Lance Olsen tells the story of a creative writing professor who walked.
Learning to Wish for More
Learning to Wish for More
I want to tell you a story.
It’s a true story.
(I use the terms “true” & “story” loosely, of course.)
Or, better, I want a true story to tell me.
(I use the term “I” etc., etc.)
In any case, the thing “I” want to “tell” “you,” the “thing” that “wants” to “tell” “me,” goes something like this: after teaching in academia in one guise or another since 1979, I left the figurative building on 2 April, 2001.
On the day, I like to emphasize, following April Fool’s Day.
That is, I resigned my professorship in the English Department at the University of Idaho & walked.
Kind of like those people, I like to imagine, in that R.E.M. “Everybody Hurts” video set in a traffic jam somewhere around Atlanta.
A few of my main reasons for doing so harmonize well with what Amato & Fleisher have to say in their sharp, angry, provocative, & often conflicted critifiction, & may therefore be instructive in what I hope will be the important post-discursive discourse it generates.
First, over the past decade, my vision of academia in general & the notion of what constitutes a creative writing program in particular bifurcated from what I saw happening at the University of Idaho.
(I should hasten to italicize that what’s happening at U.I. is hardly some sort of pedagogico-institutional aberration; it’s simply & sadly indicative of what’s happening at colleges & universities – especially, but not exclusively, public colleges & universities – across the country.)
I found it increasingly difficult to abide by the so-called “entrepreneurial spirit” (that bizarre, bizarre oxymoron) which had arisen there. Since our latest President took office a few years ago, a greater & greater emphasis had fallen on the grisly Bottom Line. Consequently, classrooms had to run at capacity & over capacity, like efficient Ford assembly lines, for courses to make (our introductory creative-writing courses ran at twenty-five to thirty, about twice the number of students that makes such courses comfortable, not to mention workable & educational); specialty courses in general began to tumble by the wayside as the English department began to envision itself and be envisioned by Those On The Hill primarily as a service department; all departments were pressed to generate a portion of their own income (easy enough for business, computer science, & forestry, though distinctly less so for art, music, & English); adjuncts were hired & then worked like hyperactive automata because they were cheaper & frequently more desperate for jobs than professors; our M.F.A. program was established in the mid-nineties with myriad promises from the Dean of various monies forthcoming, not a cent of which actually materialized; students were no longer considered students but, as our President let slip in a memo last fall, “cash cows” – and the “cash cows,” of course, like all customers, were always right.
Somehow emblematic of the whole in my mind was the fact that my dingy office computer was ten years old and crashed every time I tried to open Netscape – although I was trying to teach graduate courses that involved good portions of hypermedia, web-based discussion groups, & web-based research.
I could go on and on – on & on & on – but you get the picture.
Such circumstances had begun to transform the rich historical paradigm of what progressive academic life could & should be (at least for me) into the intellectual & pedagogical equivalent of a McDonald’s franchise.
We had begun becoming a little poorer every day in all the ways that really mattered.
Second, I was increasingly less sanguine about our creative writing program’s aspiration to look a lot like most of the other three hundred & fifty or so run-of-the-mill creative writing programs in North America (with, speaking of Ford assembly lines, their conventional focus on conventional workshop models & conventional approaches to writing conventional psychological realism frequented by conventional characters in conventional situations) rather than striving to make itself unique, invigorating, & an extraordinary draw in its own right. Our writing program, in other words, tended to situate itself by looking in the rearview mirror in order to parrot what had already been thought & done (usually on the once-laudable but now increasingly outdated Iowa archetype – although sometimes, weirdly & parochially, on the strikingly regionalist Montana one) rather than by looking through the windshield in order to innovate &anticipate what it could & should become.
And so, as I say, despite some wonderful years in the classroom, I left the building.
What you are reading is my note left on the kitchen table.
I hope to continue teaching fiction writing here & there, now & then, on quite probably fairly limited maneuvers, not to mention continue thinking about where fiction-writing pedagogy is & where it might go & should go & why, but it’s honestly pretty arduous for me to imagine myself fully engaging with what’s become of the academic system again.
Which, in an admittedly circuitous way, perhaps helps contextualize a few points I’d like to make & questions I’d like to raise here.
Follow what you read in most fiction-writing textbooks in most classrooms, & you’ll compose a story that could have been composed in 1837. But how can we begin to think of narrativity differently? How can we begin to compose within a new millennium & within an always-already new (new & old, simultaneously) sociohistorical context?
