Associate Editor Jarvis Slacks takes a break from grading papers to talk about the life, or a slice of it, of the Creative Writing professor. Jarvis is an Associate Professor of English at Montgomery College, Rockville, and writes a blog, The Education of Jarvis Slacks, when he isn’t working on his non-fiction book project.
Why is it so hard to teach a fiction class when I write fiction? I love to read fiction! Why is it so hard to teach it to a class of 20 students? I’ve been teaching for about seven years now. I teach composition classes and I teach Creative Writing and, between the two, I have a much more enjoyable experience teaching the comps than I do teaching the art form that I’ve dedicated my existence to. On a fundamental level, teaching any Creative Writing class is a painful act that zaps out pieces of your soul. Yet, I love doing it.
When I was in college, I ran to my classes. I read the readings, sometimes twice. I spent time on my writing assignments, loved the workshops and the discussions, and talked to my Professors after class about the craft. In graduate school, I enjoyed talking to my colleagues in the hall about their writing projects, about how we were really becoming writers, about how awesome our lives were. We were writers! We were living the dream!
It never occurred to me then that our Professors, these powerful and accomplished people that were doing everything I wanted to do, were exhausted. Constantly exhausted. Writing is a tiring act, one that makes you sleepy after about two paragraphs. When you were young, it didn’t affect you because you were young. Nothing affected you then. A decade, though, and writing that chapter of that novel you’ve been working on seems like a Herculean feat.
On top of that, teaching is exhausting. You are reading stories for discussions. You are writing lesson plans. You are reading students’ work. You are reading emails and going to meetings and running meetings and reading that random book someone said you have to read and you’re reading that student’s story that you promised you’d read for them even though they weren’t your student anymore. You’re also a person and you might have dates or you might be married with children and then, the breaking point: You have to make a decision about what you’re going to wear for the day and you silently cry in the shower, the water running over your body, hiding the sound of the tears falling out your eyes.
The Creative Writing students don’t want some of your attention. They want all of it. They also want the attention that you didn’t think you had hidden in your foot somewhere. They want our knowledge and our experiences while, at the same time, they don’t absolutely believe that our knowledge and our experiences are valid. They have to question it. It is in their blood to do this. There is no place on campus more contentious and beautifully chaotic than the Creative Writing classroom. “But why do we have to use quotation marks? Why does the main character always have to have a conflict? Why can’t I kill the main character off at the end? Why can’t I have it just be a dream?” They ask me classic questions because they’ve never asked them before and they’ve never heard the answer. I have both asked them and answered them. As some strange punishment, some type of irony that is both sweet and damning, I have to re-live my Creative Writing birth in the reverse, doomed to justify an age-old tradition to people who slightly refuse to believe it’s worth justifying.
The hardest aspect that makes teaching Creative Writing difficult, and the one that you can never fully ignore, is that you are teaching students to write while you don’t have the emotional space or the actual time to write yourself. Sure, you have the weekend, which is spent grading. When you do get a half a day, you recharge yourself by sleeping in or staring at a wall for a few hours. Teaching doesn’t allow much time to write, so there is some jealousy there between you and your students. They are doing what you want to do, and you would trade places with them if you could.
The cool thing is that the students are doing what they are supposed to do. They are pushing me, the Professor, to give them everything they want and need to become good, deep writers. If I fail them, if I told that their writing was good but it wasn’t, if I lied to them, I’d be sentencing them to a future of mediocre writing. There is nothing wrong with the students’ demands, the long nights, all the work involved. They deserve all of my attention and it is my duty to give it to them, even though I’m broken at the end of a class. It’s a welcome price to pay.
Just like some of the best novels and stories that have ever been written, the Creative Writing Professor is difficult to understand with a likability level that is objective and subjective. They are contradictions that drink too much coffee, over-analyze themselves and spend an uncomfortable amount of time trying to justify their decisions while avoiding decision-making. But we get the pleasure of teaching our craft, our passion, to people who want to learn it. So, yes, I’ll give my nights to them and I’ll read whatever they’ll give me and I’ll teach the wonderful art of writing for as long as I’m allowed to.