Still, one of the things that makes me a good teacher, I’m
convinced, is that I’m a real bastard—which is much luckier than being
a whore. I’m easily bored, I want what I want when I want it, and I
don’t believe that anyone knows my business better than me. Now, the
good angels of my personality do a fair job of keeping that bastard in
check, but he’s always there, willing to throw his weight around,
willing to stomp on toes if it helps him to improve the work that’s on
the table before him.
I’m a bastard, actually, from a tradition of bastards. I never had a better creative writing teacher than Leonard Michaels. He was a bastard because he (a) never prepared for class, (b) didn’t apparently care much for his students, and (c) used no filter whatsoever on his opinions. What I learned from Michaels—what, apparently, many people learned from Michaels—was to jealously love literature itself. He cared so deeply about what he read, even that miserable story of yours, that he could not be moved to lie about it. He could not be moved to blunt the force of his delight that you had delighted him or his anger that you had failed him. Nothing personal: He just cared more about the writing than anything else.
I don’t teach like Michaels. It would be hard to keep a job if I did. He read our stories aloud until the moment he didn’t care anymore. Then he would stop reading and ask us why he didn’t care anymore. Sometimes this took only two sentences.
Those were the days, of course, when the average student was granted no divine right to take a creative writing course. A guy like Michaels was at the top of a pyramid of writers, most of who couldn’t find teaching jobs, and most of the students who applied to get into creative writing workshops were rejected. And the fact that you’d been rejected four times didn’t mean squat on that fifth try. To my students, this seems like prehistory. I’m not saying we should go back to the old way, but the old way had advantages.
One advantage: You understood very clearly that no one needed to read your writing. It was a swift kick in the face every time you entered the workshop. It was worse than a kick to the face when you found out that you hadn’t been accepted into the workshop. But, for some of us, it was also bracing. Although I have never been a good scholar, I was a great writing student. The tussle and stumble and bark of those strange courses inspired me: I wrote draft upon draft upon draft. I would get mofos like Leonard Michaels to read one of my stories all the way through if it was the last thing I did.
And yet, as I write this now, I can hear my colleagues braying: “Is that really how we should teach creative writing? As though it were a blood sport?” “What about the tender spirits of our undergrads?” “What about that terribly sensitive project of literature itself?” “Do you really think anyone’s going to write anything worth reading while they’re fighting each other to the death?”
I’m not heartless. I know how much rejection and criticism absolutely suck. I’m sitting here right now, my guts still twisting from what some ex-Stanford grad student/wannabe editor just e-mailed me, her blithe and patronizing rejection of five years of my life.
But either I want to do this thing or I don’t. Either a guy like Leonard Michaels can help me or he can’t. It doesn’t matter if he’s arrogant or his neck looks like a penis (that’s what one friend said about Michaels). If these are things that stop you from writing…well, I’m sure that other things would have stopped you eventually. Still, don’t we all wish that the most important skills could just be downloaded into our hands and hearts? Unfortunately, I’m sorry to report, real progress most often comes out of struggle and—let’s face it—pain.