Teaching Like A Writer

Marie-Helene Bertino, author of 2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas, reflects on teaching like a writer.

 

IN WHICH BOOKS HAVE FACES

 

Last year I taught a continuing education workshop in the basement of a Brooklyn bookstore. I like teaching in a bookstore, as it makes me feel like I’m a writer in a movie, and every Tuesday evening when I’d take the steps down to the subterranean level (where writers belong), I was filled with a decent, quiet light. It’s a pleasure to spend a few hours hammering out thorny issues of craft with people who spend their days in other industries.

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It was toward the end of my time with this particular class. It was the first workshop experience for one of the women, who I’ll call Agnes, and while she handled her fellow student’s work with care, at times she seemed suspicious of the workshopping process in general. I watched her frustration grow over the semester, especially, I noted, when the work of an experimental writer was being discussed.

During the final class we discussed the work of who I’d say was the most surrealist writer. Another student suggested she explain the background of one of the characters. It was the kind of note that can be common in workshops. I want to know more about so and so, being used in place of what is normally the deeper issue: details you are deciding to include are not specific enough. With the particular empathy of a teacher, I could feel Agnes’s blood heat until, it seemed, she could no longer take it.

She launched into an impassioned monologue that mostly revolved around the idea of workshopping being anti-art. That it chokes the creative sense.

When she finished, every head in the room swiveled to me. It was my job to massage the shoulders of everyone’s ideas and feelings, to push forth whatever the “right” idea was. The room, its stultifying air, the unfinished bookshelves stuffed with remainders. It was as if every single object in that room had a face, looking at me to correct the atmosphere.

Hundreds of thoughts occurred to me simultaneously, most of them variations on how to bend this moment into a teachable one. Then, almost as quickly, all thoughts were overruled by one question: Do you, as the human being called Marie, agree with this person?

 

writing class

 

IN WHICH I AM HAULED TO THE PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE BECAUSE OF MY REBELLIOUS NATURE

 

I wasn’t accustomed to being in trouble. Had engineered my life, in fact, to be an overachiever attracting no notice. I was Max Fisher from the movie Rushmore, holding leadership positions in every imaginable group or team in high school. It was a matter of time before my opinions attracted the attention of the conservative clergy that ran my high school. I see that now.

We had spent what I, an impassioned 16-year-old, thought of as way too fucking long analyzing the snot out of William Faulkner’s Intruder In The Dust. Had spent an entire class period discussing why the main character’s name (Alec Sander) sounded like Alexander. Who were the famous Alexanders in history? asked my teacher. She made a list on the board.

I used my end-of-semester paper as my opportunity to weigh in on what I thought were the joy-killing practices being performed by my English teacher.

A few mornings later, I heard my name over the PA system, being summoned to the principal’s office. My principal had heard about my anti-analysis paper and had taken a straw poll of my other teachers. My religion teacher told her that the same week in class I had led an impassioned debate against, well, everyone else, about how it was better to never have loved at all. You don’t know what you’re missing, I said.

You should know that we’ve called your mother to tell her about your recent rebellion, my principal said.

What did my mother say?

She shifted in her seat. Your mother said she agreed with you.

 

I AM BY BIRTH A WOODWORKER’S GRANDDAUGHTER

 

In college, I learned most by disagreeing with professors I respected. It was the same while I was a student in a Masters of Fine Arts program. It was during my M.F.A. that a mistake was made and I was invited to a donor’s luncheon. The English Department of another university was visiting to check out how our M.F.A. worked. They wanted to grow their own M.F.A. program that would, like ours, fall under the jurisdiction of the English Department.

I was mistakenly seated next to the Dean of English from that other university. We passed rolls to each other, remarked on the food, the town, his school’s football team. When the subject of creative writing came up, I asked what writers he planned to teach and he named a familiar roster of older white men. He was proud that the young writers would be taught by English teachers.

What I should have said: nothing.

What I did say: A writer has more in common with a mechanic than with an English teacher.

He seemed to be offended by his being replaced, even metaphorically, by a member of the working class. He did not know enough about life to realize it was a compliment.

 

IN WHICH I BECOME A TEACHER

 

It stands to reason that for many years I had ambivalent feelings about teaching creative writing. Smart colleagues supplemented their M.F.A. studies with adjunct teaching experience so they could be hired as teachers. It was their back-up plan, or maybe they were practical enough to realize how rare it is to have a book published. I’ve never been accused of being practical, and I didn’t want a back-up plan. If pressed, my back-up plan was waitressing. It was easy, and physical, and I could half-ass it. The most that happens if you half-ass waitressing is that a grilled cheese gets forgotten on the line and grows stiff. If I half-assed teaching, students would waste money and leave my class feeling flat and uninspired. A student’s knowledge being forgotten under the light was unacceptable.

