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.