Photo of Upper School English Teacher Natalie Updike
By: Daniel Chadda
Most of us know our teachers for the classes they teach or the grades they assign. However, many teachers do much more than lead classes, lesson plan, or assign grades. This new section “Teachers Have Lives, Too!” aims to highlight some of the accomplishments that teachers have made outside of the classroom.
Featured in this edition is English teacher Natalie Updike, who teaches 11th grade English and the senior honors elective on dystopian literature. Updike has recently finished a third novel and has an extensive background in literature and writing, with an MFA in Creative Writing, an MA in English Literature, as well as ten years of writing centers experience.
She first started writing creatively at the age of six, saying that it provided her with an “escape hatch” from everyday life. Updike has gone on to pursue her affinity for writing, teaching many English classes, including one at an all-girls Catholic high school in Colombia as part of her service in the Peace Corps. She continued to write creatively during this time and even co-facilitated a creative writing workshop, Women of Wisdom, at the Women’s Federal Correctional Institute of Hazleton, West Virginia.
Updike would go on to write a total of three books, including RIDE, a two-part novel series about PTSD. As one would expect, writing a book presents a number of challenges such as writer’s block and procrastination, which she finds to be “emblematic of fear.” Updike explained that she managed these problems by asking herself, “What am I afraid of today? How can I overcome that fear?” She also uses the advice of other proficient writers like Bobbie Ann Mason who, in a writer’s workshop, once told Updike that “Writer’s write. Period.”
However, she also explained that some of the other, less obvious aspects of creative writing proved challenging as well, namely the emotional part of writing. Especially when addressing more serious topics, repressed memories or emotions may surface while writing. This is something that Updike has had to face numerous times throughout her journey, saying that it “still terrifies her.” While teaching English at an aviation school in Barranquilla, Colombia, for the Peace Corps, Updike learned many “unforgettable lessons about trauma, healing, and global compassion.” She has learned to channel these lessons, as well as her personal experiences, in a healthy way.
In many ways, writing has proved to be immensely beneficial for her, becoming a crucial part of her life. Even while at graduate school at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and West Virginia University, she would continue writing on a rigorous schedule: a minimum of 500 words per day, over a bowl of oatmeal and a fresh cup of coffee. Updike stressed the importance of discipline and structure when writing, mentioning how notable writers, such as Susan Straight, author of Aquaboogie and Highwire Moon, would stick to a regimented process and write no less than a thousand words per day. Updike explained that, for her, writing is a way to “say the unsayable and vocalize hope within nightmares.”
It is especially important to understand that our teachers teach because they love the subject. Updike is no exception. Even though she has a very demanding schedule, which includes teaching five courses, being the Junior Class Sponsor, running the summer Personal Statement College Essay Workshop, and being an advisor to the Feminism Club, Updike still finds time to do what she loves. Though she may not have the time to write, for now, she still tries to involve herself in the writing process as much as possible. She is currently helping her close friend and colleague Kanza Javed, author of Ashes, Wine and Dust, edit her second, forthcoming short story collection based in America and Lahore, Pakistan, which is a long but rewarding process. In addition to this, she occasionally translates Spanish letters into English for the Appalachian Prison Book Project, a non-profit organization that sends free books to people incarcerated in a six-state region.
To future writers reading this, Ms. Updike has some helpful information regarding the publication process: She advises potential writers to get an agent, be familiar with their resources, and find a publisher. Finally, Ms. Updike recommends taking yourself and your work seriously. Updike leaves us with a profound sentiment: “Writing is a cruel process; having written is the reward.”
Though many people may see her only as an English teacher, Updike has accomplished many things before and during her time at Shorecrest. Hopefully, this article—and the ones that follow—can show another side of our teachers and how inspiring their stories can be. For any aspiring novel writer, take Ms. Updike’s advice: grab a cup of coffee and start writing!