More to the point, should writers teach so-called “writing-intensive” courses, such as composition and literature?
When I was an undergraduate, lo these many years ago, a favorite English professor remarked that teaching ruins you as a writer. He was, I’m sure, in one of those funks that reading papers or sitting through faculty meetings can bring on. But since I wanted nothing more, in those days, but to grow up to be a Writer with a Capital W, his remark struck me. And it has stayed with me all these decades.
Could he have been right?
Certainly, if you want to write well, immersing yourself in bad writing is counterproductive. A great writer is not built by swimming in bad writing: one needs constant exposure to the best writing in one’s chosen language, preferably the kind of writing one would like to emulate.
Reading bad writing corrupts your own writing. No matter how much you try to resist its influence, it insinuates itself into the crannies of your mind. And you find yourself emitting clichés, echoing group-think, constructing weak sentences and weak paragraphs and ultimately entire weak documents.
Last night I finished grading the latest set of student papers at 10:30. By then my brain had gone numb.
Few people write well. This includes some very bright people — one need not be a dunderhead to be a terrible writer. When your job is to help anywhere from 30 to 200 people a semester learn to write at something resembling a competent level, you’re set up for frustration and for brain-melt. Yesterday I spent hours trying to explain basic sentence structure to people who have a tin ear for language; trying to correct grade-school grammar, sentence, and punctuation errors; trying to explain what a paragraph is and how to build one; tracking down plagiarism; reminding would-be writers of what the assignment actually was (as opposed to what they turned in); and on and on and on…into the evening.
My students have passed a minimum of thirteen years in K-12 schools. Many have more education than that — some are upper-division college students or even college graduates.
Any such activity hugely wastes your time. Five or six hours of grading time (or even five or six minutes of it, for heaven’s sake!) displaces time that you could use for writing, or for reading high-quality models who might imbue your writing with good technique. Instead, you’re imbued with the worst of all possible technique.
I haven’t read a real piece of literature in months! Not that I wouldn’t like to: there’s simply no time for it. In any given day I’m lucky to get through the key parts of the newspaper, much less sit down and read a book. When I’m not teaching, I’m editing other people’s copy, which, while better than student emissions, remains to prove itself as an avatar of the Western World’s great writing. The rest of my time is spent marketing work I’ve managed to put in front of readers and attending to daily survival chores.
So…if you want to be a Great Writer, should you avoid teaching?
To say so raises a much more obvious question: how do you propose to put food on the table?
Personally, I’m too old to wait tables or tend bar — both useful ways to meet and study people for writerly purposes, by the way. Greeting customers at the local Walmart doesn’t appeal. Driving a forklift could be good, I suppose…
People who can write can often get decently paid work in jobs that use their skills. One of the best fiction writers I’ve met made her living as a technical writer, a decently paid occupation. It’s probably as mind-numbing as teaching, but if the subject matter is boring, at least the copy is not grammatically and structurally corrupt.
Public relations is a possibility. I find that line of work corrupting in itself, personally. I quit doing it because I found some things are not worth any amount of money. And here you do run up against people who can’t write a coherent sentence and can’t grasp the most basic principles of clear communication — but instead of being your students, they’re your bosses.
There’s a lot to be said for the trades. They can’t be offshored, pay in some trades exceeds minimum wage (something that can not be said for adjunct teaching), and you meet an endless array of characters.
Where do you go to sign up for fork-lift school?