Nancy Barry

Several years ago, a writer enrolled in a summer workshop I was teaching asked me after an intense week of writing, reading, and discussion of our own nonfiction work:
“So do you consider yourself more a writer, or a teacher of writing?”
It was one of those questions that pulls you up short, inside your head, and makes you think with great clarity about the way you define yourself and your work. At first, I squirmed a bit with the question, because I didn’t like such a strict division between what I see as my creative activity as a writer and the more “school-sponsored” work of teaching writing at Luther College. But as I talked through my response, I realized that much of my adult life has been spent trying to forge a path between these two realms: being a writer, someone who works very self-consciously with how and why language on the page impacts readers; and a writing teacher, a person who labors just as self-consciously to help other writers create that impact with their own words.

The path toward this kind of work began so long ago I cannot explain when it was exactly that I knew I wanted to become an English teacher. But it was early, in the very games and toys I surrounded myself with. Even before I knew what words were, I made notes with them, and have a completely ruined copy of E. B. White’s Stuart Little to prove it—its margins completely overwhelmed with scrawls made with purple crayons. When I was eight, I received what has remained one of my most cherished Christmas gifts ever—a rudimentary “printing press” set. Ink rollers, an 8x10 frame, and a set of letters which could be arranged with exchangeable decorative pads to create a one page newsletter. That was writing!

I mention this childlike enthusiasm to explain that for me, as for many people, finding a vocation is less about picking a particular role or profession than it is simply paying attention to what we love. When I talk with students about their goals for “life after Luther,” or even for finding a particular major within their college years, they sometimes falter and seem to give that kind of hesitant shrug that says “Really, I have no idea.” The first thing I say is “Tell me about what you loved to do with your time before school entered into the picture, or at least before school became so strenuous it seemed like it was all you knew.”

This method doesn’t always work—some childhoods are spent in such a blissful state that there’s no reason not to like everything—but often, if we look back, we can find some of our deepest joys hidden in small patterns that emerge in our games or imaginative activities. I’m not talking about the perennial “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question; rather, I’m pointing toward a kind of inventory of what mattered to us before adults and teachers began demanding that certain things should matter more than others.

Of course, it’s never that easy or that simple. Even for me, a woman who knew that words and books would have to stay central to my life, there were moments of fear, doubt, and crisis. I will mention two of them here, because they illustrate what for me has been the most guiding practice for finding a path toward my life’s work.

The first moment came when, as an undergraduate, I had to decide whether or not to remain in the education track that would lead toward certification as a high school teacher. When I realized how much of my two final years would be taken up with education classes and student teaching, I realized I wasn’t that interested in it. But if I wasn’t going to be a high school English teacher, what could I do? Every English major in America has faced that question at one point or another. In truth, I answered that question the easy way, by deciding that I should go to graduate school to become a college teacher, even though I really had no idea at all what that meant. But what helped me the most during that process was the series of conversations I had with a number of people at my undergraduate college, from education faculty to advisers to college librarians. In the end, the consulting didn’t force me to change my mind or to decide one way or another, but I will never forget the feeling of empowerment that came simply by investing the time to talk about it deliberately with a range of adults I respected.

The second moment of crisis appeared shortly after I had indeed arrived in graduate school and found that my own creative writing seemed to evaporate in the midst of studying bibliographies and literary theory. Once again, I consulted as many people as I could, and some encouraged me to leave the Ph.D. program I was in and pursue an M.F.A. in creative writing. Once again, I had to rely on what could only be described as basic research skills: I made lists; I sent letters; I even invested cold hard cash to take a plane across the county to visit one of the schools whose program interested me.

And then, after all that research, I stumbled onto a very wise practice for anyone who is considering making an important life decision—I decided that I wouldn’t decide for another three months. In other words, I gave myself time to live with the uncertainty about which path might be best for me.

So even for those of us who know fairly early what type of work will lead to deep fulfillment, the path isn’t clear cut. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke said it best: “Be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart, and try to love even the questions themselves.” As I type these words, I have to admit, it doesn’t seem like such good advice from someone who prides herself on putting sensible words on paper! And I wish I could be more optimistic that the path I have chosen—trying to keep alive my own creative activity in the midst of encouraging as much as possible the creative activity of others—has been fully satisfying and anxiety free.

These two labors overlap, obviously, and on days when I feel most at home in my life, they energize one another in fully productive ways. But there are also days, sometimes even whole years, when I feel that to devote my life’s work to both of them is completely foolish—that my output as a writer will always feel diminished by the amount of time I spend reading student papers and talking with writers in conference, or that the advice I give to student writers is questionable, because it’s grounded so completely in my own methods and practice. So even though the setting of my work has been resolved, its tensions and impact will never be. True, it doesn’t feel quite as incoherent as a child’s scrawl in the margins of some book, and even the titles of the books have changed considerably, but the source of my greatest work and deepest joy has sustained me: words.