Amy L. Wink, Ph.D. Educator ~ Writer ~ Morgan Driver ~ Welshie Owner

Writing Mentor

Welcome to my website. I am the author of She Left Nothing In Particular: The Autobiographical Legacy of 19th Century Women's Diaries (University of Tennessee Press, 2001) and the editor of Tandem Lives: The Frontier Texas Diaries of Henrietta Baker Embree and Tennessee Keys Embree, 1856-1884 (University of Tennessee Press, 2009). You can find out more about my work on these diaries by visiting embreediaries.com. My essays have appeared on insidehighered.com, in the Austin-American Statesman and, most recently, in YogaPlus Magazine. I started learning to drive horses after I bought my first horse for my 40th birthday present to myself. I now own two Morgan horses, Will and Blessing, as well as 2 Welsh Springer Spaniels, James and Lily (not named for Harry Potter's parents but I'm okay with that connection.) I am now in my 30th year in the classroom and working toward a new book, Small Voices and Encounter Narratives: Notes from a Creating Life. I teach at Austin Community College in Austin, Texas.

Vocation

amywink April 21st, 2018

I walked into my first classroom when I was twenty-two and into my life’s work as if it were the most natural place in the world for me to be. I had thought I would like it but I had no idea how much I would immediately love being a teacher, nor how immediately good I would be at doing the work but I was, as if I understood “Here is what you are.” I had written in my application to graduate school that I wanted to teach writing and literature and had been granted a Teaching Assistant position from the English Department at Texas A&M. In this case, being a TA meant actually teaching two classes on your own. While we took a two-semester course in Composition and Rhetoric pedagogy the first year we taught, we were in the classroom alone with our students at the same time. It did not take me long to leave the confines of the required syllabus and delve into my own approach to teaching. When I was video-recorded by the Center for Teaching Excellence, they told me immediately “You are really good at this. We have nothing to tell you. The only thing we could suggest is write higher on the chalkboard but you are so short. . . .” and they left it at that.

I spent 10 years teaching at Texas A&M while I earned a Master’s and a PhD. in English, and completed one year as a Post-Doc while scrambling to find another job. I spent another 4 years as an itinerate visiting professor while I moved from position to position and began to lose the love for my work. I struggled with the increasing pressure to teach less well, to care less, and devote more time to research to ensure I could land a job–though ironically, the places I wanted to land a job worried about my research taking too much from my teaching. No one seemed to understand that the teaching fed the research and the research fed the teaching. As I was advised to teach less well, to disassociate from my students, I understood that the profession was asking me to be someone I wasn’t, asking me to stop growing. I stopped teaching in 2001, closed my first life as a teacher and returned to Austin to find some other line of work.

I didn’t. I did publish my first book, and thus “became” a writer (the other thing I am).

I returned to teaching in the fall of 2002, when I started as an adjunct for Austin Community College and was given the chance to remember what I loved. I taught a World Literature class in the fall of 2002 and my faculty observer said “Oh, you are so good at this. You have more teaching experience than most of us” and left it at that. But I was a different teacher at that moment than the first time I entered the classroom. I was not only older but I understood more about the joy I experienced while teaching, what fun it could be to engage students in learning, to help them enjoy the work instead of fear it. I remembered that I loved it and I entered my second life as a teacher.

The next year, I had the chance to teach at Southwestern, my alma mater. I deliberated on what I would do in my classes, what I discerned would make a difference for students. I decided to teach what I wanted to teach, to try something daring and innovative, something I would love to teach and something I hoped students would love. Under the “Writing and Critical Thinking” title, I developed a writing class using autobiography theory and the psychology of writing with the deliberate goal of helping students discover what they might love to do with their lives. While some reacted as if I was forcing them to make “goals”, I gently told them I only wanted to them think about who they were becoming, what would make them happy in their lives, and to figure out a way to get there. It was glorious. I also learned a lot about myself because I did the work as well. I thought about my own Wildly Improbable Dreams. I thought about what I loved. I approached 40 knowing I was beginning again. I remained at ACC while I taught at Southwestern, teaching alternating days at each. While I dreamed that I might land a full time job at SU, what I learned was that I was also no longer suited to the work required of a tenure-track professor.

I did not get a job there.

I did buy a pony. I learned how to drive him. I published another book. I bought a second pony. I learned to drive her lot better. I continued to teach at ACC and I loved it. Though community college students are often demeaned and degraded, I decided to be the teacher I had always wanted in my life, the teacher I had needed and I gave my ACC students what they needed: respect, kindness, encouragement, and attention. I decided to give the students who needed it, who rarely received the best from their teachers, the very best work I could. I decided to teach what they deserved to know. I received so much in return. My life expanded as if those wildly improbable goals I had encouraged my students to write and the ones I had written for myself were answered by a benevolent God, who hoped we would all become who we were meant to be.

All of those things helped me cope when my life began to shrink again with the increased duties of care-giving. I learned not to hate my life even though it was unconventional. Every hard thing I had ever done seemed to help me cope with my father’s declining health and my mother’s increased helplessness and eventual death. Teaching saved my life during those hard days. My students gave back what I had given them and I was grateful.

