September 21, 2008

America's "literary flowering" was "a rebellion against what was thought of as academic, effete and indoors-y in English writing."

So how can a real, American literary artist take a job as a creative writing professor? Asks David Gessner.
[I]t’s hard to imagine [Thoreau] taking a break from one of his marathon strolls to waste three hours teaching a graduate workshop. Equally difficult is picturing Melville asking a group of undergrads, “What’s at stake in this story?” or Dickinson clapping a colleague on the back after a faculty meeting.
Yes, but did Henry and Herman and Emily have health care insurance and a retirement plan?

Gessner struggles with his cushy life and its obligations:
[C]reation of literature requires a degree of monomania, and that it is, at least in part, an irrational enterprise. It’s hard to throw your whole self into something when that self has another job.
But surely there are some jobs that provide substance and raw material for the writer. (Whaling, for example.) The problem with writers having jobs other than writing occurs when those jobs consume their time and attention, turn them into boring, conventional people, and give back nothing worth writing about.

But Gessner worries that the ideal of just writing is too irrational:
[Y]ou 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.
Ah, yes, academia is lovely. I love teaching. All teachers must say that. But there are other, richer jobs for the writer. And I'm not convinced that a literary writer does well to spend so much time reading and correcting the writing of other people who are not very good. If you're going to teach and write, wouldn't it be better to teach some substantial subject that will have you thinking about something about that real world your father wanted you to live in? History, science, law....

Gessner ends his reverie thusly:
[A] part of me worries that my work has become too professional, too small, and worries that I don’t spend as much time as I should reading or brooding or even fretting. Yes, my lifestyle is more healthful, but is health always the most important thing? The part that answers no to that question is now lying in wait, looking for ways to undermine my so-far-successful teaching career. In fact you could argue that that part of me had a hand in writing this essay, which I am finishing now, a few weeks before going up for tenure. After all, what would that part, my inner monomaniac, like more than to tear off his collar and sabotage the job that keeps him from running wild?
Oh, is that what this essay is all about? Conquering the fear of being denied tenure? What do you think, would tenure denial be a blessing for Mr. Gessner? Do you want him back in his room, brooding and fretting year 'round?

26 comments:

Bissage said...

I got halfway through the third paragraph and had to stop.

That's because I felt the stab of becoming convinced I was about to read an essayization of that old episode of “Bridget Loves Bernie” where Bernie learns to stop worrying and love himself for the writer he is rather than the writer he thinks other people think he ought to be.

I don’t recall whether Bernie had a day job.

Maybe he worked in his uncle’s deli or something.

Ann Althouse said...

LOL.

I'd rather read a book by bissage than by Gessner.

TMink said...

"worries that I don’t spend as much time as I should reading or brooding or even fretting."

Isn't that cute? Another borderline artist. He worries that he does not worry enough! That is Meta worry!

I respect and understand that for this type of personality, crises and Drama are required for their writing process. This subgroup is certainly the most well known artistic type, as they spill their found angst as sloppily as possible and they make for good copy to the people who write for a (normal) living.

They have even become a cliche, the ever popular tortured artist.

While that way works for some, I bet as many people stay happy and pray or smoke something or even jog to get their creativity flowing. I would bet that the borderline artist is in the minority.

Trey

rhhardin said...

Theodore Rothke's essay ``Last Class'' in _On the Poet and his Craft_ finds students to be material.

First page online here.

Teaching creative writing in a girls' college, apparently.

Peter V. Bella said...

"When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon."

Stinger Assassin said...

This is what the debate between Tom Wolfe and Mailer and Updike boiled down to. Wolfe believes in going out in the world and "reporting." Others aren't into doing that. Hemingway knew fishing, Faulkner small-town deep south, Stephen King Maine.

King will be studied obsessively in 200 years as professors pick apart his works trying to understand his references to Twinkies and Diet Pepsi.

Who reads Mailer's fictions? "Ancient Evenings?" Gak.

dr kill said...

