There was a roundtable here last Friday on creative-writing pedagogy. I hadn’t RSVP’d for the event but agreed to go at the last minute to represent administrator Rory, sick in bed with stomach flu. It would be easy. I’d just smile a lot and pretend I had a goatee.
Each year somebody tries to get a discussion like this going, and every year it fails. It’s hard enough getting English professors into the same seminar room—you have to promise a metal detector at the doors to check for shivs—but creative writers, universally, are worse. The ancient grudges they bear and their dislike of each other’s work evidently help feed their own work, and one can understand why they might not want to risk that in fraternity.
But many of the people in the department are new, so they don’t know this yet, and there was a good showing: Five professors, two adjuncts, a dozen grad students, and two undergrads who were there because they saw the flier. (Isn’t that the best?)
Topics ranged from whether or not to reveal personal aesthetics in the classroom, to the use of the semicolon, to what to do about suicidal and other violent writing. There was talk around the room of teaching being the “hardest” thing someone had done, of it being “dangerous,” and more than one first-time teacher said she “feared” the classroom. The other new TAs seemed interested in all this but were visibly anxious. It was a lot to take in, and little specific advice was given. I remember feeling once as they did.
At the end of the session, one of the undergrads asked curiously what we wished we had known when we started teaching. Several people had their say, and I silently praised the undergrad for asking, finally, the right question.
As a first-time teacher—and for semesters afterward—I wanted some over-idea, a controlling notion of and justification for, what I was doing (or supposed to be doing) in the classroom. Yes, exactly: There were semi-colons and commas and em dashes and en dashes, and craft and art, and genre fiction and literature, and the differences between Hemingway and Faulkner, and then the differences between Faulkner and Marquez, and what to do with that weird student who wanted to write about the shape of my skull—and and and and, without differentiation or direction.
(I think now of war games in the Army where captors took all their captives’ food—green beans and eggs and chocolate pudding and oatmeal and turkey pot pie and hot cocoa and Kool-Aid—and dumped it in a trash barrel and stirred it up with an oar. If you were hungry and a captive, you ate the slop. It was all good food, just a little mixed up.)
How then to serve students? Back when I started I only took it on faith that some over-idea existed at all, let alone that it would emerge and allow me to function. After much work, I’ve come to believe that—for me—that idea is seeing. All other classroom matters fall under this.
Gertrude Stein wrote, "Gertrude Stein never corrects any detail of anybody's writing [she was a lying ass, but still], she sticks to general principles, the way of seeing what a writer chooses to see, and the relation between that vision and the way it gets down." This metaphor can be found in many contexts, such as in the affinity between writers and painters, or in recent creative nonfiction such as Lia Purpura’s On Looking (Sarabande Books). My task as a teacher—and what every good teacher I’ve had did, no matter the subject—is to help others see for themselves and to use the chosen form to articulate that vision.
Seeing clearly takes enormous will, energy, and courage. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do, and therefore one of the most satisfying. My friend Chekhov:
Write a story of how a young man, the son of a serf, a former shopboy, choirboy, schoolboy and student, brought up to respect rank, to kiss priests' hands, and worship the thoughts of others, thankful for every piece of bread, whipped time and again, having to give lessons without galoshes, brawling, torturing animals, loving to eat at rich relatives' houses, needlessly hypocritical before God and man, merely from a sense of his own insignificance— write a story about how this young man squeezes the serf out of himself, drop by drop, and how waking up one bright morning this young man feels that in his veins there no longer flows the blood of a slave, but the blood of a real man.
In this, a lonely freedom like no other.