As this semester comes to a close, I think I’ve come to a decision about my teaching career, and I think that decision is that it’s basically over.
1. I’m skeptical that writing is learned effectively in a typical classroom setting.
Writing is learned by epiphany: you try different things and see which ones feel right. Sometimes that’s accelerated by placing yourself in the path of possible epiphany, writing a lot and reading a lot and also perhaps through classes or writing books. But in my too-large classes with students of vastly different abilities and interest levels, it’s almost impossible to do anything but present the broadest (one size fits none) principles.
2. The only classes I can teach as an adjunct are the very basic ones that serve as general English credit, so 80% of my students have no interest in writing, certainly not getting better at it.
And I have no idea what to do with them. Try to reinforce the basics of grammar and punctuation that they never learned? Encourage them to be more creative, though they don’t give a shit? Focus on the 20% who are interested in writing instead? I never know.
3. I’m not giving my students what they need, which is mostly time.
Adjuncting is my part-time job pursued in the evenings after eight hours at my regular one, and what the students need most is hours of individual mentorship in everything from where commas go to how to send stories off for submission. I do the best I can with manuscript comments, but the best success I’ve had has been during casual one-on-one conversations with individual students: “What’s up with you and semicolons?” I simply don’t have the time to do that with a full time job in addition to teaching.
4. I don’t like reading people’s unfinished manuscripts.
Basically my students need to be told one of two things: “Keep doing this” and “Stop doing that.” The problem is that they hand in work that is way too close to composition so I’m telling them things they’d probably fix themselves in a rewrite. I never feel like I’m saying enough of the right things at the right time.
5. I don’t need the money as much as the other adjuncts.
Adjuncts are paid for shit, and many of the ones at my university work multiple teaching gigs all over town. Every time I teach a class for my credit card money, that’s one less that some poor bastard living off this shit will get.
6. There are standards and rigidity and accountability coming.
To their credit, my English department is trying to establish a baseline of actual repeatable results for the students, but all I want to do is say weird funny things about writing until someone accidentally learns something. It’s only a matter of time before calling myself “the Hannibal Lecter” of the English department or saying Halloween is Satan’s birthday results in a complaint and a long awkward talk.
7. It upsets me that students don’t leave my class cheering or weeping with the inspiration to write.
Hideous confession time: I am far more motivated by entertaining people than teaching them (mostly because the results of the former are way clearer than the latter).
8. Yes, it saps time and energy from writing.
Though I did manage to rewrite a novel this year with some better time management, my day job suffered a little and the writing could have gone better.
One reason I might teach again:
If I get an opportunity to teach/mentor a smaller group of motivated students in the way I want — “Hey, let’s hang out and write and read what we’ve got and talk about it” — I’d jump at it.
You learn writing by doing it a lot, trying new things, being honest with yourself about the results, and getting firm feedback from someone experienced that you trust. If I could help that, it might be worth it…to me and to the students.
The last class session of every semester I teach is dedicated to the “business” of writing: how one finds places to send short stories and novels, how one sends them, how one does or does not get paid for them.
It’s usually a grim and depressing class, and the students are all comically amazed at how little writers make or how bookstores can just send back books they’ve already bought. They look pretty gloomy at the end and I usually just say, “Well, thanks for coming. Have a good life!”
This semester, I thought I’d try to be a little…you know…encouraging.
What I tried to say was this:
I became a writer as a kid because of a movie called Star Wars (1977). Twenty years before you were born, I was running around in the yard with spaceships yelling “pew pew pew!” and whispering vast conspiracies between my action figures. What I know about morality and the nobility of friends working together, I learned there. What I know about dialogue and plot, I learned from performing my own stories with little plastic people.
A few days ago, the new trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out, and I watched it with all the glee and excitement of my childhood.
Here it is, so you can see it, too.
After the glee and excitement abated slightly, though, something awful occurred to me:
J.J. Abrams is making my fucking movie.
There are any number of reasons he’s getting to make my movie while I’m not. I’m guessing he might have had a more pleasant childhood, for one. He probably conducted himself better with other people, too. He also learned to work in longer concentrated bursts than thirty minutes somewhat sooner than I did. He had a clearer sense of what steps to take.
The real difference, though, is that he didn’t waste as much time wondering if he was “meant” to do it or if it was worth it or what he’d do as a back-up plan if he couldn’t like I did.
I’ve written some little stories that I’m proud of. I’ve gotten starred reviews and award nominations. I’ve entertained a few people, and I’m glad of it. But I wrote a lot of those stories because they were safe, because I could control them, because if I blew it, the consequences would be minor.
We live in a terrifying world at the mercy of oblivious or malevolent jackasses, many of them in publishing (though not as many per capita as in, say, Boko Haram). They want us to live small and be scared and buy things instead of making them.
