This Modern Writer: Those Who Can’t, Those Who Won’t, & Those Who Shouldn’t: Does Writing Matter? by Simone Rosen[Roxane Gay / September 6th, 2011 / This Modern Writer ]
I will demonstrate to my students both the ease and practical necessity of prewriting. We pro/con clusters, outlines, brainstorms. Improvising, I say, â€œAlright, class, letâ€™s come up with 4 or 5 categories to prewrite about. Anything off the top of your head.â€
â€œSeeehhhhx,â€ heaves Chandra.
SEX, I write on the whiteboard amid the stupid laughter overtaking the stupid room.
This is what happens when one regularly says things like, â€œI donâ€™t care what you write about; I care how you write it.â€ Turns out I care. Subjects I donâ€™t want to read about include but are not limited to: sex, (your) babies, (your) poetry, significant others, department stores, Starbucks, (your) rap lyrics, why guns are important, specific kinds of knives, (sometimes) cemeteries, what itâ€™s like to get arrested.
But I canâ€™t really complain. As far as the perks of teaching are concerned, a good story is like a union bargaining chip. I mean, look, Iâ€™d prefer health benefitsâ€¦but nobody ever asked me. â€œSex,â€ she says, trying to undermine my mental health â€“ an irony I do not appreciate. Were I back in undergrad, Iâ€™d get philosophical here, desperate perhaps enough to link biological imperatives and writing. There are some people who say they must write. Must, the way we all excrete. The way some of us procreate. Writing, of course, is a kind of procreation. Wait, where are you going? Let me explain.
Which reminds me: Chandra has at least one baby. Her baby daddy (a word I feel totally comfortable saying) sent a text message in class, which, as my short-sighted policy dictated, I was then obliged to read. I need something to hold onto, it read, and the strangest thing is that I would never, in any other context, find that perverse. We all need something to hold onto, right? So thatâ€™s like a bad Counting Crows lyric. But that guy meant some part of her impossible anatomy. One hopes. From this point on, I change my syllabiâ€™s NO TEXTING/CELL PHONE USE policy to one that punishes the student and not me.
Theyâ€™ll tell you not to bother, but I had hopes for Chandra. She seemed to enjoy and sort of engulf everything, even the class. But she and her twin sister are long gone, having dropped 2 weeks in. They did turn in their first papers, though, which is more than I can say for some of the kids whoâ€™ve still stuck around. In her first paper, Chandra, channeling Whitman, writes that she â€œlikes to have sex and drink and party but so what [sheâ€™s] still a god fearing woman.â€
Something to Hold onto
Composition 101 and 102 are required classes, which secures my position as sad adjunct (latest portmanteau: sadjunct) in various colleges around the city. Itâ€™s not, from what I understand, that colleges like the ones at which I teach came together in an â€œAha!â€ moment and decided writing somehow matters; itâ€™s that these classes are required by the state in order that schools â€“ especially the technical, culinary, art, or other specialized types â€“ receive accreditation. Itâ€™s thus the closest thing writers with advanced degrees have to security, despite that adjunct faculty is generally expendable, on the university backburner. And yet as far as folkloric chatter around the adjunct office is concerned, in times like these we must thank the gods for granting us work. Fine, fine. Iâ€™m not cut out for agrarian work, I guess. But in so many ways our hypothetical thankfulness conceals the notion that we should not consider the kind of work weâ€™re doing and whether it matters in the first place.
Take note that few of the students in community college care to be in community college in the first place. I canâ€™t say I blame them. They want to hurry along the process in order to find a better job to support their families or to move on to a better school. Some resent this thing most people â€“ at least American people â€“ have come to take for granted: the need for or at least expectation of a college degree. Part of my job, then, is to convince people plagued by serious worry â€“ court worry, gang worry, loss, death, money â€“ that writing will somehow make a difference in their lives and that itâ€™s integral to their pseudo-collegiate experience. The composition teacher is equal parts composition teacher and proselytizer.
But when I read a messy personal essay about a studentâ€™s best friend who was raped and murdered by her boyfriend, what am I supposed to do? Tell him he spends too much time â€œtelling but not showingâ€? Discuss the ways he could better impact the reader, make vivid, even incarnadine, the blood? Mention the great importance of thesis statements? Tout spell-check? Can I even give this incoherent paper the grade it deserves? Answer me: do I tell him that writing matters?
The fundamental problem, it seems, is the chasm between us â€“ something of another order than mere literacy. I love Wordsworth and Tennyson and Polish poetry; they canâ€™t send an email without arbitrary caps. Thatâ€™s not the problem. Iâ€™ve been to private school, believe I should have a PhD in hand, resent Ivy League schools for rejecting me, have abstract anxieties, wish my father would pay me more attention. They have children, lose their jobs, get arrested, talk about their court continuances, donâ€™t have money, work at Red Lobster full-time, have to support their families, have seen people die, smoke, dabble in drugs if they can afford to, havenâ€™t traveled out of state.
