Complicated, baby.

I took an improv and fiction writing class at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis when I was 23. It was taught by a writer named Rosanne Bane. I was immature at the time, still awkwardly stumbling towards adulthood. Still, some of the lessons have become central to my writing process. I do say "Yes, and" to the things that emerge from my imagination as I write. I explore my thoughts. That improvisational process led to my trilogy of memoirs. I started writing about a teacher, and suddenly was telling a story about my best friend from middle school, Nick.

I'm currently editing Shot Across the River Styx. I want to catch more typos in the first two memoirs before I release the third work in my trilogy. The books are messy. Improv is messy.

Writing Shot Across the River Styx was improvisational. Characters like Magic "F'ing" Johnson emerged. More careful writers might have repressed Magic. I embraced him, and explored his place in my imagination through my writing. Did that improvisational approach result in a good book? It's hard for me to say. I'm proud of what came out of that writing, even if it strikes some readers as weird. And, in fact, a friend of mine and his wife recently read Shot Across the River Styx.

"The Magic "F'ing" Johnson stuff was really weird," they both told me.

I laughed. It absolutely was. But I embraced it. That content emerged from my psyche, and I accepted it rather than repressed it.

Incidentally, this improvisational process often throws my scene partners in improv scene. I accept and explore whatever emerges from my psyche, even if it is strange. I like it when scene parterns embrace my strangeness, and add onto it. Cool things emerge. Interesting things. I'm frustrated when they look at me like I'm a maniac, and refuse to go with me on a strange journey.

This same improvisational process happens in my academic writing. White supremacy. Teaching and learning. Lines of flight. I've explored so many concepts improvisationally, as I've written and revised academic manuscripts over the last three years. I'm learning so much about myself as a writer.

This is the 220 blog that I've written. Can you believe that? Talk about discipline! I had no intention of accomplishing anything with these blogs. I wanted to drum up support for Shot Across the River Styx, and my partner in publishing Ben told me to start blogging. So I did. And I couldn't get myself to embrace self-promotional writing. A blog about being a high school teacher? A teacher educator? A memoir writer? What was my brand? I don't think I have a brand. I'm improvisational. Maybe that's my brand?

Honestly, I'm a human trying to figure out being a human. That shit's complicated, and not easy to market as a commodity in a capitalist society. And so I just keep writing.

Ben and I are currently pulling together the book Playing with Sharp Objects. This is my final memoir about teaching. I keep referring to it in these blogs. I have a former student recording an audiobook, another illustrating the chapters, and another who edited the manuscript. I've been meeting with authors here in Pennsylvania to talk about sharing the work. I finally feel ready to share my writing. I want to visit bookstores, coffee shops, and, perhaps most importantly, schools. I want to tell my stories about being a teacher. Especially the story about card houses, the story I tell every group of students I work with. I want to talk about these stories with people. This feels like important work to me.

Yes, this new life as a professor is complicated. I make far less money than I did as a high school teacher. I live far from home. And my life is growing busier with all sorts of commitments. Still, I'm in a unique place to think, write, and share my work with others. And I'm excited to share my final memoir, even as I acknowledge that I have no grand visions of wealth or fame. I just want people to read it. That's all.

April is cruel. Dead things. But spring is coming, and new life emerges from the soil. Playing with Sharp Objects will be the final step in a writing process that allowed three memoirs to emerge from some of the cruellest seasons in my life, as I moved toward adulthood. I had no idea what was about to happen to me at 23, when I was sitting in that improv and fiction class at The Loft. How could I? I also had no idea what would happen when I started writing this blog.

Our lives happen in unexpected, awful terribly cruel ways. I think improvisation can teach us to be okay with this condition. Improv might help us walk with faith. Write with faith, too.