March 27, 2012
Few writing teachers/instructors/professors/facilitators—whatever the institutions we work for decide to call us—will admit to a strange resentment that descends as the term moves into its final weeks. By then—by now—our students are all doing well, they are productive, they are writing, and we are not necessarily keeping pace with them much less our own projects. What’s most challenging about adjunct work, in fact, is not the students—who I have already confessed here I come to adore—but the fact that we are so devoted that our own work suffers. There is a lot to read, there is a lot to prepare before each class. I also have tutorial students and private clients.
Much as I try to balance my days and weeks between the demands of writing and teaching, I often find it difficult. The frustrations set in, the strange resentment. My students are writing so much and I am not. So I begin to lurch with great anticipation to the end of term when I’ll be able to write full time again for a while. And not wanting to give my students any kind of short shrift, I don’t feel particularly comfortable with this resentment, though I know it’s very common among working writers who teach. I’ll probably talk to my students about it on Wednesday. If I am not doing my best, they’ll let me know.
We’ve been having an ongoing discussion about the writing life and how to find a way of earning a living while writing. If we have a demanding job that depletes our energy, it’s difficult to carve out time to write. And though teaching may be demanding it does not deplete my intellectual or emotional energy. In fact, writing and teaching are a good fit. During the teaching term, if I am not already working on a longer project, I keep my notebooks going and write in them every day, just short notations, observations, and ideas. And I find my students inspiring, too. The class is dynamic and keeps my mind clicking.
So, dear students, forgive me if I am a bit distracted now and again. It means I’ve done all the preparation for our workshop by Monday afternoon and have been able to immerse in my own writing for a day or so.
March 19, 2012
I’ve just had an email from a student to say that she is wrestling with her revision, the clock is ticking, no pen to paper yet (an anachronistic image?) and her submission is due on Wednesday. I’ve forgotten where she works—advertising I think—and know that she is not able, right now, to write full-time; she has a job, she is supporting herself which, in itself, is an achievement these days. Though the economy seems to be improving, many of my students in the past two years, have either been out of work, headed for grad school as an alternative to looking for employment, or been laid off in the middle of the term. How to keep writing under so much pressure? Clearly, it’s not easy.
The workshop is a peaceful oasis where ideas can surface unimpeded by the challenges of daily life. But despite the calm ambiance, many students arrive amped-up, eager to get as much out of the class as possible, or unable to shake off the demands of their strenuous day. One is a doctor, another a lawyer, another in IT, one is a widow, another about to get married. They all come to my class for the same reason: They have something to say and are burning to say it. My job is to help them get there.
I do my best with the tools and experience I’ve accumulated after many years of teaching and writing. Most of the time, my students leave the workshop gratified that they can envision a writing life, but I can’t do much about what happens outside the classroom except to say: Take it easy. Go for a walk. Bring your notebook with you. Sit under a tree and write, or don’t write. Just daydream, meditate, leave your smart phone at home, don’t cram your days with appointments. Most things can wait. Even a submission to the workshop can wait. Watch the birds and the sunset. Feel the wind. Get away from your obligations. Get inside yourself. Writing is a solitary, quiet place.
March 13, 2012
Mid-day and it was so warm outside it felt like summer. I broke from the computer and went for a walk into Central Park with my walking sticks. I passed the community garden on my street, still fallow from the non-winter we have had, much less a non-spring, then into the upper reaches of the park where I have worked in years past on Saturday mornings with the Central Park Conservancy. The terrain was familiar: I had cleared out debris, hacked and chopped bushes, made piles for mulching, raked and planted. Down by the pond a few geese and ducks were enjoying the free flowing water. The air was clear, a cloudless sky. Where do the clouds go, I thought to myself. And then kept on walking. A group of small children were standing on the eastern edge of the pond with three adults and I could hear their chattering as I approached. I stopped to listen to them and to talk to them. Their guardians stood watching over them warily but did not ask me to mind my own business. And so the questions and stories began: Why did I need sticks to walk? Couldn’t I walk on my own? Where are the swans? Are those geese birds the swans? Are the geese afraid of the dark? After all, they have to stay in the park at night, and so on.
As most children, this bunch of 4 and 5-year-olds from a local Montessori school were bursting with language, inventive, ebullient, curious, and adorable without affectation. I could have stayed talking with them all day but they had to go back to school and I had to get back to work in my atelier. Fortunately, it is high up and flooded with light. I can see the cloudless sky, feel the wind off the river, descend to earth to teach or run errands or buy food or socialize. But how to be as free and fresh in my observations as these children? Is it possible?
I think every artist and writer who does not work solely with an eye and ear to the marketplace attempts to remain child-like in their enthusiasms and point of view. Although some may be naturally blessed with a freedom from constraint, most of us are not, or perhaps we are some of the time. Much has to be unlearned before this can happen. And it takes courage.
Once a student admitted to me that he went to the bar before writing or kept a glass of scotch on his desk. And though it is true that alcohol and drugs have, historically, been lubricants for writers, they have also caused many problems—illness and early death, truncated careers. Fitzgerald wrote one masterpiece—“The Great Gatsby”—and he eventually got sober, but it was too late. And his wife, Zelda, authored one formidable book, “Save Me The Waltz,” before she was institutionalized with, more than likely, an alcohol-induced insanity.
Better to find ways to tolerate the vulnerability and pain that surfaces as we work without pharmaceutical or other enhancements. Or, simply, to allow ourselves to be children again.