Creative writing, it seems to me, & therefore by implication the geography of the creative-writing classroom, needs to be an increasingly polyvocal space of as if.
A possibility space, that is.
An imaginative district that helps us think about & experience what it means to be us, here, writing at this point and place.
Behind most of what I did in & thought about the classroom, it occurs to me even as I write this, drift two key passages from Roland Barthes’ essay, “Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers,” which I came across almost twenty years ago in graduate school & which has in retrospect influenced me profoundly.
In the pedagogical zone, Barthes writes,
we need to substitute for the magisterial space of the past – which was fundamentally a religious space (the word delivered by the master from the pulpit above with the audience below, the flock, the sheep, the herd) – a less upright, less Euclidean space where no one, neither teacher nor students, would ever be in his final place.
In short, within the very limits of the teaching space as given, the need is to work at patiently tracing out a pure form, that of a floating (the very form of the signifier); a floating which would not destroy anything but would be content simply to disorientate the Law. The necessities of promotion, professional obligations (which nothing then prevents from being scrupulously fulfilled), imperatives of knowledge, prestige of method, ideological criticism – everything there is, but floating.
[A PERHAPS MISPLACED FIRST INTERMISSION: In part, my goal in quoting these two passages is to remind us how our discussion of these matters has its launch site nearly forty years ago, in the Sixties, most likely in the radical politics born around May, 1968, in the French imagination. It is, in other words, hardly “new.” And hence it is doubly difficult to understand why those teaching in most creative writing programs are unaware of it.]
A pure form of floating…
I love that phrase’s import of utopian impossibility. I love how Barthes invites us all to think of his phrase as if it weren’t utopian. I love how that phrase urges us all, not to discover how little we need each day in order to eke by, but to discover how to wish for more.
Over & over again.
What are the pragmatics of that wishing?
If any of us really knew the answer, needless to say, these electronic page-oids would be filled with nothing but sagacious silence.
Instead, however, they are filled with engaged &engaging discussion.
Everything, that is, is as it should be.
And so, to help perhaps continue that discussion, I’d like to conclude as close to inconclusiveness as I am able by listing a series of unnumbered nodular assertions, suggestions, & questions…
Literary history is not solely a series of ruptures, but also a complex network of continuities, re-presentations, re-evaluations, re-collections, an ongoing circus of minds in motion. Fiction &poetry, whether we in creative-writing classrooms tend to acknowledge this or not, are never merely extensions of the romantic myth of monologic & intuitive & solitary genius, but rather intricate, nuanced, highly reflexive conversations that take place across space & time & social register. Creation is an always-already collaborative enterprise.
Thus we need to teach our students and remind ourselves to read, on a daily basis, beyond last week’s The New Yorker & The New York Times Book Review & a handful of institutionally sanctioned “literary” journals. We need to learn, that is, to read across history & across genres & across cultures & across genders & across races & across aesthetic modes & across art forms &across approaches to knowledge.
Which is to say that we need to theorize the reading-writing process in the classroom & out of it. We need to think & read about reading-writing, the nature of the experience, the implications of it, the assumptions of its myriad customs, &, given that both our classrooms & our selves are varieties of texts, we need to think & read about reading-writing them. To do so, it almost (but apparently not quite) goes without saying, we need to theorize ourselves & our pedagogical spaces, even as we inhabit them.
Why? Because I take it as an obvious fact about our world that it is better to live an examined life than to live an unexamined one.
Part of that theorization is also comprised of thinking about thinking about the amped-up commodification of the arts at the turn of the millennium: every writing student should become acquainted with the social & economic forces that have brought about said commodification, the mechanisms by which it functions, how contemporary writers populate it (willingly or unwilling, consciously or unconsciously), & how (if at all) it can be subverted, challenged, or perhaps at least renegotiated by said students (&their teachers).
Related to this: every writing student should be asked to contemplate how small presses & the proliferation of electronic media might be made to work against the commodification of the arts. What are their histories, their economies, their conceivable futures? How might we as writers engage with them?
And, related to this: what is the role of community, not only within the institutional creative-writing classroom (though certainly there), but also within the creative-writing pluriverse at large – in the publishing arena, obviously, but also among extra-academic writers who continually run the risk of feeling marginalized &isolated? How, in other words, can we begin to break down the romantic myth of the Artist?
