For Creative Writing Students: What Your Teacher Wishes You Knew

Me and some of the wonderful graduate students at Rosemont College

First of all, you are some of the best things about our lives.  We love teaching you our precious craft. We love listening as you expound on the virtues (or follies) of the Hemingway, Joyce, Walker, Atwood you’ve just read.  We love watching your work evolve during the time that you are with us.  We love hanging out with you and hearing about your life.  We love learning from you.

Second of all, when we tell you we admire your work, we think you have talent, we want you to keep writing, we mean it.  Part of the reason we do this teaching creative writing thing, despite the fact that the money is normally shit, is it’s amazing to hold in our hands the work of someone whose voice is strong, whose language is lovely and lively, who has a story to tell.  It’s like holding a crystal ball.  We see your future as a world-changer unfold, and those of us who are sentimental like I am can barely blink back the tears.  We are so lucky to be a part of your journey.

Third of all, we feel wretched when you ask us to read extra work for you, and we have to say no.  We hate disappointing you. We hate having to reassure you that it’s not you, it’s us.  If we had the time, we’d read every word you wrote, scribble sheaves of notes in the margins of every page.

The problem is, we don’t have the time.  Some of us are full time, tenure track professors, buckling under the weight of teaching classes and holding office hours and attending academic meetings and reading, reading, reading our students’ work, while still trying to find time to write.  Some of us are adjunct professors, juggling numerous classes at various universities, getting paid almost nothing, trying to cobble together a living that allows us to keep doing what we love.

Either way, we have to plan and execute our classes, which takes tons of time, and we must read stories, essays, and poems written by all of our students.  We must ponder them and edit them and attempt to give constructive feedback on them. (As a rule, I read every story/essay I receive at least twice, often three times, so I’m coming from a thoughtful place instead of just spouting bullshit when I give my students feedback.  Most of the teachers I know do the same.)

One semester, I had over 100 students.  Even if each of my students turned in one story that semester, I would have had my hands full.  But of course each of them turned in way more than one story. I literally spent every waking moment I wasn’t teaching responding to my students’ work.  If I wanted to focus on my own writing at all (which was really the point of studying writing all these years), I’d have to carve time out of what should have been my sleeping hours.  And if I wanted to read for pleasure, trying to keep abreast of what was happening in the industry I’ve devoted my life to?  Well, sayonara, sleep.  You can see where I’m going with this.

Last week, I taught at an amazing five-day-long MFA retreat at Rosemont College in Philadelphia.  My job was to read 20-page manuscript excerpts, edit them, and hold hour-long consultation sessions with each of the 13 students who had turned in a manuscript.  I love this job.  I’ve done it for two years now, and both times, it’s been the highlight of my year. Rosemont College has an amazing, innovative MFA program, headed up by the brilliant Carla Spataro, and its students never fail to produce work that blows my mind.  I am consistently inspired by the manuscripts I receive and often have to work hard to come up with constructive criticism for the students.  Their writing is just that fresh, that good.

As part of my job, I also was required (and delighted) to give a film interview/reading, attend other faculty film interviews, faculty and student readings, and various dinners.   Additionally, I had the joy of meeting with an MFA student for whom I am serving as thesis advisor.  And I had to keep up with the online classes I’m teaching for another school (which I usually did when I should have been sleeping). In other news, I had to find time to work with the various private students/clients I’ve taken on from various places.  Oh, and did I mention a local charity auctioned off a dinner with me (which I was, by the way, thrilled to donate)?  So while I loved every minute of my work, I was very, very busy.

During a consultation, a beautiful, talented MFA student heard the praise I gave her and asked, understandably, if I’d like to read the entire 150 pages she had written so I could get a better idea of the project.  Why wouldn’t she ask?  I loved her work so much.  Why wouldn’t I want to read more?

And I did want to read more.  So badly.  But I had to say no, explaining that while I would love to, I had no time to read extra work.  Her face fell.  She was embarrassed that she’d asked in the first place.  I could tell she thought that I was making excuses, that I didn’t really like her work as much as I said I did.  Of course, she wasn’t the only student to ask me to read her completed manuscript.  Had I said “yes” to her, I would have, in all fairness, had to say “yes” to all of them.  And then, I would have been a dirty, rotten liar, making impossible promises, because no way in hell would I have been able to read hundreds of extra pages, no matter how much sleep I decided to forgo.

When I was a creative writing student, I harbored vats of black, oozing self-doubt.  When my teachers said they loved my work but never asked to read more than the measly 20 pages I’d turned in, I thought it meant they didn’t really like it as much as they claimed.  But I now know that they did.  They too were drowning in oceans of never-ending reading and editing and teaching and consulting, trying to cobble together a living centered around the art they loved.

I bet they wished I knew what I now wish my own students knew.  I do love you.  I do love your work.  If I could save time in a bottle…ok, I’m veering off the the tracks into sappy 70s pop territory here.  But keep writing.  Keep honing that gorgeous voice of yours.  Keep showing up to class and getting/giving feedback.  And someday, your work will be devoured by all sorts of people.  Someday, we, your teachers, will be asking you to sign a first edition of that book you started in our class.  Someday, we’ll be able to say we knew you when.

Me and my dear friend, author Jennifer Steil, who also taught at the Rosemont Retreat, sampling the  apple pie moonshine a student brought to one of the evening readings #jobperks

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