5-9: Abdel Shakur on fiction, 9th grade, and patience

Abdel and his daughter, setting up his classroom.

Abdel and his daughter setting up his classroom.

Happy New Year! I’m excited to post today’s interview with Abdel Shakur. I heard about Abdel long before I met him. At Indiana Review, he is the editor who brought you the unforgettable funk issue in 2008. I got there a year after he had moved on to bigger and better things, but the office was still feeling the glow of that issue. Recently, he was kind enough to carve out the time for to correspond with me about the writing life. Abdel’s work has appeared in 2bridges, Glint, and Scissors and Spackle. And you can find him blogging at misstraknowitall.blogspot.com. He lives in Chicago with his family and teaches ninth grade English.

AS: Who are the authors you return to for inspiration?

James Baldwin the most. He’s an awesome role model for purposeful artistry and purposeful living. He’s not perfect, but you got to learn to love your imperfections.

AS: How does teaching influence/inspire/interrupt your writing?

I think one of the biggest insights I had as a teacher is how important it is to present yourself to your students as a model of thoughtful creativity. If I want kids to think, I have to show them how I think. If I want them to read critically, I’ve got to model it. If I want them to be writers than I have to make sure I’m still a writer myself. Of course that’s easier said then done, but I write all of the projects I ask my students to do, which motivates me to want the writing to be as fun and interesting as possible. I also started taking the train to school, which gave me time in the mornings. But this is the first year I could write like that. This is my fifth year of teaching and I feel like I pretty much know what I’m doing. Instead of directing all my creativity to creating projects and worksheets, I try to do a little on my writing every day. Starting that up again is one of my big goals for 2013.

AS:  That’s awesome that you write all the assignments that you give your students. Have any of the assignments turned into a full fledged story for you? Do any of your stories ever take place in fictitious class room? Or do you usually leave the classroom behind when you are writing?

I can’t say that any of my class writing has turned into anything I’d really like to work on further. The stuff I write for class displays a part of my writing, but a lot of the stuff I write isn’t necessarily school-appropriate. I just published a story, The Substitute, in 2 Bridges Literary Review that was influenced by my experience working in a school in Baltimore. It’s one of those class-from-hell experiences.

I’ve also written a bit since then about school stuff, but it’s kind of hard when you’re still immersed in that world to find the distance you need to examine what’s going on. Plus, with a lot of journals being available online, you’ve got to be careful because people have certain expectations about what teachers can and cannot write. Although I love teaching high school, that’s one of the real drawbacks.

I’m grateful for Abdel sharing his thoughts on what its like to be a writer and ninth grade english teacher. I also feel encouraged by his words of wisdom about patience and by the integrity he models for his students. He’s taking the do-what-I-do approach instead of the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do approach which often is the easier way.

As this new year continues to roll forward what are your big goals of 2013?