You can work with them or against them. Maybe you’ll do that by writing, and maybe you’ll do that by doing something else. But what I hope for all of us is that we go down fighting big instead of fighting small.
Twenty years ago today, I received my first humiliating sign that I really didn’t belong in academia. Given that I now have two graduate degrees and an adjunct teaching position, I clearly have yet to follow that sign, alas.
I’d scampered quickly through my undergraduate degree at the University of Florida, attending over the summers to minimize how much I’d have to pay in room and board. So when I started graduate school (also at UF), I was the youngest person in my first class, an Emily Dickinson seminar: twenty-one.
(Nowadays, it is far more common for there to be people that young in grad school, hiding from life. I like to think I helped started that trend back in 1995.)
I felt that youth acutely because during our class introductions, the other students had been teaching abroad or publishing poetry or otherwise doing cool things, and I was a terrified introvert who’d spent his entire academic career avoiding other human beings in the library like a Lovecraft protagonist.
The class went well, though; I loved Emily Dickinson and I loved the old-school literary scholarship my professor encouraged, actually reading letters and researching biography and understanding origins and context. At the end of class, we had a presentation for our research, and I was terrified.
For good reason, it turned out. On April 21, 1995, I walked to the front of the classroom with a little packet of index cards, ready to discuss what I’d discovered. I was literally sick in the bathroom all that morning, and I’m pretty sure my hands were shaking.
A key to my discussion was the theory of Friedrich von Schiller that great art is an interplay between two drives, stofftrieb (the intuitive and emotional) and formtrieb (the structural and logical) resulting in spieltrieb, a kind of artistic play. So I walked up to the board and wrote:
There were a few chuckles from the class and my professor raised his hand. He pointed out that I’d transposed the E and the I in both words.
(In my defense, those are both words in the horrible language of German. Or as I like to call it, Klingon.)
Now, any normal person with social ability would have laughed and made a joke about being nervous while correcting the spelling. Not me. I doubled down, insisting that my sources spelled them that way. I know, I know.
I was flustered then, and the index cards got scrambled in my hands. I forgot the cogent argument I’d structured and was left to stammer and glance around the room like a cornered raccoon.
According to later reports, what happened next was that I set down the index cards and lurched out from behind the podium among the desks to pace around the room and deliver a comedy routine about Emily Dickinson scholarship. I don’t remember it at all, which is probably good. I drove home that afternoon thinking that my academic career was over.
The next day, I visited my professor in his office and asked if there was any way I could make up for the disaster.
“Disaster?” he said. “That was the best presentation I’ve ever seen! You shouldn’t be in academics. You should entertain people for a living.”
And I sort of followed his advice: that was my last semester at UF while I meandered through a teaching certification, followed by a whole host of other egregious errors in judgment both personal and professional. Plus I started writing stories more seriously.
I later went back (though to UNF) for my Master of Arts, and then I earned an MFA from Stonecoast. What can I say? I like taking classes.
Now I teach creative writing to undergraduates in a manner not much unlike that botched lecture long ago: I ramble a deranged comedy routine about some writing concept and then skulk away at the end.
I guess I still haven’t taken the signs.
For about, oh, the first twenty years I worked at writing, I had a lot of strange fears about whether I was “supposed” to be a writer (as opposed to something else better suited for me, like a kindly college professor).
My students often wonder that about themselves, too, so I made this handy chart:
Several interesting and smart people (Ryan Boudinot, Chuck Wendig, Nick Mamatas, Theodora Goss) have written lately about “talent” among writing students, whether it really exists as an inborn thing and whether it is worth teaching people without it.
Nobody in the history of art has ever debated these things, so I’m glad to weigh in at the forefront of an emerging issue to help solve it once and for all before we move on.
I have two sets of thoughts about it, one as a creative writing teacher and one as a creative writing student, so today, I’ll focus on teaching.
For the last four years, I’ve taught undergraduate creative writing at a state university. I’m not very good – “talented” — at it, so these observations may or may not be particularly valid.
Are some students more talented than others? I’ve come to think that the difference comes down to the following non-innate things:
I tell students that art is never stopping short, that by definition it is the more-than-necessary. If I had to define talent, it is an ability to give a shit about doing something more than most people do. I don’t mean persistence – God knows there are lots of dipshits persistently mauling mediocrity like jackals. I mean an interest in doing something extra.
If I taught classes in making chairs, most of my students would hand in stumps. A few of the terrified overachievers would hand in stools: a slab of rough-hewn wood with three legs nailed into it. The persistent ones might add a fourth leg and a back.
The talented ones would run those legs through a lathe and carve something into the back, not because they had to but because they thought it would be cooler.
That’s the difference I’ve seen.