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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


You Can Only Be Who You Are, Do What You Can Do

The roads not traveled, and why. 

December 10, 2017




I was surprised by last week’s news that the editor of the Paris Review resigned from his position in the midst of an internal investigation concerning alleged inappropriate behavior towards female staffers and contributors. 

I wasn’t surprised a powerful man had possibly abused his privilege in this way. I was surprised to recognize the Paris Review was still publishing.

Or maybe the best way of saying it is I was surprised at my surprise because maybe ten, twelve years ago, I would’ve put the Paris Review somewhere close to the center of my professional universe. There was a time when publishing a story in the Paris Review would’ve been among my chief ambitions. The plan went something like this: publish story in Paris Review, become professor who assigns stories from the Paris Review in class, ultimately have students who will go on to publish in the Paris Review, the creative writing academic circle of life.

But somewhere along the line, I’d forgotten the Paris Review existed. Seeing the news, I wondered what the hell happened to me.

Life. For a lot of reasons, the life of a tenured professor of creative writing wasn’t to be. The list of those reasons is long: I didn’t plan for an academic career from the get-go, we made a decision to prioritize my wife’s more stable and secure career, once I was teaching, out of ignorance I didn’t recognize the non-existence of internal institutional ladders to climb out of the contingent and into the tenure track.

My writing and pedagogical interests got sidetracked. Writing-wise, this happened immediately after grad school when I was publishing short stories in journals, but also lots of humor pieces, particularly political stuff, which led to my first book (co-written with my friend, Kevin Guilfoile) which came out before I even returned to teaching, and because it was done primarily in colored pencil is not something that impresses on an academic CV.[1] 


And by necessity, as I made my different stops I was teaching a lot of different types of classes: technical writing, narrative non-fiction writing, contemporary lit, literature of American humor, first-year writing, public speaking, and some other stuff I’m forgetting. The variety made me less interested in teaching creative writing per se and more engaged by teaching in general.

By the time my one shot at a tenure track position at my home institution opened up, I was kind of old, possessing what I believe to be an accomplished, but somewhat oddball CV, and with a teaching and writing profile which looked like I was interested in lots of things in addition to teaching creative writing. (Which was true.) As regular readers know, I didn’t get the job.

I’m in a transition phase with what I’m going to be next still in flux. I’m finishing up first drafts on two books on writing which will publish in late 2018 and early 2019, and my hope is they help open new opportunities to do some speaking, and influencing how others approach their teaching, but it’s a year away, and those opportunities are not guaranteed to come. I believe I had little choice in pursuing these possibilities, but that doesn’t mean it won’t ultimately prove to be a bad choice, as judged by the results anyway.

I’ve had other roads not taken over which I have many fewer laments. In the late 90’s, early 2000’s, I was a contributing editor at Modern Humorist, which produced my first book. Other contributing editors include people who would go on to do things like write for The Daily Show, executive produce Last Week with John Oliver, create Brooklyn 99 and the The Good Place, write and produce The Office and The Mindy Project and all kinds of other cool stuff. There’s about 15 Emmy awards among them, maybe more, definitely more.  

At one point, those people were my peers, and I suppose I could’ve made the choice to move to New York or LA and pursue entry-level comedy writing jobs, seeking to work my way up the ladder of entertainment success, but the thought of doing such a thing is like saying I could’ve built a rocket in my backyard and flown to the moon. Even if I have a certain facility for the work, I couldn’t imagine having the type of drive or dedication to writing comedy necessary to achieve even a fraction of what those people have done.

But being reminded of what the Paris Review once emblemized for me re-opens a genuine wound. There is something about academia which seems to encourage us to look at each other and ourselves through our deficits. Perhaps it is all the grading, so much time focused on what went wrong, where things could have gone better.

I do not believe myself to be defective, and yet when it came to navigating a path to a stable and secure job in the professorate, I did not have what it takes. Though, I think my chief defect may have been mistaking what “it” was.

The Paris Review’s one-time hold on me was not so much about the present-day work of the magazine, but of what it would have meant to be published in the magazine which had published so many “greats.” I barely ever read the magazine and yet I thought I desperately wanted to be in its pages. On the other hand, I never miss any of the shows listed above. They’re brilliantly done, and I deeply admire that work. But I love the work of teaching and writing in ways I don’t love writing humor. I enjoyed writing that kind of material, but it didn’t nourish me. I know this because I only occasionally do it anymore, a fun hobby I pick up and put down.

On the other hand, even as I’m not teaching for the time being, I find myself more obsessed with the subject of teaching and learning than ever.

Inside the world in which I was trying to live, saying you’d been in the Paris Review was practically a sufficient calling card to secure a career.

Or at least I once thought so, which is probably another reason why I wasn’t destined to travel that path successfully. I understood the importance of prestige without understanding how it is pursued or achieved or properly employed.

I just liked the work. I still do, which is why I had to quit the teaching job I did have, so I could find a path to keep doing it.

It doesn’t take a writer for The Daily Show to recognize the irony.





[1] Though if I may brag, it was a #1 Washington Post best seller.


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