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Writing & Teaching and the Potential Impact on American Literature

November 5, 2008

The problem with me as a blogger: I’m generally behind the times.

Mary Ruffin Hanbury, a good friend from Raleigh, just mailed me (snail mail, incidentally) the Sept. 21st issue of the New York Times Magazine, which included the article “Those Who Write, Teach” by David Gessner, a creative writing professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Gessner’s article treads over some familiar ground about the writing-teaching conundrum but he still offers some interesting perspectives on the subject and — with wider impact on all of American letters — on what it means “for a country to have a tenured literature.” He writes:

Consider that our first great national literary flowering constituted, in part, a rebellion against what was thought of as academic, effete and indoors-y in English writing. It slightly complicates things that this flowering was greatly influenced by an Englishman, Wordsworth, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that in the 1850s Melville published “Moby-Dick” (1851); Thoreau, “Walden” (1854); and Whitman, “Leaves of Grass” (1855), while at the same time Emily Dickinson began to hit her private stride and Emerson was still lecturing. Thoreau claimed to have never wasted a walk on another, and it’s hard to imagine him taking a break from one of his marathon strolls to waste three hours teaching a graduate workshop. Equally difficult is picturing Melville asking a group of undergrads, “What’s at stake in this story?” or Dickinson clapping a colleague on the back after a faculty meeting.

Gessner’s not entirely negative about teaching, of course. He considers the positives — such as a grounding in the real world (to the extent that academia can be considered the real world) which keeps writers from getting lost in the insanity of solitude — as well as the negatives: how the many hours spent reading student essays (“apprentice writing,” he calls it) detracts from the amount of “time spent reading great literature and communing with writers of the past.” And he draws lessons from the example of Wallace Stegner that are well worth revisiting.

In short, a interesting essay — and worthwhile to those balancing teaching and writing. I found it especially enjoyable during a break from grading student revisions. 

Related: After I wrote this, I saw that Mark Athitakis had written a post about this same article at his blog, American Fiction Notes. He took a different tack on it than I did, also worth considering, and I’ve posted a comment there as well, elaborating more personally on some of the above.

Another good link: The Mason Fiction blog, run by students in George Mason’s MFA program, has posted “Six Rules for Writing,” written by science fiction writers Robert Heinlein and Robert Sawyer and aimed particularly at novel writing. I’m stuck in the tinkering stage of my own novel — violating Rule #3 and avoiding Rule #4. Someday soon — very soon — I’ll make that step.

— Art Taylor 

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