Monday, November 19, 2018

Guest Blogger Jane Paffenbarger Butler on: Theme Reading with High School Writers, aka: Pharmacist Dispenses Great Expectations

One of the most enjoyable ways I meet other writers is at small conferences, often over a meal, and one topic that often comes up is how we all make a living while chasing writing goals. That’s how I met Jane Paffenbarger Butler and learned about her unique job—which I’ve invited her to write about here.
Jane has degrees in pharmacy and health systems management and worked in clinical research. While raising three children, she wrote in fits and starts, but then got serious, joining the Brandywine Valley Writers Group and Main Line Writers Group. She’s at work on a memoir, You’ll Get Over It, Jane Ellen. An excerpt placed second in nonfiction at the 2017 Philadelphia Writers Conference. Her work has also appeared in the anthology Unclaimed Baggage, and in the Philadelphia Inquirer. She’s the 2016 and 2014 winner of the West Chester Story Slam.

Please welcome Jane Paffenbarger Butler.

Most days, I adore my job. I am talking about the one where I get to go to my local high school and hang around the English classes talking to kids about their writing. Today, for example, a steady stream of students visited me; some wanted to discuss what to write in their comparative papers on Wuthering Heights and Dante’s Inferno, others needed help proving a point made in Merchant of Venice. It may sound pretty high brow I know, believe me it is not, especially for someone like me who is a pharmacist by training. But the same dynamic occurs whether the students and I are talking about Shakespeare or the Sunday comics. The focus is on art and on the act of responding to it.

Other days, in other classes, I work my way around the room asking each student to tell me their ideas for assigned poetry, memoir, or short story projects. I tell them that ideas mellow and age and do not usually spring to the page fully formed. I tell them that it’s okay, in fact it’s preferable, to get started by just writing in stream of consciousness.

My title is Theme Reader, and I support the work of a high school English teacher by reading and commenting on each student’s writing assignments. Yes, it is a support role, and it is a peach job for someone like me, an aspiring author. This is a teaching job with none of the strings attached. I meet no parents, give no formal grades, and discipline no one. Instead I am a writing coach, and my time is spent reading teenage students’ work and talking to them about the craft of writing.

I am also paid to sit in on the viewing of classic films and TED talks, and get to stay in tune with young people who gladly explain to me such mysteries as gifs and K-pop. And what could be better than sitting in on a discussion of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or Twain’s Huck Finn? Or reading twenty-five papers from the AP Literature students who each select, from a lengthy list, a different classic novel to analyze? Often, the students’ detailed breakdown of each book is so complete, by the time I review and offer comments on their projects, it feels as if I’ve just read the book myself.  

Sometimes, in classes where students are not as motivated, it is my duty to inform them of the power of words. That words can be a tool by which we get what we want out of life. I help them see that learning to use words to their advantage could be a way to get out of bad circumstances, a way to rise above people who make life difficult, and a way to work through issues that are hard to manage. Words are power. I love helping them learn how to understand, harness, and wield that power.

In Creative Writing, an elective class, students arrive not as hostages but as volunteers, open to my crazy suggestion that we daydream a little about what it means to be human. With the whole world as fodder for topic, I help students zero in on what their own voice yearns to say. This year I am meeting with an independent study student weekly to work on her novel. The notes I took recently on Robert McKee’s Story, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, and Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, while trying to elevate my own projects, have become perfect resources for our work together. Sharing such material conveniently reinforces my personal goals, too.

When I was a Clinical Research Monitor at a pharmaceutical company, among my many tasks were study reports and protocols, and I excelled at ensuring the internal consistency between tables and charts and between statistical facts and stated conclusions. I yielded the red pen as editor for a 400-page New Drug Application Summary submitted to the FDA, based on data from hundreds of patients. At my interview for the Theme Reader job, I explained that although I wasn’t a certified teacher and had no degree related to language or English or anything one might suspect relevant (and which the job specs listed), I love teaching and students and the English language. I handed over the bound New Drug Application Summary, the thin manuscript of my memoir, mentioned my membership in local writing groups and my participation in writing conferences. They hired me on the spot. That was ten years ago.

One of Jane's six word memoirs. 
The best part about my job is that I must show up every week and pay attention in class. This time around I am personally interested in what makes for a good story and what constitutes a rhetorical device. My job requires me to say out loud the facts I know to be true about writing, to sit alongside students and reconsider the masters, to teach patience and taking risks on the page, and to learn, learn, learn.

To top it all off, I even get a paycheck.  

Get to know more about Jane at her website and blog.