categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour
In 2008, Scott Malcomson of the New York Times Magazine approached me and asked me to write an essay about the fact that almost all of this generation of writers are also teachers. He wanted me to consider how this might detract from our work. Since I worked at a University he worried about my biting the hand.
“I know this may seem like career suicide,” he said. “But somehow after seeing your Youtube video I assumed you wouldn’t mind.”
The video he was referring to was “Transformation,” which features me tearing off my clothes and jumping up on a desk off in the middle of a lecture, and he was right, I didn’t mind.
Here is the piece I wrote for him, which did get me in some trouble, though mostly with other writers who claimed I “hated teaching.” I don’t. I love teaching. I just hate when it gets in the way of my writing.
Five years ago I gave up the full-time writing life and became the kind of domesticated writer known as a professor. I was not shot with a tranquilizer gun, tagged and shipped off to a university. I underwent this conversion more or less of my own free will, drawn by the lure of health insurance, salary and security. The changes in me have been gradual, barely noticeable most of the time, except when I catch myself using, as I did the other day, words like “pedagogy” and “collegial.” Though I sometimes chafe at my collar, just as often I appreciate the miracle of the job. A typical creative-writing professor has four months of summer vacation; teaches passionate young people a subject they actually want to learn about (and often enjoy); carries a light two-class load per term that is the envy of professors in other departments; and gains both a sense of belonging and ego satisfaction as a pillar — even a star — of a small, intense community of writers and readers. Furthermore, in a time when it is increasingly difficult for literary writers to support themselves through their writing, professorships provide an attractive alternative to working as a bookstore clerk, carpenter’s helper or busboy. The benefits have proved appealing enough to draw thousands of writers into the university fold, and while a couple of generations ago it might have been a surprise to find a writer who taught at a college, now it’s a surprise to find one who doesn’t.
Writers who have been lucky enough to land these gigs are inclined to talk — when we aren’t grumbling — about their good fortune in sensible language, citing all that is sane, healthy, balanced and economically viable about their jobs. But another question is discussed less. What exactly does all this teaching do to our writing? And what, if anything, does it mean for a country to have a tenured literature?
Consider that our first great national literary flowering constituted, in part, a rebellion against what was thought of as academic, effete and indoors-y in English writing. It slightly complicates things that this flowering was greatly influenced by an Englishman, Wordsworth, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that in the 1850s Melville published “Moby-Dick” (1851); Thoreau, “Walden” (1854); and Whitman, “Leaves of Grass” (1855), while at the same time Emily Dickinson began to hit her private stride and Emerson was still lecturing. Thoreau claimed to have never wasted a walk on another, and it’s hard to imagine him taking a break from one of his marathon strolls to waste three hours teaching a graduate workshop. Equally difficult is picturing Melville asking a group of undergrads, “What’s at stake in this story?” or Dickinson clapping a colleague on the back after a faculty meeting.
There was an essential fanaticism in all their efforts, the sense of an entire life thrown into the great project of creating works of art. Even if we grant that you can be as original within the university as up in your garret, we must concede the possibility that something is lost by living a divided life. Intensity perhaps. The ability to focus hard and long on big, ambitious projects. A great writer, after all, must travel daily to a mental subcontinent, must rip into the work, experiencing the exertion of it, the anxiety of it and, once in a blue moon, the glory of it. It’s fine for writing teachers to talk in self-help jargon about how their lives require “balance” and “shifting gears” between teaching and writing, but below that civil language lurks the uncomfortable fact that the creation of literature requires a degree of monomania, and that it is, at least in part, an irrational enterprise. It’s hard to throw your whole self into something when that self has another job.
