Work is the life

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Yesterday, I taught my last class of the term.

At the end of class, a student asked, “Does every class you teach feel like this one?” And I knew what he meant. I said, yes, it does. Every class, by the end of term, feels like our classroom felt last night: a buzzing, humour-filled, serious, safe space shared by interested thoughtful equals. There’s magic there. Every term progresses in the same way, from nervousness and skepticism and even a bit of boredom and wondering what we’re getting out of this, to a gradually increasing warmth and trust. Trust is the most important ingredient. How to build trust among strangers? It doesn’t happen all at once. We’re hesitant to share. We’re afraid of being judged. We’re dealing with our own private stuff; turmoil, sadness, anger, loss, stress, anxiety. And we’re writing all the while, often deeply personal material, material we weren’t necessarily expecting to discover, material that we want to protect.

So we have to figure out how to share, how to trust, how to listen, together. And every class, every year, it’s been the same, in my experience: by the last class, we reap the rewards of our work. It’s so hard to say goodbye.

For the last class, I like to read from Ann Patchett’s essay, “The Getaway Car,” from her collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, especially the section where she talks about studying creative writing with the great short story writer Grace Paley:

“Grace wanted us to be better people than we were, and she knew that the chances of our becoming real writers depended on it. … She taught me that writing must not be compartmentalized. You don’t step out of the stream of your life to do your work. Work was the life, and who you were as a mother, teacher, friend, citizen, activist, and artist was all the same person. People like to ask me if writing can be taught, and I say yes, I can teach you how to write a better sentence, how to write dialogue, maybe even how to construct a plot. But I can’t teach you how to have something to say. I would not begin to know how to teach another person how to have character, which was what Grace Paley did.”

Wow, I love that. I could read it over and over.

When I started teaching, four years ago, I needed money, and I was grateful for work. But it turns out that money was the least of it.

I teach because I love the process, and because I’m excited by possibility and potential in all shapes and sizes, and because it challenges me to be creative and constantly learning, and because I admire my students, each one of them, for being brave enough to go through this process, which isn’t always easy, and which they may not have expected to go through when they first signed up.  There’s magic in the classroom. I’ve witnessed it. And I’m greedy. I want to keep witnessing it.

Should I have gotten that PhD, way back when it was a real possibility? Have I missed my calling? In some ways, I know I’m not a great teacher, and I’m no academic; I’m more of a coach, setting up practices and games, or a trail guide, leading a group into the woods for an adventure, or a host at a rather quiet party. Maybe I should be exploring possibilities outside of academia. Maybe there are other routes, other pathways, to teaching.

Maybe you have brilliant, simple, creative, helpful ideas you could share. Please, and thank you.

xo, Carrie

When did I get old?
Illuminate

3 Comments

  1. Carrie, well – since you asked … first, when you say, “there is no guarantee I’ll be invited to teach again” – you’re a great teacher and a well-known writer, why would they not ask you back? Surely it’s a given that you bring a great deal to the school. Somehow, I don’t think you should worry about not being asked back. But of course you’re right, there’s no guarantee.

    I’ve been teaching creative non-fiction for 22 years and still feel just as you describe in your fine piece; I love this work. I too am on contract at Ryerson and U of T, waiting each term to see if the class fills, though now it almost always does. I too only have an M.A., but I don’t mind that, I think academia would drive me insane. Of course the money and benefits are far better as a professor, but there’s a huge price to pay.

    Re other routes to teaching – early on, I found that people were coming back to my class for a second, even a third time; by then, we wanted to keep going, so I founded a home class that’s been going ever since – just for the real keeners, people with whom I’ve formed a bond and who fit into the family of the class, some of whom have been coming for years. We meet every other week, sometimes only 5 people, sometimes 10. Each term runs parallel to the terms at U of T and Ryerson, and I ask them to pay for 3 classes in advance at $50 a class. It’s flexible – I can shift times around, too, when life intervenes. It doesn’t make me a fortune, but it’s a nice solid bit of cash and fun – we drink tea and wine and eat cheese and cookies. My kids have left home so I can run it in my living -room, harder for you! I also have, through my website and courses, a mentoring/coaching/editing service which again I can do in my own time.

    Some thoughts for you. I too love Ann Patchett.

    Reply
    • Sounds wonderful, Beth. I love hearing how you’ve made this work. I also love the idea of a home class, with that chemistry and atmosphere already established and chugging along. My worries about not being hired back are not entirely unfounded, I think. There isn’t a major creative writing component to the English program at UW and I’ve never convinced them to hire me for more than one class per year. But maybe this will change…

      Reply
  2. Yes, “chemistry and atmosphere” abound in the home class; we know each other so well that on occasion, I read them something new of mine for feedback. I once looked into other venues for the class, including the local library which has a room for such things, at a time when I couldn’t hold it at home. Whatever you do, it will be a fascinating journey for us all to follow. Thank you for letting us into your life.

    Reply

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