| NYT Magazine | Those Who
Write, Teach | By DAVID GESSNER
In the early, dark days of creative-writing programs, say, 30 years ago, many writers treated university positions not as jobs but as sinecures, and the university itself as a kind of benefactor. I attended graduate school at the University of Colorado in the early 1990s, and only one professor there ever learned my name; the rest, most of whom were granted their positions in the 1960s after the publication of a chapbook or two, approached their jobs with all the liveliness and enthusiasm of members of the Politburo. Iowa, of course, set the standard for the genius approach to writing in which the great man or woman allows the eager young to gather round, where they are to learn by osmosis. That was during the early outlaw years, when administrators, like cautious scientists, were first seeing if this thing, creative writing, could survive within the walls of the university. But times have changed, and these days teaching creative writing is more of a job, with all of a job’s commitments and a job’s demands. And those demands often crash up against the necessary fanaticism of the writing life. “Death by a thousand cuts” is how a colleague of mine described the academic life. Papers, students, classes, meetings, grades. They come all day like electric jolts, making it hard to be a good monk.
What, other than a romantic conception of the writer as creative monomaniac, is lost by the fact that many of us now make salaries almost on par with entry-level accountants? I think it is legitimate to worry that writers pressed for time will produce work that is more hurried; that writers who hand in annual reports listing their number of publications might focus as much on quantity as quality; and that writers who depend on bosses for their employment might produce safer, less bold work. Another thing that is undeniably lost is time spent reading great literature and communing with writers of the past. While the effect of teaching on writing may be a matter of debate, its effect on reading is undeniable. That is because there are only so many hours in the day, and those hours are used up reading our students’ work, which is, by definition, apprentice writing. Energy is finite while college students seemingly are not, and after teaching for a while you begin to feel as if you are in a “Star Trek” episode, lost on a strange planet made up of a thousand pods of need, all of them beaming out at you, sucking your energy, and all of them, invariably, asking you to read something. Since the reading life feeds the writing life, since we are what we eat, this can wear you down, to say the least.
The novelist Mike Magnuson puts this sentiment more bluntly: “What teaching has done for me is make me not want to read anything, written by anybody, for the rest of my life.”