The Writer…Teacher

I sat down and watched Charlie Rose interview David Foster Wallace on Sept 12, 2008.

I remember the day I watched it for two reasons:

  • Wallace was my contemporary writing hero. A man who wrote words in a way that spoke to me. At the time of his death, I was 4 months and 1 day sober, barely hanging on to sanity; and
  • I became unhinged that day. Months later, several students in my class told me they were concerned that I was going to kill myself just as Wallace had done to himself on that fall day.

What sent me racing towards my demons that day wasn’t the interview. I was coming unglued at the seams quite fine by myself. But what has stayed with me 3 1/2 years later was something he said during that interview.

You see, Wallace had recently started teaching college, and like so many writers he wanted to get in the classroom because of the Romantic notion of working with students. We all dream of a class that reads beautiful words, that digs into texts so that they can say insightful things in class, and that produces words in a meaningful way.

This, he was finding out, is not what a college writer looks like.

Wallace said his teaching life was broken into two very distinct phases:

  1. The first two years when he was confronted with the very specific task of breaking down his writing process so that he could teach. The students, after all, kept pestering him for answers to their questions. They are insecure; they are painful shy; they are functionally lazy; they are afraid to make mistakes; and they are bristling with this belief that success comes from thinking a lot and then doing something once.
  2. The third year when he realized that he’d learned everything he could from teaching — he understood his process better — but the new crop of students still didn’t understand why you should use dependent phrases to start some sentences and not others. (The answer: pacing.)

By year three, he realized if he stayed in teaching much longer he would never write again and he would mostly likely commit suicide. (It’s a chilling interview to watch the day of the news about his suicide even though he left the vocation of teaching, and returned to writing full time.)

For the record, this is my second university teaching gig. Each lasted three years.

I say this as I sit at my desk, the familiar brown Target station where I do my work each night before I head to bed. For all intents and purposes, it’s not very much unlike other nights that I sit here during the school year. With one exception. It’s February 29, and four students owe me work for The Invictus Writers, writing I have not seen.

Earlier tonight, I sent my third angry email about work that hasn’t been done on the project unrelated to this evening’s deadline, a fact that angered me more than the already angry email said.

I am, as you might imagine, not happy at this moment with my life’s decision to teach. I’m even less happy that this project, which doesn’t count at all towards my professional development at the University, is once again sucking my writing time away.

As I wrote tonight’s email, Wallace’s words rang in my head: I’ve already learned everything I need to know about my process at this job, and the only thing I will do now is prepare for the angry deadline emails that I will send each semester to a new crop of students who do not know any better than the last crop.

If it’s Spring Break, it must be time to yell.

The rational human being would quite obviously leave this job once the reality of the semester waves became clear. They would return to the world outside these Towers, and get back to the work at hand.

And yet…here I am, sitting at the Target desk, pouring over thousands of student words written by students who fight me every step of the way so that they can make the most predictable errors while sending me over the edge with rage…just like I’ve done for the last six years.

Of the two groups — them or me — only my actions meet the definition of crazy.

Meanwhile, I have three books in disarray. I haven’t touched them in months. I have two chapters in a book that are due this weekend. I have a pile of research on reading that hasn’t been sorted. My life — my work — is a series of never-ending piles that don’t get done so that I can send emails that scare young writers into action while my time grows ever closer to being up.

This is what the young don’t understand. They do not quite understand the arrow of time. They can’t help themselves in this matter any more than I could help myself when I was there age.

So my books — my writing — sits untouched, unfinished, and unstarted. Instead, i write angry emails that years later the students convince themselves I enjoy sending. (My solace is that they will someday have children themselves, and they will see how much fun it is to put life on hold to correct someone who is fighting with you.)

I am not okay with this life pattern, but I am not unsettled. I am not content that I never get to write anymore, but neither am I restless. This is just the nature of the Writer…Teacher.

While I am not learning anything more about my process (and I wonder how much longer I will be able to call it forth), where Wallace and I diverge is this: The growth I see after the waiting, and the anger, and the yelling still off-sets the piles that never get touched.