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No longer a writer
I just finished reading Fernando Sdrigotti’s latest substack “How to Stop Writing” (Leftovers is the name of his Substack site), an acerbic attack on Book Twitter and that whole world of writers, would-be writers, cranks, quacks, predators preying on would-be writers, purveyors of craft, etc. Fernando quotes Charles Bukowski.
“The worst thing for a writer is to know another writer, and worse than that, to know a number of other writers. Like flies on the same turd.”
From whence comes the, erm, scatological tone of Fernando’s piece.
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But I digress.
I’m oddly cheerful this morning. Not sure why. I had a tooth pulled and implant installed yesterday, causing quite extravagant amounts of pain and brain fog. I am forbidden hot food or drinks. So I am on a cold coffee and cold oatmeal/cold soup regime. The Motrin is finally starting to do its job, however, and things seem to be improving.
But why do I feel so cheerful (and why does Fernando’s post reinforce that feeling)? It’s because I’m not a “writer” anymore, and especially, not a writing teacher anymore. Don’t get me wrong. I am writing furiously, but without the bridle and blinkers that go with having one foot (I was only parttime) in the world of support groups for would-be writers.
Don’t get me wrong (he says, again). I have plenty of writer friends I adore (e.g. the aforementioned Fernando Sdrigotti), and some of my students made the transition to being writers (and friends). Teaching parttime was for years a very helpful way for me to make some income while mostly staying home, bringing up my sons. Not to mention that like many people I am addicted to the sound of my own voice and performing in front of an audience. On that level, teaching fed a needy, ever so slightly shameful, side of my soul. But it gave me an occasion for sharpening my own craft by having to explain it to other people. It also gave me an occasion, now and then, to give a lecture, which I took as a serious opportunity to analyze writers I admired. Many of these lectures turned into essays, which led to the three essay collections I have published so far.
The price I paid for this has become more and more clear since I actually left my teaching position last year.
First: I spent all those years reading work that was lacklustre, often even ungrammatical. Surprising, right? You’d think someone paying thousands of dollars a semester for a graduate degree in writing would have the skill and self-respect to hand in grammatical drafts. (I remember Steven Millhauser once telling me that after a semester teaching, he would pick a really difficult, complex book and read it, as an antidote.)
Of course, there was a spectrum. A few students at the top were wildly promising (hell, I was a creative writing student once, too). Many in the middle were, well, in the middle (not to be too uncharitable). And some were just dreadful. I found myself turning into a copyeditor instead of a writing teacher. With alarming frequency, I would have to read the riot act, telling students I would flunk them if they didn’t buy a grammar and punctuation text and start teaching themselves. In some cases, I advised the student to hire a copyeditor and have their work looked at before they submitted it to me (also, of course, to use the copyeditor to teach them).
You see, even here, post-teaching, my mind will run on the bad students rather than the good. This is deeply problematic, one of the core reasons I wanted to quit.
The effect of this was to put a bridle on my own intellect. I started to think with my students as my audience (instead of myself). I caught myself reading to teach rather than reading to fuel my own writing. I even noticed that I was screwing up stories because I was applying the rudimentary craft lessons where my best work always leaps beyond the conventional. I was dumbing myself down. This was an awful realization.
Second: Learning to write well is a long process that you never complete. Most writers look back at themselves at the beginning and shudder. Teaching writing meant that I was always teaching early-stage, rudimentary craft, plot, scenes, image patterning. How to write emotions. How to write inner conflict. How to write an active, interesting sentence.
This was okay when I started teaching because I wasn’t so far from learning those rudiments myself. But after a while, my own craft advanced far ahead of what I was teaching. So that I was writing with one mind, and teaching with another mind. Half my brain was still running through the rudiments, over and over. Instead of, in my mind, consorting with great writers and writing (in whatever idiosyncratic way those terms might be applied), I was consorting with early learners, however promising they might be.
Third: Increasingly, the creative-writing industrial complex (all those institutions and publishers and ancillary supports) was becoming an end itself, capitalist, alienating, profit-oriented. Would-be writers were the income source that propped up the edifice. Often they had no money to pay, so they would borrow it. At some point the entire system lurched toward the ideology of victimhood, redefining all sorts of social groups as victims. “Harm” became an aesthetic category, as in, your writing should do no harm. (Many times of late I have had that jingle I learned in childhood running through my brain: Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.) Near the end of my teaching career, the program where I taught was sending out helpful guidelines for what we should read in public. Prefaced with the usual boilerplate about academic and creative freedom, they suggested that we consider, when choosing a piece to read, whether or not someone in the audience might be harmed.
Actually, to me, this makes a lot of sense because all those would-be writers are victims, victims of the vast creative writing complex and support groups sucking away their spare incomes and rarely making any difference as to their publishing prospects. They are victims. (That money might be usefully spent self-financing writing time; for most writers, time is money, money is time writing.) But they don’t see themselves as victims, only sense that they are, and this pervading gloom of victimhood makes them see victims everywhere (again, just not themselves).
Finally, there was an emotional toll. I am sure my students could go on and on about the emotional toll I caused them. But on my side I found it always difficult to steel myself for the inevitable disappointment I was going to cause them, when, gently as possible, I suggested their story, essay, memoir, novel needed more work, much more work. I hate this. I lost one friend completely over a novel critique. He was a good writer. I had helped him publish a book of stories, had even included him in Best Canadian Stories one year. He paid me to read his new novel; I read it and never heard from him again. Just recently a former student, one of my favorites from the past, asked me to read his novel draft. He was good and smart and I trusted his judgement. But the draft was pretty bad. I told him as best I could. He was crushed. I couldn’t sleep. The next morning I sent half his money back. I thought: I can’t do this again.
Not to complain too much. It was a job, and I was paid (and there were the positive effects, see above). And I had protected myself somewhat by not getting tangled up in a fulltime, full-load teaching position. And I am surely grateful for the friendships, camaraderie, and income teaching afforded me.
But it is legitimate to tot up the pros and cons, the pluses and minuses, and analyze what you have felt and what you have learned.
Why am I so cheerful? I woke up with a song my son Jonah wrote running through my head. It’s called Happy. I finished two writing jobs in the past week, an essay and a short story. I had a tooth implant. I had applied to renew my Green Card at the beginning of January; it took less than three weeks to arrive in the mail (last time it took maybe 11 months). Earlier this week, I attended the monthly meeting of the town forest committee I recently joined. Just lovely people. Among them an entomologist, a botanist, and a professional forester. Nary a writer to be seen. Talk of trees, easements, ash borers, beavers, budgets, and even books (about trees, easements, etc).
Also this week a friend wrote asking me if he could pay me to read the start of the novel he is writing. The needy side of me wanted to help him, wanted to make him feel better, wanted, yes, the applause of his gratitude. But I said no because I really wanted to do my own work from here on out. I realized in that moment that I really can’t teach anymore, even at the level of reading someone’s work privately. I haven’t the heart to put my mind and emotions in that place. I am not part of that writing world, just a person in my own private writing world where I do not think of myself as a “writer” but as a man sitting in front of a laptop, desperate to finish the next thing. Lusting to finish the next thing.
(Tomorrow there will no doubt be a catastrophe.)
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