The Dilemma: Those Who Write, Teach

David Gessner – The New York Times Magazine

Copyright The New York Times
Several snippets:
Five years ago I gave up the full-time writing life and became the kind of domesticated writer known as a professor. I was not shot with a tranquilizer gun, tagged and shipped off to a university. I underwent this conversion more or less of my own free will, drawn by the lure of health insurance, salary and security. The changes in me have been gradual, barely noticeable most of the time, except when I catch myself using, as I did the other day, words like “pedagogy” and “collegial.” Though I sometimes chafe at my collar, just as often I appreciate the miracle of the job. A typical creative-writing professor has four months of summer vacation; teaches passionate young people a subject they actually want to learn about (and often enjoy); carries a light two-class load per term that is the envy of professors in other departments; and gains both a sense of belonging and ego satisfaction as a pillar — even a star — of a small, intense community of writers and readers. Furthermore, in a time when it is increasingly difficult for literary writers to support themselves through their writing, professorships provide an attractive alternative to working as a bookstore clerk, carpenter’s helper or busboy. The benefits have proved appealing enough to draw thousands of writers into the university fold, and while a couple of generations ago it might have been a surprise to find a writer who taught at a college, now it’s a surprise to find one who doesn’t…
…Writers who have been lucky enough to land these gigs are inclined to talk — when we aren’t grumbling — about their good fortune in sensible language, citing all that is sane, healthy, balanced and economically viable about their jobs. But another question is discussed less. What exactly does all this teaching do to our writing? And what, if anything, does it mean for a country to have a tenured literature?…
…For most of us, the options aren’t teaching or writing all day in a barn but teaching or working at the Dairy Queen. It’s not just a question of success or even genius, but temperament and discipline. Young writers think all they need is time, but give them that time and watch them implode. After all, there’s something basically insane about sitting at a desk and talking to yourself all day, and there’s a reason that writers are second only to medical students in instances of hypochondria. In isolation, our minds turn on us pretty quickly. I have two writer friends, successful novelists who could afford not to teach, who insist that rather than detract from their writing, their lives as professors are what allow them to write, and that given more free time, they would crumble. The job provides a safety net above the abyss of facing the difficulty of creating every day, making an irrational thing feel more rational…
…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. There is a deep pleasure in sharing the things that you have labored to learn in solitude. It’s inspiring work — rewarding, interactive, human work so different from what we do at our desks — and it turns out that writers, many of us natural entertainers, often do it quite well…
…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…
…I don’t know how long I can survive in captivity. For the time being I will continue to throw myself into teaching and try to take Stegner’s advice about the summers, while hoping my job doesn’t get in the way of my work…
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