Teaching in the Dark: A Memoir
Publication Date: Sept 22, 2023, Publisher: Balboa Press
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What is your book about?
This memoir chronicles my first year as a teacher in the remote Arctic village of Shishmaref, Alaska. Because I was completely out of my own element, the stories are funny. They are poignant. They reveal the emotional challenges I experienced as a white woman in a vastly different culture. Ultimately, they speak to the inner lives of teachers everywhere, who often feel like they are groping in the dark while trying to navigate the endless and unexpected twists and turns of the teaching profession while still making a difference in their students’ lives.
What inspired you to write your book?
My experiences as a first-year teacher in Shishmaref, Alaska, radically transformed my initial expectations of what I thought being a teacher was supposed to be like. The culture of that small Arctic village was so different from my own; I constantly grappled with being an Outsider who wanted to belong—who wanted to make a difference in my students’ lives—yet I had no clue how to do that. I was “teaching in the dark,” literally (in the winter) and figuratively!
I sensed a transformation within myself at that time but didn’t comprehend the power of my experiences until about thirty years later, when I returned to teaching high school once more. The memories of Shishmaref came back with such energy; they wanted to be told. I felt a renewed sense of purpose as a teacher and knew that Shishmaref was fueling my passion.
I wrote this book as a show of respect for my own experience, to make sense of it. I wrote it to pay tribute to the people of Shishmaref and to thank them for their generosity. I wrote it to inspire teachers to keep going, even when they feel like they are in the dark; if they can cultivate self-awareness and self-compassion, a light always shines through.
Can you describe your writing process? How did you get your book written and how long did it take?
Many of the stories in my book were always fresh on my mind and I would share them with college students, friends, and family. Everyone kept saying, “You should write a book!” I agreed. The stories wanted to be told, and I had this sense that I would not be able to get onto the next stage of my life until I got them out of me and into the world.
I began with a four-day retreat in a cabin in the woods on Whidbey Island, bringing all of my journals and photos and letters written to friends (who gave them back to me). I spread everything out, took a good look, and started writing about the first experience that came through—the first one that wanted to be captured. Then I wrote another. And another. And on it went.
Two years of writing retreats later (as well as countless hours at home in the early morning and late at night), a larger story arc showed up; there were moments when the stories were writing themselves and it was all I could do to keep my fingers typing them out as fast as I could. Details came to me during walks and through dreams. They came directly into my conscious mind—sometimes loud, sometimes in whispers. I used the sticky-note-on-poster paper method to put the stories in order the best I could, and then used a couple more writing retreats to string things together.
One more year of writing later, the stories found their place. I found an amazing editing team and worked with a developmental editor and a proofreader for about eight months before submitting my manuscript to Balboa. Three more iterations of fine-tuning brought it to eventual publication.
Altogether, the stories were alive in me for almost forty years, and took about 4.5 years to write.
What was your publishing process like? How did you publish your book and how long did it take?
I found Balboa Press years ago, thinking I would have them publish a handbook I was writing for graduate students (to stay sane during a master’s thesis or dissertation), but that idea fizzled out and I shifted to having them publish Teaching in the Dark instead. They were gracious with that shift and waited patiently during the four years it took for me to finish the manuscript.
I submitted my manuscript on July 23, 2023, and it was released on September 22, 2023. The process with Balboa toward publication was, to be honest, very confusing and frustrating. I felt like I was “publishing in the dark,” not knowing where I was in the process or how long things would take. I filled out form after form and had to make multiple corrections to the publisher’s interpretations of what I’d written. I was also blindsided by my book suddenly showing up for sale on Amazon without warning. The impact was me not having the kind of pre-publication time I expected to have, building anticipation and more of a following before the book’s release. I still have not had a proper launch, because the book kit materials came several weeks later, and the website Balboa promised is still being created. I feel like my horse left the barn without me, and I’ve been playing catch-up ever since.
I also had no idea how much time and money it would take to market my book; Balboa offered some publicity packages to me, but they were in the thousands of dollars and “pie in the sky” promises. I declined them all and had to find my own publicist to help me get the word out in venues I don’t have access to as a new author.
In summary, I am pleased with the overall product, but would have appreciated more guidance, care, and strategic planning with the publishing process.
How do you hope your book impacts the world?
While this book details my own thoughts and experiences as a first-year teacher, the stories have a universal appeal. They speak to the natural yearning we all feel at times in our lives for connecting to others, of serving others, of receiving and giving love. Readers will find themselves in my stories of struggle to find a sense of kinship with a group of like-minded people, and of connecting one’s heart and soul to a profession. They will also enjoy the emotional weaving in my stories–the constant juxtaposition of doubt and confidence, frustration and joy, sadness and humor. There is levity as well as heartache in my ventures, but they come together in the end, paving the way toward living into one’s larger purpose in life, of “coming into one’s own.” It is a very personal, yet universal journey.
