And Art Will Deliver Us


Art and God

There are some people who, when the world gets tough, put their faith in God.  Me, I put my faith in my students.  Now, if you don’t know me and you’re reading this, you may think, what? She’s a creative writer. What exactly does she think she’s got to offer the future generation?

And my response is: the soul of the world.

See the world through the eyes of a writer, even a bad writer, and you will see the world through the beating heart of humanity.

One of my best mentors, John Dufresne, told me once, “If you want to be a better writer, be a better person.”  Writer John Gardner, who was also celebrated for having taught some of the most influential writers of our time, wrote that most writing problems are personality problems, echoing the idea that writing well is equatable to being free of selfish habits, neuroses and psychoses and annoying personality quirks…at least while you’re engaged with the page.

So, that’s why I get a little upset when writers I love and respect write about their students in ways that sometimes caricatures them as standard bearers for smug and annoying ignorance.  For example, a famous novelist I won’t mention by name wrote a blog inspired by one particularly infuriating comment from one of her grad students.  The comment, undoubtedly, was inappropriate.  The discussion was about jealousy and competition between partners who are both artists.  The author took the student’s comment as a platform for ranting about the difficulties of being published, putting into context the hurtful blindness of the aspirant to the emotional trials through which any writer, successful or not, must put themselves through.

It was a worthwhile essay, but if I had been the student, I would have felt exposed, minimized, scolded.  She was in a writing program, after all. She was attending a social hour with the author. She was attempting to engage the author on a personal level. I can’t help but think: that student worships you.  She will go and spend the next month in a cave, riveted and exposed by her own drunken foolishness.

Where I teach, the philosophy of students-first was at first a jagged little pill I had to swallow that I took to mean that the power of a teacher’s authority in the classroom is just an illusion: for as long as administrators give themselves the right to overturn a teacher’s decision, teachers are merely diplomats, here to represent a model of teaching and learning with little or no power to implement it and enforce it.  And when you teach creative writing, it’s easy to attract the kind of student who expects you to provide praise he might otherwise get on a website of, say, fan-fiction writers, and get mad at you if you try to steer them towards art.  But maybe they’re right.  Maybe we take our labels too seriously.  Maybe writing creatively is an end and a means and it should be respected in any form it comes.

Many a times I’ve had my end of workshop synthesis of criticism on a piece only to be interrupted by a student who raising his hand opens his contradiction of my assessment with: “I’ve never read a book, and I’ve never published a story, but I think you’re wrong.”

So, I sympathize when I read that some of my colleagues field inappropriate and personal questions from their students with kids gloves for fear of being reprimanded and fired without the opportunity to dispute the accusations (this has happened where I teach at least four times since I’ve been hired).  I also sympathize with the frustrations that come with teaching students whose opinion of their own knowledge and ability is too high, and whose opinion of the knowledge and ability of their professors too low.

Alright, we’ve all been there.

But must we talk about these examples of amateurism with so much contempt implied in the tone of our voice? Weren’t we all at one time or another aspirants who filled our heads with lofty opinions and who secretly looked down at our much more successful, much more experienced teachers as ineffective? I was privy to the hallway talk of two MFA programs. Come on. Be honest.  You were that student. You know you were.

We all love our students. You don’t need another gushing appreciation for the profession here.  If it weren’t for our students, we wouldn’t be teachers: none of us in it for the money or the summers off, because the reality of it is, and we learn this on our first semester in the profession, summers are for catching up on work, and doing so without pay.  We’re here because it gives us a thrill to know that our perceptions and aesthetic tastes will help to shape the art of the future, and we absolutely love having an audience of rapt students, we love the expressions on their face when they are touched by the unraveling of a there-to mystifying aspect of craft.  We love them even when they refuse to listen to us, even when they argue back with you in workshop trying to shut you down until they lose and cry and send you home feeling like you just want to crawl under the bed and give up your teaching job and never-ever-ever criticize another story again.  We love them because they remind us of us,  of the fire that kindled us when we discovered that there was something else that we could do with this god of literature to which we’ve gladly given our lives.

I’ve had students who come to class looking very much shellshocked, looking at their peers wide eyed as we discuss books, and looking at me with paling faces as if I’m supposed to tell them why they’re here. They can’t explain to us why they took this class. They clumsily shrug and explain that they just thought it might be fun, not knowing that by those pronouncements they have already managed to trigger all sort of defensive modes in the teacher and the dedicated writers around them.

“Hey, writing is not easy.”

“Hey, if there was a formula, you think I’d give it to you? For the price of tuition? Try a million dollars, sucker. No, no forget it, I wouldn’t give it to you because I wouldn’t be here.”

Reality is constructed of what we perceive:

We can choose to think that students who don’t read are the product of a culture that spends too much time on the internet and is too lazy to ever dig deeper than a Google search.

Or we can choose to see that a student who hated reading Moby Dick and the Scarlet Letter and therefore never bothered to pick up another book he didn’t have to read, a student who was discouraged by writing because of all the energy and time it took from his full schedule of basketball practice, soccer practice, part time work and homework, a student who would never think to spend the last ten dollars in his pocket on Pride and Prejudice, yes, that student is in your creative writing class, wondering how he got there, looking at the corners as if expecting to discover a small potion with the label “Drink me!” that will trigger a secret trapdoor through which the student will fall and fall and fall into the magical gardens of wonderment and imagination.

“Oh, he’ll find out soon enough we’re not making popcorn necklaces in here.”

True.  I’m guilty of having said that with relish a number of times. I’ve discouraged students like that from pursuing my class, not because I thought too much of my profession, but, unknowingly, because I thought too little of it.I didn’t put enough faith in art’s ability to change us.

Ok, business majors, go ahead and scowl, but I have thought long and hard about this.  I know that in the grand scheme of things, in a society where all we crave is money and status, teaching creative writing may seem like the kind of “job” that makes you break out into sarcastic one-liners about those hippy types who get paid for doing nothing.  When I stopped teaching Composition in favor of teaching only Creative Writing, I admit that I had a crisis of conscience, a feeling that I wasn’t helping enough students, not making a real impact in the world.

Since then, I’ve come full turn.  Especially after seeing how many “business majors” end up in professions that negatively affect not only our whole country, but also all other countries engaged in trade with us.  Think Enron. Think Housing Bubble.  Think Bank Bailouts and all the families and lives ruined on account of greed.

John Dufresne is right: writing does make you a better person, and turning a student onto the merits and rewards of studying the human condition is the best gift any one of us can give a person.

If a student stumbles in my class and admits, like the other day, that he’s never read a book, I grin and walk slowly towards him and tell him, “Oh, we’ll change you.  We’ll convert you to the dark side,” rubbing my hands together and licking my lips.  And then, surprise! other students laugh, they swing around in their desk and look at that student and ask, “But have you read Hyperion? You’ve got to read THAT book. Have you read…”  One eager girl proposed we all bring a book that we think that student won’t be able to put down.

Maybe we’ll lose him and he’ll run towards a career in business building and world breaking.  But maybe just enough of us will seep into his subconscious that before he slips that bad bank loan into an investor’s hands, he’ll think: “I wonder if this guy has a dog? I wonder what kind of dog it is? A pit bull, yeah. I think this guy has a pit bull, and three boys, and they’re all in little league.  This guy coaches on Sundays, you can tell…”

And another soul will be saved.

And art will triumph.

Teaching

1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. I like — no, LOVE — every single letter in this. Thank you for expressing so eloquently why we do this, and why it’s important, even on the days I want to crawl under the bed with the cats and the dust bunnies. 🙂

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