It is no coincidence that the best American fiction was produced before the arrival of cradle-to-grave nanny-statism. Cooper, Faulkner, Hemingway, anyone?

This Gessner person and his peers would have died of starvation in the real world.

Stephen said...

The problem with writers having jobs other than writing occurs when those jobs consume their time and attention, turn them into boring, conventional people, and give back nothing worth writing about.

Hey! I resemble that remark.

Ann Althouse said...

That Roethke essay is great (based on the first page). Looking for the whole thing, I found this podcast of a woman reading the whole thing, which I haven't listened to yet.

Is he relating his experience or is it fictional? I thought it said much more about the speaker than his students. It seemed really, really sexist, against both the students and the female authors they emulate. But it was a wonderfully evocative expression of hatred for (a certain type of) fictional writing... not just bad writing, but all sorts of precious literary prose. I could really identify with that hatred, even though I was slightly horrified knowing that this was the voice of a man who hates women.

Ann Althouse said...

"This Gessner person and his peers would have died of starvation in the real world."

And let's not forget that David Foster Wallace, who took a job as a creative writing professor, hanged himself.

Simon Kenton said...

I suspect Trollope would have been startled by this sniveling. A senior executive in the British postal service, he wrote dozens of novels that stand at the front of the second rank of Victorian fiction (I mean this to be extremely high praise). He would start a new novel the afternoon after he sent in the previous one. I expect in his creative life there wasn't much time to read a Gessner attempt to transmute navel lint into an essay.

Palladian said...

Why would you go to college to learn writing? As long as you learned grammar and punctuation in elementary school, what's the point of wasting your time and money in pointless workshops trying to learn how to write like people do in The New Yorker?

It's interesting to contrast his (romantic) view of the pre-modern writer as a solitary heroic figure to the life of the pre-modern painter. Almost all of the "great painters" and "Old Masters" were both artists and teachers, from Verrocchio (Leonardo, Botticelli and Ghirlandaio's teacher) to Ghirlandaio (one of Michelangelo's teachers) to Raphael (Giulio Romano's teacher) to Rubens (Van Dyck's teacher). There was a significant amount of craft to be learned and taught, the kind of information that is not easily learned through self-study. Writers, on the other hand, can simply read a lot. The craft of the writer is self-evident: it's there in the words. The craft of the painter or sculptor is not. If you want to do it well, you have to be taught.

Sadly, the myth of the heroic solitary artist which arose in the 19th century (along with the myth of the heroic solitary writer) dealt a significant blow to the master/apprentice model of art instruction. Art schools have unfortunately adopted the model of the graduate-level writing workshop: too much time wasted sitting around trading bullshit about theory and meaning and intention and have largely become just as irrelevant to the vocation of the artist as writing programs have to the vocation of the writer.

I tell my students: you already know how to express yourself. Talking about self-expression is worthless. I'm here to teach you how to do something.

rhhardin said...

I imagine Roethke is overstating a little a real experience.

The list of faculty types is precious.

``The Udder. All gush and goodwill and guts (girth) a yard wide. A suburban Sappho. The vice in the old village choir. A mind composed largely of fuzz. If she knew what she was, there would be no harm in her, but monkey she must with every amorphous psyche that comes her way. ``You can't do your assignment? Try, just try, to imagine yourself a Tree.'' But surely you classic cases in progressive pedagogy, weaned on Freud and Kraft-Ebbing, aren't taken in by such shoddy sex-transfers. What she wants, really, is to keep you entranced forever in the soft silly gloze of adolescence, to have you perpetually saying farewell to the warm womb but never once peeking out for just one look at reality. She loves you best bewildered. Let her be somebody else's mother.''

Ann Althouse said...

Palladian: "Why would you go to college to learn writing? ... Writers, ... can simply read a lot. The craft of the writer is self-evident: it's there in the words. The craft of the painter or sculptor is not. If you want to do it well, you have to be taught."

Just my luck. I went to art school and they didn't teach me a damned thing.

William said...

