To Teach, or Not to Teach

“Don’t feel like you have to be in a rush to prove yourself now that you’ve graduated,” my sister told me over the phone last night.

But I do feel like I need to start accumulating more publications, and fast. Not only so that I avoid the post-MFA writing slump, but also so that I can build my resume.

I’ve been applying to jobs in two specific areas: teaching and as an administrative assistant. My feelings on the perfect job are ambivalent. Part of me wants a job I can leave at the office, with steady hours that won’t drain my writing brain so that I can come home to my own stories. The other part wants a job that I will be proud of, one that makes me feel like I’m making a difference, even if it leaves less time for my personal writing.

But in the midst of sending out my resume and CV, I’m trying to keep a handle on the difference between wanting to teach because it is something I enjoy and wanting to teach because it can make me feel like a writer even when I’m not publishing any stories.

My CV for teaching prominently features my short story publications. While I was at UAF, two of our professors held a workshop and shared their CVs with us. For a teaching resume/ CV, your creative writing publications become an important credential. I think this document has bled its way into my mind, tricking me into thinking that landing a teaching job will validate me as a writer.

So I am trying to remind myself: That is one thing, but this is another. It’s a phrase from a clipping that I taped inside one of my notebooks years ago and just recently rediscovered:

How do you find a job that doesn’t drain the essential energies that you bring to participate in the creative act? How do you maintain those energies when you’re a mother? How do you maintain them when you’re a father? I mean, this is always the question. No matter what we do or how we live. How do you nourish those energies and live in life? 

We have to make a living. We want to be in the world — to be engaged with other people. One has to know one’s own temperament. I think of someone like Liz Rosenberg, a strong poet, and it’s impossible to imagine her not teaching. She is so gifted at it. And she seems to be able to write her wonderful poems, and her energy is unabated. But there are the great writers who couldn’t teach. Bishop, famously, was a terrible teacher. I always want to say to the young writers I work with, you can be an artist without teaching. You are an artist. You don’t need an academy to tell you what you are. Whitman didn’t teach. Emily Dickinson didn’t teach. John Keats didn’t teach. Rilke didn’t teach. Let’s go on and on. Let’s make a list of all the writers who we read who didn’t teach. Teaching is great but let’s not put the equal sign between them. That is one thing, but this is another. 

                           — Marie Howe, The Writer’s Chronicle, May/ Summer 2010. (9).

Last week my grandmother pulled out a family photograph. “She was a teacher, and so was she, and so was she,” my grandmother said as her finger hovered over the faces of great aunts and cousins. My mother, also a teacher, stood beside me as I looked at all of the teachers in my family.

I’d always vowed not to teach. I was going to buck that family inheritance. But then I went to graduate school, and I had a teaching assistantship to pay my tuition and help me live. And I developed a teaching persona, a person more self-confident and commanding than my every day self, the introvert writer. I loved learning from my students, and seeing texts through their eyes. It was the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.

When I’m gone, and someone in my family is saying my name as they point out the faces in a photograph, I want them to call me a writer. But after that, I’d like to be called a teacher, too.

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4 thoughts on “To Teach, or Not to Teach

  1. Diatryma says:

    I once planned that if a kid ever bit me, I'd leave a message on my parents' machine saying, “Mom's a teacher, Dad's a teacher, Uncle Darrel is a teacher, Grandpa's a teacher, Uncle Gene's a teacher, and I am more hardcore than all of you.”

  2. Greg Lyons says:

    Tough call. I went the teaching route because I needed something that leaves me satisfied. Like you, I never thought I would be teaching; in fact, I was adamantly opposed it for many years. But then, Alaska.

    For me though, it definitely can sap the creative drive right out of me. This is partly due to using some of my energies to plan course work and partly due to reading lots of freshmen papers. I absolutely can not write after reading a stack of freshmen papers because my mind is gone and my writing starts to emulate my students' writing.

    Some days though, teaching can be useful for inspiration.

  3. Jenni Moody says:

    Hey Greg!

    That's what I worry about with teaching – having so many freshman comp voices in my head that I can't hear my own.

    But you do learn a lot about people by teaching them, and by reading their essays. I can see how there's room for inspiration. 🙂

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