I return to my writing classes tomorrow after canceling for a week to allow my students to attend the many different writing-related activities that went on during UCA's LGBT History Month celebration. (See last's week's post.) I'm grateful to return to the classroom, and eager to hear the students' impressions of the writers who came to campus, but there's one aspect of the teaching business that I won't exactly welcome back with open arms. And that is the necessity of always having an opinion. For a long time, but especially the last few years, this has increasingly been the single aspect of my job that I've struggled with. One hears now and again about teacher burnout. Usually what's evoked is misbehaving students; or meddlesome, government-enforced testing requirements; or ill-informed administrators; or a lack of financial support for important educational initiatives; or a widespread lack of respect in the community. And I'm sure that for K-12 teachers those factors are extremely prominent. But for a university writing teacher, especially a creative writing teacher, I thinkwhat burdens them more often is simply the matter of having to constantly deliver opinions about student writing.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not talking about the burden of reading student writing. I am thrilled to see what my students come up with. Sure, not all of it is world-changing, but to see what ideas and approaches they employ can be insipring. Just this semester, for example, the different stories my students are working on in historical fiction workshop class make a study in the variety of human curiosity: a young mother goes missing in Kansas in the 30s, a teenager goes missing in New York City in the 70s, the son of a musician struggles to cope in German-occupied Paris, Canadian soldiers battle on the front lines in World War I, a nineteenth-century woman invents a lurid, bestselling tale about sexual abuse in a convent, a miner in the 20s falls for a woman he can't have, a patient in a dubious mental asylum in the 60s resists authority, Leah (from the bibilcal account) expresses her secret resentment of Rachel, workers riot in the 30s. Reading these stories is never a burden. But having to constantly lay down judgements about them, and advice for them, can be exhausting. Not because I don't think I have good advice to offer--at least part of the time I certainly do--and not because my opinion-making is restricting the students' access to others' opinions. (There are several possible mechanisms for feedback in a workshop course.) But because reading with the idea that I will have to present at least one typed page of feedback on the story--and the student is waiting impatiently for such feedback--is a very different and demanding reading experience from any other reading experience in daily life.
When I read an author for pleasure, I tend to read rather forgivingly. This is not to say that I do not notice weaknesses in some of the books and stories I read, or that I won't finally grow testy about those weaknesses, but that I tend to grant the author the benefit of the doubt for a good long time. I tend to give a book a chance to prove itself to me on its own terms; to withhold judgement until I have a better sense of what the book is "about," what it's up to, how it's put together. In short, I tend to read with an open mind. But when reading in order to give opinions one must read with considerable more ferocity. Sometimes that's a good thing, because it means you are also reading with a great deal more attention. But many times it just feels more draining. Having to be the expert, the one with all the answers, can indeed be a burden. Sometimes you just feel like saying, "This looks pretty good. Keep going." (And occasionally this is, more or less, what I say.) But I tend to think that if that's all I say too often, the students will feel cheated of their tuition money. And they would be right. Indeed, the weird truth of the matter is that I am paid to have opinions. So I do the best I can, sometimes stating what is working and what isn't with more absolutism than I actually feel. (Other times, however, those determinations seem perfectly obvious.)
I say a second time, don't get me wrong. I feel extremely fortunate to have the job I do and to work where I do. Most days at most hours I am content, even quietly blissful. But even good jobs have their tough parts; that is, the parts that don't match up so well with one's personality. I think the fundamental problem is that creative writing--especially in the heady first draft stage--is almost entirely a matter of opening yourself up, flipping the switch so the current flows and keeps flowing. It's not about being critical or doubting or judgmental. It's getting started, letting yourself go, and forgiving all the temporary lapses. It feels great, it's absolutely crucial, and I'm convinced it's what hooks so many people so early on creative writing. And it's what keeps us there. Reading in order to have an opinion about what's wrong is the exact opposite mental condition. It's like having to hold one huge muscle in my mind in abeyance while stressing another entirely, even unnaturally, almost to the point of taxation. And it's not exactly soul-satisfying. I don't know if this comes as a surprise to anyone or not. I suspect that most students think they're professors are enthralled by the idea of being the expert, the one at the front, the one with all the answers. I suppose some professors do feel that way. But I believe that more probably feel like I do: that being the expert can be an awful pain in the rear. As well as being at odds with who you are and what you do. Being an expert isn't how I get any story started. Being an amateur explorer, a dubious risk-taker, and a weekend cliff diver is. That way the education comes to you from the writing itself. And so too does all the fun.
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More book news! (Please excuse the self-promotion.) Island Fog is fully out! The paperback can be purchased through Amazon, bn.com, and lavenderink.org. Meanwhile, a Kindle e-book version is available through Amazon and Amazon.co.uk. If you do read it, please put up a review on Goodreads and/or Amazon and/or bn.com, etc. I'd love to know how it struck you.
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Goodreads giveaway winners! The Goodreads giveaway contest was a lot of fun. Thanks to author/blogger Erika Dreifus for insisting that I get it started. In the end, 873 people signed up, and three of them won free books: Melanie Ciaccio of Brandon, Florida; Ken Gilmour of Petersborough, Ontario; and Tasha Mellins-cohen of Bristol, England. Congrats to Melanie, Ken, and Tasha.
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I'll be on the radio today! An interview I completed with KUAF radio in Fayetteville, Arkansas will be broadcast today (Oct. 6, 2014) at noon and 7 pm (central time, USA) as part of their daily Ozarks at Large program. You can listen live via the internet at www.kuaf.com. If you miss the live broadcast, an archived version should be avaiable soon. Happy listening!
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My new website! Dang, I've forgotten to tell blog readers about my new website, gorgeously designed by UCA MFA-er Rebecca Hawkins. Go to johnvanderslicebooks.com to get the latest news on appearances and or reviews.