For years since I first made the leap from adjunct teaching mostly comp classes to teaching only creative writing as a tenure track professor, I felt guilty for all the privileges I had suddenly acquired: not for the reduced workload, because the hours gained were quickly replaced by more challenging service and community work, endless administrative meetings, and responsibilities that turn what should be a dream job into something as stressful as being a CEO of a failing multimillion dollar corporation with share holders banging at the portals bearing pitchforks. It was the idea that I was being paid to do something I love that really made me feel guilty.
When I was teaching freshmen students how to articulate an argument I knew exactly the contribution I was making to society. I knew that those students would learn for the first time how important words are to their lives. From me, they would learn the tools necessary to navigate the endless stream of propaganda assaulting them from corporate advertising, politics, and even corrupt educators. They would not only learn where to find the mines and how to diffuse them; they would also learn to protect themselves from the falling shrapnel. I would teach them to use words responsibly, to diagram the logic of a thought and to scour reliable evidence to support that logic. I never wavered in my confidence in the contribution I was making to society when I sacrificed hours I ought to have spent with my family grading papers and taking that extra minute or two to explain a difficult concept to a fumbling student.
I knew that I was teaching them how to survive as much as if I’d been teaching them how to build a fire in the stone age because, let’s face it, words can kill you in the same way that mishandling a gun can just as easily blow up in your face as it does into your five year old nephew’s skull or the bully who just busted down your door with an axe with your grandmother in a headlock. Ask yourself why lawyers and politicians are paid better than doctors: they are word spinners, and words are difficult to manage. Sometimes, the most important words, the words that could save or break your life, are the most thorny, poisonous and inaccessible words of all. That’s why we pay lawyers and judges to manage them for us.
I once taught a college student how to read. Sure, he could read sentences, sure he knew how to write them, too, but when presented with complex syntax like the phrase you’re reading now, even if he knew the meaning of the individual words, he could not grasp the content. He was the casualty of a poorly neglected educational system, but somehow he’d ended up in a college class with an adjunct professor fresh out of graduate school. I taught that student how to untangle the sentences, how to rework them in his mind and rearrange them in a way that made sense to him. Together, we read passages from American philosopher Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” and after we came to the end of a particularly difficult passage, the student looked up from the text and with an intense look in his eyes, he said, “I did it. I can finally read.”
It was only my third time teaching a class, but witnessing that student’s moment of triumph, I knew that I would never do anything else in my life that could matter this much, that could give me such certainty that, regardless what other failures I could pile along the years (and there would be many, many failures), I had changed for the better at least one person’s life.
But the value of teaching creative writing to a media-obsessed culture that has left books and words in the dust was a lot harder to assess, a lot harder to defend. Yet, every time I collect my first set of assignments, I remember why I have to do this. Creative writing is still a life-saving subject for so many young people coming into college, perhaps exactly because we live in an age that wants to forget what it means to experience someone else’s life: it isn’t enough to teach young men and women how to think through words; we also have to teach them how to feel. With so much artificiality surrounding us, people are forgetting how to do it — and there is plenty of evidence now to show that chemically we are destroying that part of our brain that is able to reflect and take the long view of things through vivid entertainment and over-stimulating video-games. (Don’t take my word for it. British neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has made it her life’s work to prove to us that we are killing our ability to feel, and that only books can save us).
Moreover, it’s uncomfortable to empathize. There is too much to be felt, too many tragedies on the news, too many emulated suicides, murders, rapes and early deaths acted out in the movies and in video games. God knows, as a society we really don’t like to feel uncomfortable. Kill that pain. Whatever it takes, be it Tylenol, beer or Mary Jane.
No wonder when students first begin to imagine their own stories they flit wildly between triple murder-suicides motivated by things as trite as catching a partner cheating, and preachy, dubious morality tales that feel like advertisements from the latest Tea Party campaign. Contrarily, when asked to write about themselves, they often can think of nothing so important and so grand as how it rained on their graduation day, or how they met their boyfriend or girlfriend. New mothers may indulge in gushing descriptions of blue-eyed cherubs with pudgy hands and heavenly smiles, conveying nothing but the most banal, the most surface of emotions: the empty adulation of the shell of a human being, with the inability to describe or even conceive of describing why traits like blue eyes and blond hair in a lover or a daughter or son seem so immensely important, so final, so absolute and unique. Diverging on the opposite end of the meter are those blithe confessions of abusive guardians raping toddlers and causing life-long trauma that end in dissociative conclusions about missing a certain neighborhood or wishing the abuser well, when clearly a court summons or a a life sentence in a dark hole of a jail would be far more appropriate.
The work of a good workshop moderator is to be able to read between the lines where the author cannot, to be able to ask the kind of questions that even a therapist might miss. The words are already showing the students’ resistances. Every time I highlight words like “ecstatic,” “joyous” “anxiously,” I smash against barriers erected so early in these people’s lives that they can’t even see how high their ramparts, how deep their moats, using catch-phrases, cliches, abstracts and bumper-sticker banalities to keep distance between themselves and their own feelings.
“You cannot be ecstatic to see your grandmother at Christmas. If Jesus himself was a dinner guest, and he blasted you with Grace as soon as you walked through the door, then you might be ecstatic, possibly. Or else you may simply be having an epileptic fit.” “You were not anxiously awaiting your dinner. What you really mean to say is that you couldn’t wait to stab your fork into that chicken thigh. Anxiety is for people who suffer chemical dysfunctions, not for people who are hungry. Poor little word ‘anxiety’ was never meant to be used in conjunction with fried chicken.” “To say that your child is special because he had blue eyes and blond hair is a bit vague. There are a million babies in the world who fit that description. Maybe his blue eyes remind you of his father’s, or else they bring to mind his ancestry, your Irish grandparents, the stories they told about crossing the sea…”
Most of the time I am not this blunt. But every one of my comments, whether it’s a criticism for use of vague words or asking a student to delve deeper into her repertoire of experiences, I’m saying, “No, this is not what you mean. What you mean, what you really, really mean, is something else: look at the clues! Look at how you wrote that you were thrown into your step-dad’s home, thrown! Like a bag! What you really, really mean….”
Some drop, but many stay on to say, “You showed me to think deeper. You showed me to look at myself in a different way.” It takes a lot of thinking and a lot of heart to try to imagine another being’s life in any way that is even close to realistic, as complex as our lives are. Unfortunately, even just quickly scanning the news shows that people are losing empathy: they are unable to imagine the suffering of others, which makes it then so easy to dismiss that suffering, to pretend that all that matters is just you. Writing creatively challenges us to look beyond our defense barriers and to embrace others as part of our own experience.
Writer John Dufresne used to say, “You want to be a better writer? Be a better person.” I teach people to read their own lives. I teach them how to make sense of their own narratives, how to break down the barriers and defenses that keep them from knowing themselves and knowing others. Those barriers are embedded in the language itself. They’re in the words, they’re in ready-made phrases like “everything happens for a reason,” lies we tell ourselves to get through the unimaginable truth, the knowledge that we’re on our own, that there is no silver lining, that life is hard, at times unbearable, and there is nothing we can do about it… except maybe write.