I have been teaching now for thirty years. I am very good at this work. Everyone who has seen me teach has commented, sometimes with amazement, sometimes with jealousy. This past year, I found a new opportunity for teaching, in an arena I had never considered, when another teacher recognized the teacher in me and asked me to teach at church. I somewhat cavalierly said “oh sure.” But my voice broke that day and I was surprisingly anxious about it until I found my teaching legs again and began to teach something new. I was asked again, and again, and then I volunteered.

I loved it. Deeply, deeply loved it.

I had not realized I was bored until I was suddenly wasn’t.

I did not realize I was empty until I was filled.

And I wrote a third book, a decade after my last one, because what I was learning and what I was teaching fed my writing.

So it came as no surprise that my entire Disciple class said in unison, rather loudly, that I had the Spiritual Gift of Teaching. I did not argue with false modesty. I know what my gifts are and it would be silly to deny that teaching is one of them. I just own the gift, just like I must own the gift of writing. I imagine what they see is exactly what I see when I watch someone doing the work they are clearly meant to do in the world. In many ways, I know am blessed to have such a clear vocation and lucky to understand both the gift and how much I love it.

But I understand that right now, at this moment I am also being asked to grow. I am being asked to expand beyond the boundaries I have understood during my life. And I am being asked to think about what teaching may mean now as I enter my new third life as a teacher.

Tending My Eden

amywink April 14th, 2018

img_4991-1.jpg

A stranger stopped by
yesterday to tell me he
could make my yard spectacular
by clearing what he deemed
a mess and overgrown.

I asked the price for such
a miraculous change
and knowing that it wasn’t
something I could,
or even would, afford
despite the lower
second offer, I declined
because he didn’t know
where the beauty was
in all the mess he saw.

But I know beyond the mess.

I know what delightful beauty
waits here in this wild unruly green.

What may look like death
is only dormant and
will by my patience
eventually erupt
in spectacular bloom
when I have greater
need of the glory.

I know where the memories are,
the things I’ve inherited,
and my reasons for planting
some of this rough growth
that has endured in my benign neglect.

I do not mind the mess
I am simply waiting to attend.

And by this morning,
this gardener has woken
into this cool Spring day
and with my happy spaniels,
I have begun this seasons’ work,
thinking of the loveliness I have made,
what things I know of deliberate planting,
what I understand of different
rates of bloom or the timing
of my pruning if I am to be rewarded
with the flowering I intended,
what I must by necessity
cull if everything is to grow
as well as it may, and even
what volunteers I will
allow and foster simply
because their surprise will
make this unconventional Eden new
with their blooming
if I will wait
to see what happens
in this greater undertaking.

This garden may not be a landscaper’s dream,
stripped of difference for easy mowing.
Because I have planted something else
and I myself will slowly
tend all that is growing
into the wilder beauty
that I intend for it to be.

Distance

amywink April 12th, 2018

“After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?” John 13: 12

The first Sunday after Easter, I came face to face with the slow transformational change I have experienced in the last year as I attempted to return a little cushioning distance between myself and the overwhelming energies I experience in large groups of people.

God laughed, and I may have heard, “you’re kidding, right?”

And I had to laugh too because there was no way not to recognize I was not going to get distance, though God did allow me to connect in the way that I am, instead of the ways that others are. And my Lenten practice revealed how deeply true my understanding of what I let go in those forty days as I moved closer to being my whole and complete self.

Last week, for Easter Sunday, I came down from the balcony to sit with the members of my Disciple class, to whom I have grown very close in the last 24 weeks. We have engaged in the challenging questions of our faith and how we live our lives as people of faith, what we understand about how God speaks to each of us and calls us to be who we are has built a loving community as we continue to learn together. I have enjoyed their company and I wanted to enjoy their company on Easter and deliberately chose to move closer to all of them.

It was glorious.

And overpowering.

As Easter should be.

But I was very glad I had done it. This experience of standing in the middle of more than 850 voices singing is not one I will forget and I was deep in the sound because I am about a foot shorter than everyone who stood around me. I could not hear myself and gave up singing just to be filled instead by sound.

This week, I moved forward into this changed life. I said yes to something big I had been asked to do, and stated my boundaries for yes. I was moving into a new stage for the Bolder than the State of Texas project, one which required a lot more public connection with everyone–which I want to do and am able to do. But I looked at my Sunday schedule and thought, “this is too much.” I asked myself what I needed to be able to do these bigger things? I decided to ask for help so I wouldn’t have to usher at the 11:00 service.

It’s a small thing, and some people might not think it’s such a hard thing. And it’s true, it is not at all difficult. Except, for a Sunday when I was doing something that would take some of my most concentrated energy before and after the service, I knew I needed the service. I needed not to be doing something during that service. I needed to be renewed by the experience of it instead. So I asked for a substitute saying I had a lot on my plate and could someone sub for me and someone stepped right up.

