David Gessner’s Love-Hate Relationship

David Gessner is a nature writer who pays the bills by teaching creative writing at the University of North Carolina—Wilmington. In today’s New York Times Magazine, he bites the hand that feeds. For all the virtues of teaching—a steady paycheck, smart colleagues—he’s bogged down by the duties assigned to a writer who’s supposed to be monkishly dedicated to fiction. And, now that creative writing departments have bloomed, he’s concerned that we’re building a nation of polite, academic writers:

I think it is legitimate to worry that writers pressed for time will produce work that is more hurried; that writers who hand in annual reports listing their number of publications might focus as much on quantity as quality; and that writers who depend on bosses for their employment might produce safer, less bold work. Another thing that is undeniably lost is time spent reading great literature and communing with writers of the past. While the effect of teaching on writing may be a matter of debate, its effect on reading is undeniable. That is because there are only so many hours in the day, and those hours are used up reading our students’ work, which is, by definition, apprentice writing. Energy is finite while college students seemingly are not, and after teaching for a while you begin to feel as if you are in a “Star Trek” episode, lost on a strange planet made up of a thousand pods of need, all of them beaming out at you, sucking your energy, and all of them, invariably, asking you to read something.

Less discussed here is whether a writing teacher who’s disengaged with—even resentful of—his or her students is the right person for a teaching gig, and if disinterested writing teachers are creating a generation of disinterested readers and writers. That’s impossible to measure, of course, but Gessner’s piece does speak to a clunky system that supports writers more that students but leaves both sides unhappy.

5 thoughts on “David Gessner’s Love-Hate Relationship

  1. This reminds me of Lynn Freed’s article “Doing Time: My Years in the Creative Writing Gulag” from Harper’s, July 2005. That article elicited quite a response at the time. Having had her for a writing instructor, I was surprised over her sentiments. To her professional credit, while she may have seemed weary at times, she never let her cynacism show in the classroom. Perhaps that’s the best we can hope for in a culture where writing alone will probably never pay all our bills.

  2. Oddly, I missed your posting of this article (try to check in each morning) but did have a copy of the article snail-mailed to me by a friend and posted a quick quote from it on my own blog today — which then directed me back to your blog as a related story! Circular, I know…..

    But it was interesting to see the questions you’ve raised here about disengaged, resentful teachers and the effect on students. As a teacher myself here at George Mason, I too find myself sometimes dreading and, yes, even resenting the piles of student work I have to read and wishing I had time to devote to the stack of novels that I want to read or the book on the Helms-Hunt campaign that I have to finish as research for my own novel OR, of course, actually working on that novel of my own myself. BUT, despite those feelings, I also have a great time seeing what the students in my current fiction workshop, for example, are bringing us each week. It may be “apprentice work” (as Gessner calls it), but it’s also tremendously exciting to see where their imagination is taking them — inspiring in many ways — and even the mistakes they make sometimes help me to learn something new about the craft of writing.

    The key, I think, is to bring into the classroom whatever passion for literature and writing you have. The students — the best of them — will respond in kind, and be better students and writers themselves because of it. And you, the professor, will hopefully leave the classroom not burdened anew but refreshed and lightened of that cynicism and ready to return to your own work with the same wide-eyed enthusiasm that the best of your students bring to the new endeavor they’re on.

    A little idealized, I know, but it helps to keep the week bouncing along.

  3. Hi Art,

    Thanks for the reply. You should sign up for my RSS feed—never miss a post!

    I have precisely zero experience teaching, so I wouldn’t presume to say who should or shouldn’t do the job. But, thinking on it again, I wonder who are these people Gessner believes has the luxury of “time spent reading great literature and communing with writers of the past.” If we know anything about literary history, it’s that a lot of great writers had to work on the fly and teach and do lots of other things that took away from reading and communing. Consider all those testimonials about DFW as a teacher that we’ve learned about in the past month or so. Was DFW any less inventive or brilliant for it?

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