In Defense of 'Sentimental Tosh'
I teach as though one of my students may win a Pulitzer someday.
In a previous post, I was chided by an anonymous commenter that the goal of my introductory creative writing course, to “prepare students for the long-haul of life as a writer” is “sentimental tosh.”
The commenter pointed out that “Out of 100 students, ten will take a second workshop and 1 will go on to an MFA program.”
True in spirit, if not the strict math. In my experience more like 40-50 out of 100 will take another workshop – I teach at a school with a creative writing emphasis in the English major – and perhaps 4 out of that 100 will go to an MFA program, but point taken, most of them will never take another college course in creative writing. I’ll go even further. Fifty-percent of those who graduate from MFA programs won’t go on to meaningfully publish.
On the other hand, someday, one of my students may go on to win a Pulitzer Prize, which would be really exciting, and maybe, when that student is being feted for their accomplishment, they will let slip in an interview how inspiring their very first creative writing teacher was, and they will say my name and the whole world will read it and say, “Who’s that?”
In an effort to answer that question, perhaps a reporter will track me down and interview me about my Pulitzer Prize winning former student, and I will say something like, “I knew from the moment she stepped in my class that someday she’d do something great and be recognized for it.”
That would be a lie, because truth is, I don’t think we know who is going to win a Pulitzer Prize in their first creative writing course, but I might say it anyway because it’s the kind of thing we’re expected to say in those situations.
This is why I have to assume it could be any of my students, just in case. Odds are my writing “career” will be entirely forgotten, if it even ever comes to be known. I don’t want to miss out on my best chance at glory.
And for those students who will not go on to take another creative writing course, who will not be winning Pulitzer Prizes, who may never attempt any creative act again, I would like to know the harm I may be doing them with my “sentimental tosh.” At the least, they will be more acute readers, and perhaps they can remember me as someone who genuinely enjoyed and believed in the importance of his work.
“Sentimental tosh.” This is, I believe, an attempt to shame me, to bring me back inside the lines of appropriate faculty probity and seriousness. There is a lane and I have strayed from it.
As a career contingent, as someone who failed in his attempt to leave contingency, I am vulnerable to this critique. I wouldn’t be writing this if it hadn’t stung to some degree, if it hadn’t made me think, at least for a moment, that I was doing something “wrong.”
This was, I imagine, the goal of the original commenter, to deliver a very very small, drive-by cruelty that is entirely unremarkable in the larger internet discourse, and yet here I am, giving it a good portion of my time. I'm certain I've been guilty of the same cruelties, and will no doubt transgress again in the future.
One of the reasons I have to approach my course with this kind of sentimental and (quite possibly delusional) belief in the future potential of my students is because I’m getting paid too little ($12/hour) to do otherwise. For a job that pays around 1/8th per hour of my professional rate, I gotta love it.
On the other hand, if you want to give me $200k a year for a job I don’t care about, I could probably go through the motions just fine.
Truthfully, my embrace of “sentimental tosh” surprises me. Day-to-day, I am deeply cynical, far more pessimist than optimist. If you ask me, humankind is a pestilence bent on destroying each other and the very planet we live on just for good measure. I think this arc towards self-destruction is irresistible. It’s deeply embedded in our very natures.
Call me a Calvinist.
But while I think that we, as a species, are doomed, I also believe that individuals are capable of transcending our inherent awfulness, of (temporarily) breaking free from our fallen natures and achieving something we, or I, might call “grace.”
Because I am not a person of faith, I should call it “secular grace,” which I’m aware is an oxymoron. To me, secular grace is those moments when we abandon our essential selfishness with which we all (me most definitely included) must struggle, to connect with another human being and give them something meaningful.
Despite my pessimistic nature, I experience this grace through writing, as I try to connect with others, and through teaching, as I try to connect with and motivate students. This happens more often through the latter than the former because I’m a better teacher than I am a writer.
If I am succeeding at connection, for a moment, I can take leave of my terrible self as I attempt to extend empathy to others and perhaps receive the same in return. The contemporary administrative university puts a lot of obstacles in the way of both faculty and students when it comes to achieving this goal. Someday it may induce me to give up on this work entirely.
But for now, I'm still in the game, even if it's in a limited way, and if sentimental tosh is doing it wrong, I don’t want to be right.
You can follow me on Twitter.
 Though lord knows taking college courses in creative writing are not a necessary pre-requisite for winning a Pulitzer Prize.
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