[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.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....
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.
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?