It would be reductive to call this an issue of class, but it would by untruthful to deny that privilege plays something of a role in the differences between my students and me. I love writing with such an intensity that I must compartmentalize the Writing I Love from the Writing I Teach, but my love of writing is and isnâ€™t a product of privilege. On the one hand, I come from a family that made sure I was not only comfortable but also pressured into academic success. On the other hand, my grandfather never graduated from 8th grade, worked as a janitor, and read widely from philosophical texts. This isnâ€™t some Good Will Hunting hack job. This is just to say love of literature can transcend class, though itâ€™s not an easy task to ask a community of people who have known real pain and have real pragmatic concerns to give a shit about, say, Wordsworth.
The starkest reality Iâ€™ve understood is that survival trumps literacy and it doesnâ€™t always â€“ metaphorically (â€œI canâ€™t live without writing!) or otherwise (â€œI canâ€™t find a job without writing!â€) â€“ require it. The question, â€œWhy does writing matter?â€ is logically fallacious, as some of my 102 students could tell you. It assumes a premise that isnâ€™t necessarily true. Sometimes writing doesnâ€™t matter.
The End-Times: A Test of Logical Fallacies
Some of my students write that they believe the world is going to end in 2012. In which case I wonder why theyâ€™re even in class.
The Court Jester
In a small section of a small room at the Art Institute of Chicago dwell paintings and sculptures to do with harlequins. There is Picassoâ€™s Jester, a bust with hollowed eyes donning a foolâ€™s cap. There are also 6 or 7 paintings by Manet, Degas, and Cezanne, the latter for whom the exhibit is named. I purchased a membership in order to come to this room and stand in good company.
â€œSo, wait, are you really a stand-up comedian?â€ a student asks.
â€œI thought you said you were a stand-up comedian.â€
â€œNo, I said sometimes I feel like one.â€
â€œOh, well you should totally consider it. Do you like Seinfeld?â€
Studies, fully funded ones, have emerged trying to find which pedagogical methods are most â€œeffectiveâ€ for a generation raised on Internet and reality television. These studies trade on euphemisms rationalizing poor attention spans, making much of key words like â€œNew Media,â€ â€œSmart Boards,â€ â€œDigitizationâ€ that ultimately carve the following question: What can we do to keep them interested? A proselytizerâ€™s work is never over.
Part of my work seems like a motherâ€™s â€“ ingraining in other people motivation that isnâ€™t intrinsic to them. But unlike my mother, I canâ€™t just yell in a threateningly Israeli accent. That would take some effort to cultivate. And then Iâ€™d rather be funny or creative than, er, â€œmaternal.â€
I have stopped saying that these students need to be self-motivated. Those in the old world adjunct office probably still think it, when theyâ€™re not ranting about multiplication tables and imposing pictures of their thematically-named cats (Ezekiel! Isaiah!) on the staff. I used to be part of this conservative guard (though not as sad, for fuckâ€™s sake) â€“ muttering about indifference and respect and commas and due dates. Now I rather embrace my clowny part by telling students they are contributing to my suicidal inclinations when they type â€œlolâ€ in their papers â€“ especially when the shitâ€™s not actually funny.
Iâ€™m willing to play the clown because I like to make my students laugh, and I like to make them care. It isnâ€™t dumbing down the content of the class, for instance, to teach the concept of a thesis statement by having students come up with one about Jersey Shore. Of course there are students, a great contingent even, whom Iâ€™ll never reach, and I donâ€™t beat myself up for it on a good day. Iâ€™ve had students turn around their writing and turn to me, even if it had little to do with me, in gratitude, for caring or being funny or who knows. Iâ€™ve also had students tell me where I could put my writing. In so many ways is their callousness a defense mechanism â€“ and though I donâ€™t understand the worlds with which they are familiar, I do, my sense of humor tells me, understand defense mechanisms.
Those Who Canâ€™t
Iâ€™m becoming an adult now. 26. â€œIn olden times,â€ as my students contrive, Iâ€™d be dead or at least look it. My peers are now waiting to hear at which hospitals theyâ€™ve matched their residencies. My childhood friends are engaged to be married or engaged by their childrenâ€™s screams. My mom keeps talking about law school and to varying degrees, my declining fertility. I call to congratulate someone â€“
okay, a childhood nemesis â€“ on her forthcoming nuptials. We, mostly I, end up talking for 2 hours â€“ I feel myself losing composure, spinning from something Iâ€™d carefully constructed about this-moment-as-transition. Iâ€™d been rejected from 15 graduate schools over the past 3 weeks.
