Sunday, September 21, 2008

MFA From the Teacher's Perspective

Just when you think the MFA question is dead and buried, someone comes at it from a new angle.  This time, it's David Gessner in the New York Times about teaching creative writing as a writer. A highlight:

"For most of us, the options aren’t teaching or writing all day in a barn but teaching or working at the Dairy Queen. It’s not just a question of success or even genius, but temperament and discipline. Young writers think all they need is time, but give them that time and watch them implode. After all, there’s something basically insane about sitting at a desk and talking to yourself all day, and there’s a reason that writers are second only to medical students in instances of hypochondria. In isolation, our minds turn on us pretty quickly. I have two writer friends, successful novelists who could afford not to teach, who insist that rather than detract from their writing, their lives as professors are what allow them to write, and that given more free time, they would crumble. The job provides a safety net above the abyss of facing the difficulty of creating every day, making an irrational thing feel more rational.

Yet no matter how much support you have, how many schedules you make or how many books you’ve written before, there remains the basic irrationality of the task: you are sitting by yourself trying to make something out of nothing, and you rarely know where you’re going next. Creating your own world is an invitation to solipsism, if not narcissism, and as well as being alone when we work, we are left, for the most part, to judge by ourselves if we have succeeded or failed in our tasks. (Three guesses in which direction we most often lean.) My father succinctly summarized his feelings about my choice to dedicate my 20s to writing fiction. “You’re not living in the real world,” he said. I reacted with a young man’s defensiveness, but in retrospect his assessment seems less critical than a matter of fact.

Which is where teaching comes in. It provides all the practical things that can help prop us up above the morass of our insane callings, not to mention something we can wave at the world like a badge. And don’t forget this bonus: other people. How delightful to work on this thing called a hallway, populated not just by colleagues but by students, all committed to, or at the very least interested in, writing. And this is all without even mentioning the teaching itself. I love teaching. There is a deep pleasure in sharing the things that you have labored to learn in solitude. It’s inspiring work — rewarding, interactive, human work so different from what we do at our desks — and it turns out that writers, many of us natural entertainers, often do it quite well."

Having taught at an institution or two, I'd hardly call academia the real world, but the point is taken.  Writing is lonely.  I guess, teaching writing is a way to stave off the loneliness.  Gessner doesn't cover how these sort of programs help or hinder the general quality of writing.   That would have been interesting.


anonymoose said...

As a writer who is now training to become a teacher, I appreciated this article. There's only so much talking to myself that I could stand. I thought I was an introvert, but turns out, I need to interact with others to bring out my creativity.

Anonymous said...

Anybody read much of Gessner's work? I have--because I'm a hack nature-writer. I gotta say: the dude loves the sound of his own voice. Same goes for this article.

He's that guy in the coffee shop you overhear at the table next to you, holding forth as though he knows a thing or two. The one you want to strangle.

Joe said...

Isn't it strange that whenever anyone refers to the "real world", they always mean something negative? I see no compelling reason to live in the "real world" until people start using it in the positive. Like, when you look out at the Grand Canyon, someone might comment, "Welcome to the real world!" Or when you win the lottery or have a baby, you'd be greeted with cheers of, "Welcome to the real world! Congratulations!" In other words, one who has so deeply accepted that happiness and inspiration are fake and misery and compromise are real hates himself, and is not worth listening to.

Writer, Rejected said...

Hey, Joe: That's a pretty nice (well-written, btw) thought for the day. Thank you. I'm down with it.

Renee Thompson said...

I, too, was reminded of this loneliness thing when my husband and I passed a kid sitting at the bus stop. He was eating a glazed doughnut, and I turned to Steve and said (with a certain wistfulness), "I can't remember the last time I had a doughnut." It wasn't the confection I missed so much as the camaraderie of the office -- that place I'd schlepped to every morning, hating it, until I'd been away for a few years and began to miss, just a bit, the interaction with humans. And, yes, the doughnuts.

My "hermit-ness" was driven home recently, when I learned my neighbors got a divorce and I didn't even know it. Worse, I've turned into a Troglodyte and forgotten how to talk. "What? Jen-nee get divorce? When that happen?" I gotta get out more.