Interview with Samuel Nelson

March’s Writer of the Month was Samuel Nelson, who read his essay, “Pissing at the Women’s March,” to the crowd at the Colony Club in Washington, D.C.

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Passenger – What do you do for a living?

Samuel Nelson – I’m a teacher. I teach reading to elementary school kids. I love teaching. It’s active, way more interesting than a desk job. You have to enjoy it to endure it because it will drain you. I’ve been in education for eight years across five different cities, and I think I’m coming up on my third burn-out. I admit I was nervous talking about it because most of my writing isn’t kid-friendly. But I don’t make them read my writing. We stick to Flat Stanley and Roald Dahl kind of stuff.

P – What challenges does your professional life present to your writing?

SM  Many. But all of those challenges are about time and energy. I get up around 5:30 am most days, and I’m reading books with kids while most people are still hitting the snooze alarm. I get home any time between 5 and 7 pm, and I’m tired. There are evenings that I put paper on my desk and write but there is no way for me to make it a routine.

P – How do you balance your professional life with your creative life?

SM  I don’t. Not the way I want to. I’ve tried to balance it for years. One year I quit full-time teaching in New Orleans, so I could spend my mornings freelancing and writing stories. I grew a lot as a writer. But I spent all my savings doing it (and then moved to Mexico). Another year I just gave up and stopped writing, except for some recreational journaling and napkin-scribbling. I find little ways to balance the two lives, filling up notebooks on summer vacations, getting creative in the free margins of my life. I encourage other teacher-writers to do the same. Just write when you can. But I’m not satisfied with that anymore. I don’t want the dichotomy of a professional life and a creative life. I want cohesion. And I want the morning to my selfish self. So I’ve been getting ready for the next big thing: I’m leaving the teacher life. No more Mr. Nelson.

I’m committing myself to the craft for six months after this school year and planning a sort of DIY residency—to drive around the country with a portable desk, and sew together some writing projects. It’s a risk. But I’m not going to get a damn thing done by being safe about my passion. The point is, though, there is little balance in the teacher life. Which sucks because teachers who live balanced lives—not to mention teachers who have time to engage the arts—are better teachers for their students.

P – How does your professional life influence or inform your writing?

SM  The way I approach students and relationships is the way I approach writing. I’m all about process, not product. I try to see a student where they’re at, right now, as opposed to who I think they are going to be or who I want them to be, although I fall trap to that mindset sometimes. I think we all do. The same goes for a story or an essay. You got to meet it where it’s at, and not get consumed by the illusory notion of a polished, publishable piece. Good stories never end up the way you think they will. You can’t control a good story; you guide it. Process.

The other thing is that the classroom is a dynamic place. I tell people I’m an elementary school teacher and they imagine a picture-perfect classroom community where kids finger-paint and share everything and idealism runs its pretty course towards prosperity for everyone. Or I tell someone I work in a public school in the city and they imagine the opposite—they try to paint a broad and racially uncomfortable picture of unruly misfortune, the way Trump paints Chicago. It makes me cringe. It’s neither. It can be beautiful but also raw. It can be full of ambiguity sometimes. It’s radically socialist in concept, and yet we’re preparing kids for a very different adult culture. It’s full of contradictions like that—some healthy, some not. But what’s very real is that we’re 25 dynamic little and big people in a small space together, in a process together. It’s different every time, every year, every day. That’s literature. And I hope to use my experience to put together a fiction book later on, maybe a sort of composite novel exercising the many perspectives in a school. Tamagotchis included. So we’ll see what happens.

P – How has your writing influenced your professional life?

SM  My approach to art and life and work is humanistic, although I’m guilty of a hardened heart some days. Writing and literature remind me to stay open and compassionate in my work. And vice-versa. But at this point in my career, every day I’m teaching I’m not writing. And I’m ready to try to make writing my professional life. If I fail, I’ll have to think again. Maybe I’ll become a Lyft driver. Or a hobo. Or a Lyft-driving hobo teacher. Later, I can say it was all part of the process.

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Samuel Nelson is a teacher and writer in Washington, D.C. ,although his impulsive restlessness has impelled him to live, teach, and write in many cities, more recently Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and Puebla, Mexico. He’s originally from Richmond, Virginia. He has published short-form fiction, non-fiction, and poetry in a smattering of small journals and publications, including Country Roads Magazine, Fiction Southeast, District Lines, and NOLA Defender.

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