Well, we can’t all go live by ponds or write books about whales. Perhaps I should throw my argument over a clothesline and beat it with the broom of common sense. If so, who better to wield the broom than Wallace Stegner, that great hardheaded Western writer who, 60 years before it was commonplace, forged the prototype of the tenured writer? Stegner was there at the industry’s beginnings, graduating from Iowa (soon to become the celebrated Iowa Writers’ Workshop), teaching at the Bread Loaf conference, becoming one of the first Briggs-Copeland lecturers at Harvard and directing the Stanford program. A product of the Depression, he solved the great and ever-pressing economic question of the writing life with a simple answer: He got a job. Though he wasn’t above griping, the job, in his eyes, was a good one, allowing him to support a family while cranking out a steady stream of novels, stories, essays and histories. Stegner wrote fast and he wrote well, with a journalist’s toughness. When faced with the problem of completing long books while also teaching, he always replied briskly with some variant of “that’s what summers are for.”
His own model in hardheadedness was Bernard DeVoto, but while DeVoto made his money by editing and by writing formulaic (and pseudonymous) short stories for slick magazines, Stegner made his teaching writers — including Edward Abbey, Larry McMurtry, Wendell Berry, Robert Stone and Ken Kesey — to write. On top of being a creator of the modern workshop method, he found time to balance writing, fighting environmental fights, working for the Department of the Interior under Stewart Udall and, by most accounts, being a pretty decent husband, father and friend.
But even Stegner, mighty Stegner, showed some cracks. Stegner worried about serving two masters and, for all his renown as a professor, said this upon his retirement from Stanford in 1971: “I am never going to miss teaching. . . . I never gave it more than half my heart, the ventricle, say.” Perhaps more to the point was the fact that his retirement, at 62, served as a starting gun that set off the great sustained sprint of his late career. Stegner shot out of the gates and over the next 22 years, until his death at 84, produced six books of nonfiction, including a vastly underrated biography of DeVoto, and three of his best novels: “Crossing to Safety,” the National Book Award-winning “Spectator Bird” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angle of Repose.” It is true that “Angle of Repose,” the most ambitious of those books, was composed while he still had one foot in teaching, but during those last two decades there is a sense of almost crystallized concentration, all the energy that had sprayed off in so many directions suddenly lasered in on the work.
The Safety Net
For most of us, the options aren’t teaching or writing all day in a barn but teaching or working at the Dairy Queen. It’s not just a question of success or even genius, but temperament and discipline. Young writers think all they need is time, but give them that time and watch them implode. After all, there’s something basically insane about sitting at a desk and talking to yourself all day, and there’s a reason that writers are second only to medical students in instances of hypochondria. In isolation, our minds turn on us pretty quickly. I have two writer friends, successful novelists who could afford not to teach, who insist that rather than detract from their writing, their lives as professors are what allow them to write, and that given more free time, they would crumble. The job provides a safety net above the abyss of facing the difficulty of creating every day, making an irrational thing feel more rational.
Yet no matter how much support you have, how many schedules you make or how many books you’ve written before, there remains the basic irrationality of the task: you are sitting by yourself trying to make something out of nothing, and you rarely know where you’re going next. Creating your own world is an invitation to solipsism, if not narcissism, and as well as being alone when we work, we are left, for the most part, to judge by ourselves if we have succeeded or failed in our tasks. (Three guesses in which direction we most often lean.) My father succinctly summarized his feelings about my choice to dedicate my 20s to writing fiction. “You’re not living in the real world,” he said. I reacted with a young man’s defensiveness, but in retrospect his assessment seems less critical than a matter of fact.
Which is where teaching comes in. It provides all the practical things that can help prop us up above the morass of our insane callings, not to mention something we can wave at the world like a badge. And don’t forget this bonus: other people. How delightful to work on this thing called a hallway, populated not just by colleagues but by students, all committed to, or at the very least interested in, writing. And this is all without even mentioning the teaching itself. I love teaching. There is a deep pleasure in sharing the things that you have labored to learn in solitude. It’s inspiring work — rewarding, interactive, human work so different from what we do at our desks — and it turns out that writers, many of us natural entertainers, often do it quite well.
