A word for it: On being a teaching writer

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In this interview with the literary magazine One Story, novelist Colum McCann–whose work I love–has this to say about writing, teaching and mentorship:

Vonnegut says we should be continually jumping off of cliffs and developing our wings on the way down. That's how I feel about teaching and being involved with all these non-profits. It keeps me on the edge. It propels me forward. It forces me to learn new things. And my students keep me current in many ways also. I see so many things through their eyes. I don't really find any tension there between my teaching and my creative work. I like both immensely. I think they compliment one another. It's just that there aren't enough hours in the day. I could do with another eight hours.

And on the same blog, the prominent fiction writer Dan Chaon offers:

(Being a writer while teaching is) ridiculously difficult, because they are both utterly consuming tasks. You have to sacrifice some things to do both, and I've chosen to cut back on sleep and socializing. And I haven't stopped smoking, like I should have a long time ago.

So I'm tired and isolated and smelly, but I do write a lot of words and comment on a lot of student manuscripts.

Novelist Kingsley Amis (unsurprisingly, if you know his 1954 campus satire "Lucky Jim") had a more curmudgeonly view:

I found myself fit for nothing much more exacting than playing the gramophone after three supervisions a day.

For most writers who teach and teachers who write–including me–all three of these things and more are true (except the smoking). Having spent the recent fall break diving back into my novel-in-progress, which gets crowded into, or off, the margins of the day during the regular school week, I'm experiencing the familiar mix of pleasure and panic: looking forward to seeing my students again and being back at the good work of teaching, and realizing how much more time the writing projects large and small on my current stovetop (the article about that book, my novel, my nonfiction book, the query to a publisher/agent about my nonfiction book, the weird little stories, the proposal for this other totally random idea, and on and on) need than I am able to give them in the average week.  There is a deep luxuriance to a day when I wake up and don't have to be anywhere and have a bit of breathing room from the press of grading and email and meetings and can immerse myself in that world: just me, my laptop and my writing room, without the hundred overt attention-fragmenting pressures that come up during the day.  Because this, too, is my vocation. 

And it's my career, in ways both idealistic and pragmatic. A writing teacher who doesn't write becomes unable to speak and teach effectively about writing in the classroom; I reach deep into my own process and those of other writers I know, past and present, every time I talk with students about how to cut up a draft with scissors to revise it or how to start a short story with a single powerful image.  My own engagement with the literary world also helps me advise students who are thinking of entering that world, helping them see what submitting work to literary journals or publishers really involves. And it continues to build the professional record I need to maintain departmental standards for tenure and promotion. No writer who teaches can ignore the fact that continuing to write is necessary in both psychological and practical terms.

Ultimately, I find that teaching writing and being a writer need each other. My writer/teacher friends and I have joked there should be a word for the sudden, overpowering desire we can get to turn to our own writing when we are reading and grading students' work–often sparked by trying to articulate something in a comment that helps us personally too. There should be a word for a lot of things about the teaching/writing life: the particular intersection of experience, growth and insight that allows a student to imagine and render something she's been struggling with all semester; stumbling across a revelation for your own work while writing alongside students in class (this happens to me a lot); the exhilarated realization that in your introductory and advanced creative writing classes and sophomore-level literature class and first-year common course you have been talking about the same idea in different forms for the last two weeks. And most of those words might actually be pretty good.

We need the world, and real demands from and responsibility to others, to keep us from vanishing into our own heads, to keep us honest and self-analytical. But we also need our own process of art-making to keep us independent and grounded in a source of meaning beyond the daily satisfactions of checking items off a to-do list, and, just as in any relationship, to keep us from succumbing to the temptation to give to others beyond the degree that's good for them or for ourselves. 

Being a writing teacher or a teaching writer is like being in a long marriage, where sometimes it's exciting and sometimes it's a drag and sometimes you have to work really hard to keep the spark alive amid the piles of email and dirty laundry and sometimes you succeed and sometimes you fail and sometimes just staying in it is a triumph. Any practice – from yoga to prayer to, yes, writing–is a matter of remaking that practice at the level of every day's most quiet need, to quote Elizabeth Barrett Browning: fixing the problems, starting, restarting, getting back into it, giving it the best you can every day, starting over, keeping on.  I keep rededicating, arranging the day so I can get up early the next morning and give my writing my first, best attention, trying and failing and (I hope), failing better, in Samuel Beckett's words. As I tell all my students, this is what "being a writer" is really about. If you don't love the time at the desk, the notes and drafting and everyday return to where you left off yesterday and even the frustration, you are not going to be a writer, because you will not have accepted the full reality of that process, and you will not have found that internal system of reward springing from the process of engagement itself. And for that deep aliveness–which writing does bring–there is really no word except joy.

Amy Weldon

Amy Weldon

Amy Weldon, native Alabamian, is professor of English at Luther College and the author of three books: The Hands-On Life: How to Wake Yourself Up and Save The World (Cascade Books, 2018), The Writer's Eye: Observation and Inspiration for Creative Writers (Bloomsbury, 2018), and Eldorado, Iowa: A Novel (Bowen Press Books, 2019). Her website is amyeweldon.com.

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  • October 30 2014 at 6:03 pm

    Hi Amy, I love this. While I don't teach writing, I do have a job that requires reviewing the writing of others and sometimes writing original content. Balancing this with personal writing ("being a writer") is not easy, but I agree that there is something good and necessary about being in the world.

    My future editor ended one of her emails to me as follows: "Incidentally, I am always impressed with people who can write books while also working full-time. That takes discipline."

    It is truly a practice—and part of the fun is finding the optimal routine to make it all happen. Joy, indeed!

  • October 31 2014 at 11:44 am
    Amy E. Weldon

    Thanks, Tabita - "discipline" is right! Congratulations on finishing your own book!

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