Further, most books written for teachers focus on curriculum, teaching strategies, or classroom management; they are “skill” books. My memoir is a “heart”book. It is not about what to DO as a teacher, but more about “becoming” a person who teaches (which then informs what to do).
Lastly, I want readers to reflect on the effects of imposing one culture on another; those impressions can last a lifetime, for better or for worse. Educators must be careful and respectful of other cultures and their ways of being in the world; to be “educatoed” means different things to different people. There is room on this earth for all.
Are there any people and/or books that have inspired you along your journey?
People who have inspired me:
Teachers: Rita Sobcoviak (middle school), Marilyn Englander (high school), Dottie Engan-Barker (grad school), and Lee Worley (Naropa University). Each one “saw me” in a way that gave me confidence to learn and grow as I needed during pivotal points in time.
My father, Gordon R. Pierce, who’s been my primary cheerleader throughout my life. He told me decades ago that I ought to write this book, and then continued to support me by helping untangle wording and ideas in early drafts. He also provided artwork for the book and some of the financing for it. He believes in me 100% and makes me want to work hard until I am fully satisfied that I’ve given my best.
There are many other people, as well, mentioned in my Acknowledgments.
Books that have inspired me:
Parker J. Palmer’s “The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life” and “To Know As We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey.”
Anne Zonne Parker’s self-published book “Stories from the Origin,” which chronicles her time in the Australian Outback, and the push and pull she experienced as an Outsider in a radically different place. I loved her honesty and her simple, elegant writing, and knew that I wanted my memoir to have the same impact on others as hers had on me.
What’s next for you?
My primary focus for this coming year is to share my book with as many people as possible through book talks, book clubs, and conversations in person and online. I want to create short videos of me discussing aspects of the book and the timeless stories therein, and plan to work with a professional reader so my book is available via audio.
My next book is a handbook for teachers—an off-shoot from my memoir—where I build on the themes of self-exploration and connecting with one’s self in order to connect to one’s students, their culture, their families. The working title for that is, “The B.E.S.T. Little Handbook for Teachers, Old and New” (B.E.S.T. = Brave, Effective, Self-caring, and Transformative).
Eventually, I want to create a course that guides teachers to be more proactive with their professional development, from the inside-out.
Also in the cue is a novel about the history of a popular game people play today – how it travelled through the centuries, across continents and oceans, eventually landing on the shores of the United States in the late 1800s. It will be a story about how such a game brought people together, as well as how it tore them apart. It’s a novel about kinship, determination, and facing one’s enemies. It’s an exploration of how some people give up on their dreams, while others burst through and advance humanity in radical ways.
What advice would you fellow authors who are just getting started?
First, you really have to believe in yourself. Writing a book is a long process, fraught with the most exhilarating flashes of insight, mixed with the doldrums of actual writing. So many times I wrote myself into a corner and couldn’t figure what the heck I was trying to say. You have to believe that the answer will come—maybe not in the section you are currently working on, but at another time. Trust that the words WILL come. Be patient with them, as well as with yourself.
Second, you are going to need time to write, to be alone, to wonder and wander. I have found that the people closest to me can have a hard time with all that, because they feel left out. They can feel neglected. So get ahead of that by initiating conversations about what you need and what they need, and come to agreements about how those needs will be met. Make sure to set aside time with your loved ones, and protect like hell the time you scheduled to write. People will still try to pull you away to do something “way more fun,” so you have to be be okay with disappointing them when declining their offer. There will also be times when you say, “Okay Okay!” Then, go have some fun.
Third, create a management system for tracking and filing your ideas and your writing overall. I used Scrivener, a program available on both PC and Mac. It saved me from going crazy many times! I’d be deep in the thicket of writing a scene and suddenly think of a detail that belonged someplace else; I didn’t want to get hijacked by that, so I needed a place to quickly file the idea and get back to the task at hand. Scrivener allowed me to do that. It’s also the best program I know for rearranging chapters so you can try different approaches to telling your story until you find the one that feels right.
For capturing ideas when NOT at my computer, I use the Evernote app on my phone. I dictate ideas, take photos, track links for future research, etc.
Finally, be patient as you find your own rhythm for writing. I used to be a night owl, then I was an early morning bird, then I needed four days in a cabin. My rhythm was not always consistent, but it worked for me. Experiment, observe yourself, honor yourself. You are bringing new ideas into the world, and that takes patience and awareness and a lot of self-love.