I grew up possessing an out-of-date idea of what a writer looked like, and I didn’t think she looked like a professor. I thought she looked more like a harried hobo, throwing her luck into train cars across the country. It’s years later, and I agree with that idea still, despite the fact that I appear to be alone, and that I am also now a teacher.

I also appeared to be alone in worrying I wouldn’t have anything useful to bestow. All of my peers seemed certain they had something to give to students. I wasn’t so sure. Though I waited several years before applying for M.F.A.s, my real-world experience wasn’t enough, I thought, to earn the right to stand in front of a classroom and teach James Baldwin. Until I published my first collection, I didn’t enter a classroom.

When I did, it was for the Gotham Writers Workshop in Manhattan. I made a few shoddy promises to myself. For one, I wouldn’t teach anything just because I liked it. That seemed like a recipe to fail. Instead, I’d pick pieces based only on what I knew they elucidate to new writers.

This is still my main qualification for syllabus inclusion. This means that sometimes I teach books and stories I don’t like. Last semester one of my students was a Vietnam veteran who was writing gritty, honest stories about his experience. He was familiar with Tim O’Brien’s excellent The Things They Carried, so I assigned him a contemporary book about war that received a lot of praise but that I found to be amateurish. I wanted my student to know what is being written about war now.

After he read it, he asked if we could speak on the phone. He didn’t like the book, and he spoke to a few of his fellow veterans and they hadn’t liked it, either. Where did it fail? I asked him. He listed several passages he felt were weakened by cliché and, in some cases, prejudice.

Did any part of it succeed? He pointed out one excerpt, the only one I found to be effective as it happened, and we dissected it to find why it worked.

So it’s okay that I don’t like this book? He said.

More than okay, I said.

We’re not just teaching students to write, we’re teaching them to cultivate their voices and taste levels.

 

laptop and book

 

GOLD STICKER DAY

 

In the years I was actively resisting a back-up plan, I worked as a temporary teacher’s assistant for a brilliant kindergarten teacher named Cassandra. I helped kids don their backpacks, awarded gold star stickers, fed the class goldfish, and felt near to what some people call heaven.

The classroom was made up of twenty-four four- and five-year-olds. Only a few of the children hovered on the precipice of reading, sounding out words across a line without yet realizing that what they were building were sentences. I asked Cassandra if these children were ahead of the others because their parents read to them.

More likely, she said, it’s because they see their parents reading on their own time.

You can teach people how to read but you can’t teach them to enjoy it. That you have to show them.

 

WHAT BUTTERFLIES HAVE ON THEIR WINGS

 

Though I do occasionally work with texts I don’t particularly enjoy, most of the time I teach literature I love. Almost every semester, I teach Sherman Alexie’s story, “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” which is exemplary on every level. Sometimes exemplary stories aren’t my favorites. But this story possesses an additional element that Hemingway calls, “whatever butterflies have on their wings.” The quality is almost impossible to articulate, and it is impossible to teach.

Be awesome and magical and specific and one-of-a-kind and meaningful and effective, I can say to my students.

Sure thing, they’d say. And how should we do that, exactly?

You can teach people to vary their use of dialogue tags and beats, to try out different genres, to use surprising verbs, but you can’t teach them the Hemingway quality. That you have to show them.

 

MY GREAT-GRANDFATHER

 

My great-grandfather kept his tools in a wooden box with a long handle. He built the box. He built the handle. He was from France. His fellow carpenters called him “Frenchie.”

 

MY GRANDFATHER

 

My grandfather was also an ornamental woodworker. He kept his tools in a wooden box he built. He was not my grandfather yet. He was just a young guy who needed a job. When he was hired by the carpenter’s union, they gave him the station that had belonged to a carpenter who had just retired. Over the station hung a sign that said, “Frenchie.”

 

MY GRANDMOTHER

 

She was not my grandmother yet. She was just a young girl with a new beau. When she introduced her new beau to her father, the new beau said, I am a carpenter. too. I work at your old station.

What does this say about my grandmother? That she married a man who had the same job as her father. How would this work on the page? You’d describe the glasses, half-filled with beer, the aggravating little sister ducking in and out of the room, the comma shape the young lover’s hands made clasped under the table. You would say how the desire to gain her father’s approval was like a strawberry on a plate.

 

SO MANY TEACHERS

 

I’ve have teachers who had failed at whatever their idea of success had been and stared at us with jaundiced, fed up eyes, daring us to speak. I’ve had teachers backlit by enthusiasm. Teachers who will never understand how to get under the hood of a piece of writing, to figure out what makes it whirr and click. Teachers who said there was a set way to write, and teachers who knew better. Teachers who revealed too many personal details, or none, who had as much empathy as a ham sandwich but whose reading voice could make you weep because when they read they were unable to self-protect. One teacher threw chalk at us. One cried in the middle of the book What Maisie Knew. One told an engaged student that she was “lying down with the patriarchy.” One, my sixth grade teacher Ms. Altimari, was the first person who told me I’m on this earth to be a writer.