What are the limit-situations of creative-writing programs themselves? What, in other words, can’t they think beyond? Do they possess final constraints based on institutional proscriptions & restrictions, for instance?
Or, perhaps, based on the make-up of the cast of the student body?
(We would be well served, I suspect, by keeping in mind that a creative-writing student isn’t a creative writing student isn’t a creative writing student. Those, for instance, who find themselves in creative-writing classrooms in commuter-based community colleges tend to bring with them very different matrixes of experiences & cultural knowledge than students who find themselves in creative-writing classrooms in state universities; in state universities than those who find themselves in creative-writing classrooms at private colleges; in rural institutions than those who find themselves in creative-writing classrooms at urban ones; etc. etc. Why, I mean to ask, would we imagine that each of these classrooms might benefit from being [un][re]structured the same way?)
What sorts of exercises can we develop in the classroom (based, yes, to be sure, around the notion of process rather than product, experiment rather than certainty & conclusion, as if rather than is) to help us think beyond conventional notions of characterization, gender, plot, social context, setting, race, time, selfhood, point of view, medium, genre, etc.–even what we mean when we say “creative writing”?
While at the same moment taking each work presented in that classroom good-spiritedly on its own terms, raising those terms to the surface for discussion, wondering communally how to strengthen the presentation of those terms in a manner that jibes with the author’s vision &, one would hope, her or his re-vision?
[A PERHAPS MISPLACED SECOND INTERMISSION: I think that I think that I disagree strongly with Amato & Fleisher, by the way, about the use of peer reviews. My own experience with them over the past decade-and-then-some in the creative-writing classroom has shown that they soon give rise to a situation in which the bland leads the blind – where those, in other words, who have very little reading & thinking & writing experience (who, for instance, continually equate Stephen King & John Grisham with Good – i.e., Successful; i.e., Profitable – Writing) tell those with equally little reading & thinking & writing experience what they should believe & how they should compose. Granted: my use of peer reviews with more sophisticated readers & thinkers & writers – say, with students in graduate workshops – has yielded some slightly more positive results. Still, in my mind using them skirts the umber borders of bad faith. A sharper, more focused & better-informed discussion led – not, note, dominated – by someone with decades more experience in reading &thinking & writing seems like the no-brainer option. That isn’t to say peer reviews might not have their place, but for me that place is minimal.]
[A PERHAPS MISPLACED THIRD INTERMISSION: At the same time, I might suggest we contemplate abandoning the notion of grades in the creative-writing classroom altogether, or at least make all creative-writing courses Pass/Fail – Failure reserved for those who don’t meet attendance & other bureaucratic requirements established at the course’s start. This would reduce the need on the students’ parts to please the teacher for the good grade, and, much more important (&, perhaps, quite unlike other intellectual environments], create a space in which to experiment freely, founder, bomb, & play it again – a space in which to take chances without fear of floppage.
During my last years at the University of Idaho, I taught (amid, I’m afraid, some arched single eyebrows & not-so-veiled references to “rampaging postmodernism” on the part of some of my colleagues) a graduate workshop called Narratological Amphibiousness. There I offered an experimental space to explore what might occur, on the one hand, at the nexus of various kinds of written texts (theory, science fiction, mystery, drama, romance, slipstream, magical realism, transgressive, etc.) &, on the other, at the nexus of various kinds of written texts & other creative modes (film, hypermedia, music, painting, sculpture, assemblage, collage, dance, performance, etc.). The idea was to create a possibility space where students could simply try things they never tried before, & the results were almost uniformly exhilarating for us all, & sometimes downright astounding. Students often headed off in directions they never might have headed off in otherwise.
I taught Narratological Amphibiousness because I imagine & hope it’s a sign of what’s to come within the next decade or so, funding willing: a transformation of creative-writing programs into something other than creative-writing programs – centers of narrativity, that is, where various arts will be fused & be confused in increasing & increasingly illuminating ways.
That’s, of course, when things will start getting really interesting – right up there at the permeable membrane on the other side of which exists Virtual Reality…
But perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves…
Everything, that is, is as it should be.
Assuming, of course, that creative-writing programs don’t want to become the pet rocks of the twenty-first century…
Assuming, of course, that we can teach our students &ourselves how to begin to wish for more…