Sometimes, I imagine the classes I would teach if I were an English professor, as I once thought I might be.
I don’t have the patience it takes to be a good teacher. And I’d have to screen for mean people and pretentious douchebags at the door and let only fun nerds into my classroom, because I have a low asshole tolerance. So it probably never would have worked out. But I think about it.
If I do wake up one day in a parallel universe where someone has granted me a professorship despite my lack of proper experience, my classes might include “Love, Lies, and Other SciFi Twists: Boarding School Novels” (syllabus: Prep, Gentlemen and Players, and Never Let Me Go) and “Funny, Funnier, Funniest” (various humor essays, culminating with David Sedaris). And we’ll have a writing course called, “Bridging the Gap: Who Are You Writing For?”
(Someone in the class will probably point out that it should be “For Whom Are You Writing?” and I will cite them for cramping my style and remind them that they barely passed that test at the door and they might ought to zip it.)
Luckily, I won’t have to do much work to teach this class. I’ll just pass out two articles, which the smart kids will discuss while I sit back and work on my cuticles.
First, this old interview with Ted Hughes from the Paris Review. He talks about how many writers start out, writing for their first reader, a teacher:
“I first started writing those comic verses when I was eleven, when I went to grammar school. I realized that certain things I wrote amused my teacher and my classmates. I began to regard myself as a writer, writing as my specialty.”
And later: “I started showing them to my English teacher… I was sensitive, of course, to any bit of recognition of anything in my writing. I remember her—probably groping to say something encouraging—pointing to one phrase saying, This is really . . . interesting. Then she said, It’s real poetry… I immediately pricked up my ears. That moment still seems the crucial one. Suddenly I became interested in producing more of that kind of thing. Her words somehow directed me to the main pleasure in my own life, the kind of experience I lived for.”
(High-fives to all the great teachers out there. You should be paid a lot more.)
Later, Hughes discusses the need to write not just for one specific reader, but for a wider audience, to have one’s writing witnessed on a larger scale:
“Maybe it’s the same with any writing that has real poetic life. Maybe all poetry, insofar as it moves us and connects with us, is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of… We think we’re writing something to amuse, but we’re actually saying something we desperately need to share.
…like those Native American groups who periodically told everything that was wrong and painful in their lives in the presence of the whole tribe. It was no good doing it in secret; it had to be done in front of everybody else. Maybe that’s why poets go to such lengths to get their poems published. It’s no good whispering them to a priest or a confessional. And it’s not for fame, because they go on doing it after they’ve learned what fame amounts to. No, until the revelation’s actually published, the poet feels no release.”
(Well said, Ted. High-five in memory of your wisdom.)
And then comes that moment when a writer first encounters critics and reviews — and realizes that those people witnessing what he writes are going to talk about it:
“I think it’s the shock of every writer’s life when their first book is published. The shock of their lives. One has somehow to adjust from being anonymous, a figure in ambush, working from concealment, to being and working in full public view. It had an enormous effect on me. My impression was that I had suddenly walked into a wall of heavy hostile fire.”
Which brings us to reading #2 — “Thank You For Killing My Novel,” Patrick Somerville’s insightful and self-deprecatingly funny reaction to an unfavorable review in The New York Times of his new book, This Bright River.
Somerville describes writing as the start of a conversation — the writer talking to the reader and the reader talking back. He also calls bullshit on the idea of ignoring reviews.
“I read the reviews of my books and I am greatly affected by the reviews of my books. I can’t help it. They matter, both artistically and commercially. They scare me and I love them. How other people react is a part of storytelling. What reviewers say affects the book’s life. And because of this, the week before the reviews come, I am catatonic, greatly troubled by the storms of anticipation.”
(It takes balls to admit fretting over the reaction of others. High-five to that. I mean, not… I would never high-five someone’s balls. You know what I mean.)
And here’s his way of describing the space between the writer and the reader, the speaker and the listener, in storytelling:
“In the end nothing matters but the work. You can’t control how it’s taken, and the act of telling a story always involves a gap… Two humans face one another, words come out of one, words go into the other mind through the ears and eyes of the listener. It’s a story. It’s simple. The gap is the thing. Make sure you build the bridge.”
The gap is the thing.
(Mr. Somerville is a teacher, by the way. A real one.)
His next and last point makes me think of all the folks I know who are everyday writers and readers on a less grand scale — all of us who are one another’s audience. The people we interact with in writing, whom we don’t see everyday in real life but whose words we carry around with us and whose reactions matter to us just like a teacher’s reaction matters to a beginning writer:
“How many ghost relationships do you have? … People you’ve only met through email, or Facebook or Twitter? Authors you’ve read whom you may very well love, and I mean actually love, even though they’re dead? People who’ve commented on something you’ve done having never seen your face? People from afar who’ve changed your life?…Our lives are filled up with these people; they often play a role in our pivot points.”
Ghost friends. Isn’t that a great way to put it?
So anyway. To wrap up our imaginary class, students will then read a selection of works written at different points in writers’ careers to analyze how their writing changed as their audience grew, while I crank up the margarita machine and Channing Tatum comes in to do a shirtless guacamole-making demonstration. Because it’s my classroom, and that is how we learn.