Sunday, August 21, 2011
THE TEACHER CHARLES JOHNSON
E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "You taught for over 30 years at the University of Washington. How did you change as a teacher during those years? What did you learn from teaching? What did you learn from your students? Was it difficult balancing teaching with the writing life?"
When I'm writing (or drawing), immersed in a fictional world that is unfolding before my eyes, I have to withdraw from the social world. The latter more or less ceases to exist for me. I become solitary. I go underground. The phone or doorbell ringing, the headlines of the day, stock market news, the weather and enveloping world of others and objects---all that recedes to the periphery of my consciousness. None of it moves from background to foreground unless it directly relates in some way to the story I'm trying to imagine with detail and precision. I can't "punch in" and write for just a few hours a day, then "punch out" as I did when I was a young journalist. I have to live and breathe the work all day long. When writing, I get silent. I don't want to talk because all my language is going onto the page. I don't shave. I forget to eat and live on coffee, walk around the house in a sweatshirt and sweat pants, unmindful of the passage of time, making notes to myself for dialogue I suddenly hear in my head. I sometimes sacrifice my daily workouts. Personal hygiene suffers. (I have no idea how my family tolerates me during times I'm intensely at work.) I deliberately get sloppy and embrace chaos so that whatever I'm working on can have all the order I'm capable of mustering. I'm slow to return phone calls or answer email or even look at the day's snail mail---and have to apologize to others when I finally complete the work and break radio silence. I just work quietly, steadily, sleep when my brain needs rebooting (and sometimes find the work entering into my dreams), then go right back to work as soon as I wake up. I lose sense of time's passage. In effect, I leave the real world behind because all my thought is directed toward the characters, their speech and actions and emotions; all my mental energy goes into writing and rewriting sentences in my head. All of it is devoted to problem solving. I'm living only for the "Aha!" moments of discovery and surprise as the story pushes ahead, one paragraph at a time.
I'm not the best person to be around when I'm working. I even doubt that I'm a "nice" person. For the sake of the characters, I have to sometimes let myself become emotionally raw and tender, irascible and "tetchy" and capable of saying and doing things (in my imagination) that I would never do or say in the real world. During these bouts of work I am not very attentive to others, what they are doing or their needs. Intellectually and imaginatively, I have to put myself at risk, be ready to throw out everything I think I know or believe about what writing should be for the sake of discovery; I have to drop all the masks we use in the social world, be vulnerable if a character is vulnerable, rude if a character is rude, intolerant if a character is intolerant, wicked if that character is wicked, and let the story lead me where it wants to go as I prayerfully move from one page to the next. To be frank, I love these periods of total immersion in work when I almost completely forget the external world and live entirely in one conjured from the imagination. When these periods are done, I usually treat myself to a good meal.
But in order to teach for 33 years I had to be exactly the opposite of what I've just described above. I had to make a 180-degree shift. From Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll. From Dionysus to Apollo. From Cain to Abel. Because students and their needs always come first, they and they alone---their desires, needs, etc.---were at the center of my consciousness during class time and when I was on campus. As a teacher, I learned how to talk in other people's sleep (as the old joke goes), to fill an hour with speech if the students themselves were laconic, and (sigh) to wear a suit if an occasion demanded that (and I've always hated wearing a suit and tying a little noose---oh, those are called ties---around my neck.) To know which books and authors to point an individual student toward to help him or her with their own writing and research.
I learned how to exist completely as a public self, by which I mean that I left my personal life and needs outside the classroom door. (I never stepped on campus unless I first practiced meditation or mantra. Usually mantra.) For an artist or writer teaching is an invaluable experience (at least for the first five years or so), because one has to learn how to explain to others matters that remain on the level of the intuitive and instinctive when one is creating. (And when creating one has to trust the intuition, the unconscious, the mysteries of the creative process itself.) You must learn how to explain what you and other writers do, how we do it, and make that doing something portable, i.e., understandable to both the tortoises and the hares in the classroom. Teaching makes you learn patience. And how to explain the same thing in several different ways. And over and over again, if necessary. If a student sent me an email, I'd answer it immediately. I was greatly amused by a remark that my friend Nicholas Delbanco made when I visited his writing program at the University of Michigan. He said, "Ask him a twenty second question and you get a twenty minute answer." That's what three decades of teaching conditions an otherwise quiet and sometimes shy person to do. (But when I'm creating, my speech is spare, telegraphic, brief.)
Teaching required complete concentration on a roomful of others who were at first strangers then like new friends by the end of the second week, and an awareness of time so that a class would be well-paced, giving each student exactly the right amount of room or freedom to express himself or herself, knowing when to steer them back to the subject at hand if they started to wander, and provide structure that did not feel to the students to be in any way a constraint on their creativity. In other words, the classes I created had to have a clear form yet also be flexible based on individual student needs. Every student needed to feel respected, valued for his or her presence in the room. Don't let anyone tell you differently: Teaching was work. For me and my students. See my essay, "A Boot Camp For Creative Writing." I built my classes so that students couldn't hide; they had to work and be responsible to their professor and their peers in class. A teacher needs to be relaxed and at the same time as focused as a dog gnawing a bone. As writer Jonathan Baumbach once said to me, it can be "emotionally exhausting."
After a class---especially one that ran for three hours---I never fooled myself into thinking I could easily go back to my own creative work, slipping effortlessly from such an outer-directed consciousness to an inner-directed one. The class, the students, thoughts of what I'd said or should have said (which I promised myself to say during the next class), ideas for how to make the next class even better, new handouts I wanted to photo-copy and distribute to the class, would swirl through my head for the rest of the evening. (Now that I think about it, some of the same creative energy that went into a story had to go also into teaching ten weeks of classes.) A nap that night might reboot my brain so that I could resume my own work during the wee hours before dawn. Or sometimes it would have to wait until the next day after a good night's sleep.
So that's how I'd whimsically answer today's question. And don't be fooled by the dualism I used with comparisons to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Cain and Abel, and Dionysus and Apollo. Every Buddhist knows those opposites are really "one."
Posted by Ethelbert Miller at 11:54 PM