I read somewhere that 50% of writers end up as alcoholics or blocked. Of those who succeed in getting published only the smallest fraction produce anything worth reading. The remainder bins at Strand are a sobering sight--like going to a nursery and seeing the still borns lined up in bassinets....Teachers tend to have happy marriages and pleasant lives. The risk/reward ratio is much better for teaching than writing.

LutherM said...

PART-TIME WRITERS

William Carlos Williams M.D.

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Wallace Stevens V.P. The Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company

The Emperor of Ice-Cream,

Call the roller of big cigars,

The muscular one, and bid him whip

In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.

Let the wenches dawdle in such dress

As they are used to wear, and let the boys

Bring flowers in last month's newspapers.

Let be be finale of seem.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.


Take from the dresser of deal,

Lacking the three glass knobs,
that sheet

On which she embroidered fantails once

And spread it so as to cover her face.

If her horny feet protrude, they come

To show how cold she is, and dumb.

Let the lamp affix its beam.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

David said...

"Those who can't, teach?"

Generally I don't believe that generalization, but the growth of MFA programs in writing is a good example of the negative stereotype.

There are tens of thousands of no talent writers, some of them actually published. Many of these are students at the MFA's and the workshops, some are teachers.

Lots of money is paid by aspiring writers, most of whom are hopefully hopeless.

dr kill said...

If some of you would be interested in reading an unpublished chapter about Saudi Arabia, AA has my email.

Oligonicella said...

"What do you think, would tenure denial be a blessing for Mr. Gessner?"

After reading his writing, I fervently wish he gets tenure so as to limit its output.

chuck b. said...

"But surely there are some jobs that provide substance and raw material for the writer. (Whaling, for example.)"


Lol.

Richard Dolan said...

Palladian: "The craft of the writer is self-evident: it's there in the words."

You're getting carried away with a strange thesis. Writing is a skill (just as painting, singing, dancing or any other form of art is a skill), and it can obviously be taught. It's "there in the words" only in the same sense that the sculpture is "there in the stone" or the music is "there in the notes."

What can't be taught is genius, insight, creativity. And you can't teach those things regardless of the medium the would-be artist is using -- words, paint, stone, musical tones, whatever.

Gessner's piece is an exercise in one man's odd-ball story being generalized to the point of absurdity. Many famous writers of the past have held down jobs and done their writing on the side; many today (e.g. Richard Price, JC Oates) work in a university. Nabokov turned out Lolita while working at Cornell, and only after its success did he quit teaching. Additional examples could be piled up high and deep. And it's not just writers -- Einstein did his most revolutionary work when he was employed as a clerk in a patent office.

What any given writer needs to sustain his art (assuming there is anything to sustain) depends on him and what makes him tick. Why would anyone think that such inherently individualized stuff could be generalized?

bearbee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zach said...

The point which is often missed in discussing the golden age of american literature (call it 1860-1940) is that it was the period where writers of middling quality -- as in, writers who hadn't fully developed their skills yet -- could make writing into a paying proposition. There was a huge profusion of cheap periodicals that needed content more than quality, and a clear hierarchy of quality, with the slick monthly magazines offering the highest word rates.

The contrast isn't between subsidizing writing by working on a whaling ship vs. subsidizing writing by teaching, it's between writing as an income source vs an income sink.

bearbee said...

It is no coincidence that the best American fiction was produced before the arrival of cradle-to-grave nanny-statism. Cooper, Faulkner, Hemingway, anyone?

John Steinbeck

How about some Playwrights?

Tennessee Williams
Eugene O'Neill
Arther Miller

Poets

Dylan Thomas (Welsh)
Allen Ginsberg 'I saw the best minds of my generation.......'

blake said...

Stephen King is James Fenimore Cooper.

Joe said...

One of the amazing things about many, if not most, successful popular writers is how prolific they are. They write so much you are left to wonder how they have time to write their novels. (Most don't however, write navel gazing articles for New York Magazine, but hey, if it pays the bills...)