My writing is primary and
my teaching is post-secondary.
They don’t always play well together, that’s for sure. They make conflicting demands, they demand and insist, but, in the end, my writing and teaching need each other. And I need them both. In the ten books I’ve written so far, and in hundreds of articles, my goal is the same goal that undergraduate writing students have: to make what matters to us matter to others, to make an audience of strangers care. We’re in it together, my students and I. You may be smart I tell them, you may be smarter than I am. But I’ve been smart longer. We share a laugh and then we get to work. Hard work.
In addition to teaching fiction writing, I offer courses in “
American Novel Since 1950,” my changing list of a dozen or so
novels, famous and obscure. The goal is for students to be sharp
readers, attentive to not only what a book says or means but how
it says it. I’ve also offered a single-author course, a dozen novels
by Graham Greene: a grueling journey but worth it.
Here’s a confession: I write everything in longhand first, in spiral notebooks, with lines that you write between. The lines are your friends, the empty pages are a challenge. Write every day and the pages add up. Usually, I write four or five pages a day. I stop at the bottom of the fourth (or fifth) page, even if it’s in mid-sentence. It takes about nineteen pencils or ballpoint pens to write a book. Not that you asked. But all this is foreplay. After I put down my pen, or pencil, I select one of my collection of manual typewriters. I own half a dozen such machines, proud products of long-dead companies, bearing names like Underwood, Royal, Smith-Corona. I find old typewriters–or they find me–and when I touch the keys, throw the carriage, I am the typewriter’s partner and, together, we connect with the century of writers who came before me. (And with a few of the writers who will follow, but that’s alright with me.) I love my typewriters. There’s a gent in a town fifteen miles south of where I live who can still find ribbons, replace parts, clean and oil the machines that he loves as much as I do. People keep pointing me to quicker, labor-saving devices that process words. No thanks, I tell them. I like my work the way it is. And, by the way, it comes in on time.
It came as a surprise. At the end-of-year party I give for Collegian editors and staffers, I was presented a chair in appreciation for my many years of advising a good newspaper. It's not an endowed chair, of the sort that Kenyon college awards deserving faculty members. But it means a lot to me. My thanks to the Collegian.