â€œWhy donâ€™t you teach high school?â€ she asks, out for blood.
â€œBecause then Iâ€™ve got to be more discrete about fucking my students.â€
A Short Respite
I taught a Western Civilizations class last semester, which was a nice break from nouns and thesis statements and fetal crying. If youâ€™re part of my coterie of shitty, PhD-student friends, youâ€™ll ask if Iâ€™m qualified. No, definitely not qualified. Neither are they qualified, however, to be around humans without making everyone homicidal.
We talk about Danteâ€™s lyric poetry. They can relate. I ask them what songs this reminds them of. Then while they think about it, I play a Bruno Mars track.
The above transpired after the head of the department said I was approaching the course in a manner too scholastic. Iâ€™m talking to students from the surrounding areas of Whiting, Indiana. Iâ€™m talking to students who donâ€™t know what B.C. stands for even after Iâ€™ve explained it. Iâ€™m talking to students who like to make me feel uncomfortable by calling me their n-words.
We talk about Beethoven and Kanye.
MFA programs prepare you for nothing. Not a thing. Youâ€™d think they would at least inure a person to the unlikability of other writers, but that will never flag.
I got to observe so many would-be memoirists say nothing with style. Taking an obsession and burnishing it like a gemstone, pretending it isnâ€™t zirconia. One had a former starlet for a mother. Another had a sexual fetish previously unaccounted for. A third wanted to watch her body devolve, or so she said as an excuse, perhaps, for self-portraiture. I keenly remember being around a different kind of people, this artist contingent.
And then I began teaching those who have so much to say but neither the polish nor the interest in saying it. Is it my job to help them â€œfindâ€ their â€œvoicesâ€? To help them find that they want to find their voices?
Something to Let Go of
All along, Iâ€™ve felt like this job was my pit stop on the way to grander academic or literary success, and thatâ€™s the unfair truth. Iâ€™m using this experience as a source of income, a flexible schedule, and a job because I simply couldnâ€™t do better during a recession. Iâ€™m using this experience. But Iâ€™m being used too, donâ€™t you worry. Iâ€™ve literally been told that I, not even my position, am â€œdisposable.â€ It seems a degree worse than â€œdispensible.â€ Nevertheless, Iâ€™m looking to get out, talking of traveling for a year until Iâ€™m admitted to a PhD program. All this time Iâ€™ve never â€œlived in the moment,â€ never been content, never felt good about my privileged circumstances for more than a few days at a time and then back to blankness, clinical anxiety, unclinical depression, ambition, what I thought was once a sure thing â€“ my future success. When I make suicide jokes about my studentâ€™s papers on Sears or hunting, thereâ€™s more than a grain of truth. I donâ€™t know what Iâ€™ll do if this is the rest of my life. When a colleague tells me Iâ€™ll â€œfind my wayâ€ if I donâ€™t get into graduate school again, I say there is no other way. What am I going to do, write up hair salons for Groupon, make jokes about albino squirrels?
And this is one of the greater discrepancies between us beyond the painful have/have-not divide. My students â€œknow,â€ in a sense, pain â€“ much greater than a rejection letter from Johns Hopkins, but they donâ€™t analyze it. At least not in the pained way I worry about the tone of a routine email from my department chair. My students experience things and donâ€™t worry over them and donâ€™t write about them and donâ€™t think for too long about them because whatâ€™s the point. Theyâ€™re, for better or worse, happy, as though it were a state of being and not a fleeting circumstance. Theyâ€™re generally upbeat. Theyâ€™ve never been to Europe, never read a poem, never been given much of anything, but they write that itâ€™s okay by them. Some of them are stupid and happy. Some are pretty and happy. Some are religious and happy. Married and happy. A few are rich and of course dumb but happy. Work at a gas station and happy. Fundamentally smart and happy. Hard working but incapable and happy. Hard working and capable and just there for some dire reason but happy. And I most certainly am not.
And I think with what joys that wretch Gustave Flaubert attended to his craft, searching for the perfect sentence, that unrequited love. I sit here and write, I fall in love with a book, I do all of these things the way a zealot prays. Donâ€™t we both follow different iterations of the heavenly pursuit, that illusion? In what Iâ€™m sure is a rather poor translation of Mme. Bovary, Flaubert writes, â€œâ€¦human speech is like a cracked tin kettle on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars.â€
For all of my snobbism and delusions of grandeur, itâ€™s my faith shaken. My students have unwavering faith in somethingâ€¦different things. At least thatâ€™s what it looks like from my vantage, my crazed and high-strung perch. For me, writing is the belief in illusion, an illusion made true, as others, only by belief. How can I convince people with too much truth in their lives in the first place to believe in an illusion?
Simone Rosen holds an MFA in poetry and lives in Chicago.