This was not always the case. In the early, dark days of creative-writing programs, say, 30 years ago, many writers treated university positions not as jobs but as sinecures, and the university itself as a kind of benefactor. I attended graduate school at the University of Colorado in the early 1990s, and only one professor there ever learned my name; the rest, most of whom were granted their positions in the 1960s after the publication of a chapbook or two, approached their jobs with all the liveliness and enthusiasm of members of the Politburo. Iowa, of course, set the standard for the genius approach to writing in which the great man or woman allows the eager young to gather round, where they are to learn by osmosis. That was during the early outlaw years, when administrators, like cautious scientists, were first seeing if this thing, creative writing, could survive within the walls of the university. But times have changed, and these days teaching creative writing is more of a job, with all of a job’s commitments and a job’s demands. And those demands often crash up against the necessary fanaticism of the writing life. “Death by a thousand cuts” is how a colleague of mine described the academic life. Papers, students, classes, meetings, grades. They come all day like electric jolts, making it hard to be a good monk.
What, other than a romantic conception of the writer as creative monomaniac, is lost by the fact that many of us now make salaries almost on par with entry-level accountants? I think it is legitimate to worry that writers pressed for time will produce work that is more hurried; that writers who hand in annual reports listing their number of publications might focus as much on quantity as quality; and that writers who depend on bosses for their employment might produce safer, less bold work. Another thing that is undeniably lost is time spent reading great literature and communing with writers of the past. While the effect of teaching on writing may be a matter of debate, its effect on reading is undeniable. That is because there are only so many hours in the day, and those hours are used up reading our students’ work, which is, by definition, apprentice writing. Energy is finite while college students seemingly are not, and after teaching for a while you begin to feel as if you are in a “Star Trek” episode, lost on a strange planet made up of a thousand pods of need, all of them beaming out at you, sucking your energy, and all of them, invariably, asking you to read something. Since the reading life feeds the writing life, since we are what we eat, this can wear you down, to say the least.
The novelist Mike Magnuson puts this sentiment more bluntly: “What teaching has done for me is make me not want to read anything, written by anybody, for the rest of my life.”
Magnuson spoke freely since, after a decade of laboring in the academy, he has decided to quit and throw off his collar to head to Los Angeles to become, in his words, “a real writer.” Leaving aside the fact that the land of screenplays imposes its own sort of servitude, I did recognize a kind of escapee’s glee in Magnuson’s tone. I’ve heard it before in the slightly manic voices of others who have broken out of their ivory towers.
To be honest, I envy that wildness and worry that my own words may have grown tame along with my life. Before I became a professor, I managed to work full time as a writer, and I distinctly remember the experience of feeling angry right before I began turning fully to beginning a new book. Just who or what was I angry with? Anything or anyone who got in the way of my work. This may not have been a balanced way to be in the world, but in retrospect I can see what I was doing, and while my behavior wasn’t rational or “good,” it may have been necessary. I was clearing the ground — creating the life “with a broad margin” as Thoreau put it — to try something that would take all I had.
I don’t know how long I can survive in captivity. For the time being I will continue to throw myself into teaching and try to take Stegner’s advice about the summers, while hoping my job doesn’t get in the way of my work. I do love teaching and recognize how lucky I am to be living for at least a part of each day in the real world, but while I try to be commonsensical, lately I have begun to feel something rising up inside me. A part of me misses the glee and obsession and even the anger. And a part of me worries that my work has become too professional, too small, and worries that I don’t spend as much time as I should reading or brooding or even fretting. Yes, my lifestyle is more healthful, but is health always the most important thing? The part that answers no to that question is now lying in wait, looking for ways to undermine my so-far-successful teaching career. In fact you could argue that that part of me had a hand in writing this essay, which I am finishing now, a few weeks before going up for tenure. After all, what would that part, my inner monomaniac, like more than to tear off his collar and sabotage the job that keeps him from running wild?