I went on about my week, preparing for Sunday, doing my regular life, taking care of my Dad, managing his Medicaid application, teaching my classes, and taking a few risks as I kept moving toward Sunday and an anniversary I had forgotten kept coming closer too. But my body remembered. With the memory, the experience of every risk I had ever taken and been punished for came with it as well as everything I’d ever had to take on alone when I was supposed to be helped.

Grief is a weird and terrible thing, triggered by odd incidents that seem to pass unnoticed and suddenly like water pouring from shattered dam, it is overpowering and I was deep into it before I understood what was happening. C. S. Lewis wrote “no one ever told me grief felt so much like fear” and he was writing truth. By Saturday, I was deeply in the grip of bone-shattering fear. I did not understand why. When I finally recognized the fear, I spoke it. I sat with it. I felt it. It wasn’t great. It was terrible. But one thing I have learned is that anything I refuse to feel doesn’t go away, it just keeps coming, waiting to be felt, gaining strength in my resistance to it. If I am going to have feelings, I must have all the feelings, even the ones we think are uncomfortable and dangerous.

In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, as the character Amy treats the deep wounds on Sethe’s body, she says “It’s gonna hurt, now. . . anything coming back to life hurts.” I have been coming back to life and there is hurt and it has to be felt. But I didn’t understand why exactly. The week had been lovely. So many beautiful things, why such fear? I knew a couple of possible triggers but it wasn’t until I thought of C. S. Lewis that I understood. We had held my mother’s memorial service the Sunday after Easter two years earlier. I had completed a lifetime duty that I had felt I had to do mostly alone. I had carried the weight of that duty until the day of her service, when I finally finished the work, from which I was completely exhausted, but I had not failed to complete and God had been with me.

And God was with me Saturday, as the burden of memory broke me again.

God was with me Sunday in the voice and face of every one who welcomed me into church and celebrated seeing me. Everyone I encountered seemed to light up when they saw me. People had assumed I wasn’t coming to church when I asked for help with ushering. I just needed the service (even more than I thought I would by Sunday). They greeted me with joyous surprise. I stopped to tell my Disciple class downstairs that I’d be retreating to the introvert’s balcony and they begged me to stay, but I explained what I needed and they understood (I think). But when I got to my balcony, someone had offered my presence to someone who knew no one at church. There was no way to refuse. Another new member saw me and I invited her to sit by me as well so we could talk about books. I explained I was trying to be an introvert and she rightly said “I bet that is hard for you” and later she invited me to dinner at her new house. I was greeted so warmly by everyone I knew in the balcony (we people of the balcony) and I could not help but laugh because everyone was close. There was no way I could have any distance.

And God was laughing, “You thought I was kidding. Do you know what I have done to you?”

I am just beginning to find out.

Old Wounds

amywink April 7th, 2018

These hidden injuries
from my other lives
go unnoticed by
my present company,
even by myself
forgotten in the years
between now and the deep
initial bruising or
splintering break,

until some accidental
hit strikes too close
or an unremembered
devastation rises
to tear whatever
patchwork mend I had
so cautiously protected
and carefully tended until
I, mistaken, thought
myself completely healed.

Forty Days

amywink April 2nd, 2018

I wrote every day of Lent except two– Palm Sunday, and Holy Saturday, two days I was simply being. I do not think that is a failure of my devotion and discipline since I was not really trying to achieve a “perfect” record, but more of a mature understanding of my faith and creative practice–which did take some effort, especially at the beginning.

We think of discipline as punishment, but in this instance (and others), it’s simply the ability to keep to a task, to improve a skill or practice. I posted 37 entries here under the “Lent” category. Some days, I wrote more than a single poem, some days I wrote privately. As much as I tried to make my practice a regular timed habit, I was not able to restrict myself to a rigorous schedule because my practice actually expanded, growing into the rest of the day, beyond what I usually think of as my best writing time.

Mostly, I did write in the very early hours, in the quiet before the dawn, because that is the time I have to think without interruptions, the time to carry on this daily conversation with God. But some days, our conversation was long and it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that I found the idea I’d kneaded throughout the day, or sometimes, a lightening bolt would strike later in the day, after I’d written already in the morning.

Of course, I never ignore the lightening bolt. One doesn’t.

Kristi asked yesterday if I planned to keep doing this, writing every day, and I said yes. My forty days were about learning something new, changing the way I understood my relationship this specific creative gift, developing my relationship with the Divine, and learning how to answer what I have been asked to do. This gift is, of course, far greater than each individual poem or paragraph. It’s a gift of vision as well, a way of seeing the world and then, turning that insight into a living practice and then sharing the vision with others. I tell my students that poets are trying to communicate with their readers, trying to get them to see common things in an extraordinary way, or extraordinary things in a common way so that we may be changed in our vision through theirs. We may not always catch sight of what a poet is trying to divine for us at once, but we need to keep looking. Poets keep looking too.

Kathleen Norris wrote that a friend recommended she give up “anxiety” for Lent one year. I recognized the virtue in that and I believe I ended up doing a little bit of that as well–though it does linger, it’s significantly less– but I have come to understand that the thing I gave up was actually distance. I moved closer to God, moved closer to people, moved closer to understanding, and moved closer to being who I am supposed to be, so that I may do what I am for.

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