Each of them brought their own idiosyncratic set of qualities to the front of the classroom. I studied them all. I didn’t always learn from the ones I expected. They probably all felt invisible, shuffling papers into folders and retreating to vague officed hallways. I feel this way, making copies in the basement of The Lilian Vernon House at NYU. As a student, I felt more important than the teacher. As a teacher, I feel necessarily invisible when standing in front of a text. After class, I experience the same pleasant kind of amnesia as when I used to act on a stage. So when students mention personal details from my life, I invariably jolt.

How did you know that?

You told us, they say.

 

reading

A BACHELOR’S DEGREE IN THE PENNILESS COUSIN

 

Teaching like a writer is, essentially, encouraging students to read like writers. This means having much in common with a mechanic or engineer or composer. In high school and college, teachers never made more than a casual mention of dialogue in an English class. When we did discuss dialogue, as we were normally working with the work of an affluent male or female writer from the 19th century, we would remark on things like, look how she addresses her servants using their Christian names. Or, you can tell that the cousin is penniless because he is instructed to throw his overcoat into the pigsty instead of giving it to one of the servants. Or, as was so often the case, as a character was listing the royals who were coming to the ball, or the food being served at the after-ball, we remarked on the opulence the list of ingredients displayed.

God, I hated those classes. Designed, I assumed, to extract enjoyment from texts and make us all feel poor.

When studying Virginia Woolf’s gorgeous Mrs. Dalloway, we noted time in the figure of Big Ben, chiming in the middle of each character’s storylines. To, in effect, merge each character into the same chronological blanket. Time is a conceit, the teacher would say.

TIME, we’d write, = conceit.

When studying Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem,” a masterpiece of a short story in which a young Indian has twenty-four hours to raise enough money to buy his grandmother’s regalia, we look at time like writers. We track how it’s marked on the page. Hours are skimmed through in a handful of sentences, while several paragraphs are spent on a few moments. We study how Alexie manages to condense and expand time and, ultimately, pushes through the scrim of chronology and what is possible.

How does this work on the page? You say in one sentence that something a human being knows would take a year takes only five minutes. The reader falls through these sentences like trap doors, as more time than is possible passes. Confidence and simple phrasing are two ingredients of that particular alchemy.

What does this use of time on the page tell us about humanity? What does all of it mean about being an Indian in Seattle? These are questions for later, for others or possibly for us (if we feel like it), after the work is done.

 

IN WHICH LAURA VAN DEN BERG AND I THINK ALIKE

 

A few weeks ago, Laura van den Berg and I read together at a bookstore in Brooklyn. During the Question & Answer session, we were asked, as writers who teach, if we know who in our classrooms will be successful writers and who will not.

Like a workshop environment, an after-reading Q&A can be a delicate ecosystem, when the slants and edges of a person’s bias can tilt a room. I ascertained this sort of room-tilting lean in the questioner’s voice. Perhaps she had experienced some form of rejection that hurt, or had perhaps loved someone who had. She wanted to know, probably, where we got off. Like me when I was younger, and like many of my students, she wanted to hear that there was a specific question about whether or not one was a writer that could be solved with a yes or no.

Two of my former students sat in the audience. I considered them, a few years out of undergrad, poised in the moment where life feels palpable.

Laura and I agreed: anyone who says that he or she knows without a doubt who will be successful is bullshit. First, it takes as a given that talent will be what assures someone success. That concept alone makes me want to laugh for a million days. More often than not, talent is not the deciding factor for success. It’s more about some kind of blind, stubborn will that pushes a talent forward past every single rejection until acceptance. Nothing guarantees a student of mine won’t leave my class and be rendered unable to proceed, because of ego or familial obligation or self-doubt or just plain mean life. I’ve seen students who everyone discounted become bestsellers because they worked harder than anyone. Who can say whether a student will peak in my class and never write again, or will hear something that triggers a wonder year of artistic growth?

The question assumes there is one definition of success. Success could mean becoming a bestseller, or winning a Pulitzer, or just having a book published in the first place. Success could mean that parent who never respected you finally calls you a writer. I can’t define success for other people just as I can’t get my own idea of it to settle into one bin and stay there.

It’s not a sexy answer but it’s true: the answer is never yes or no. It always lies in the vast, gray middle. Thank god.

 

BACK TO THE BASEMENT

 

All eyes fixed on me, I felt I was being asked to justify myself as a teacher, to reconcile all the arguments I had in classrooms, all the rebellious things I said to teachers during my learning.

I said, I agree with you.

A workshop with a faulty facilitator can be anti-art, in that it can literally end a writing practice. So can reading. And life, and anything. I’ve experienced this first and second hand.

I said, But also, I believe we can make progress in an environment conducive to try for whatever butterflies have on their wings.

Whatever that may turn out to be for each individual writer. I can say: it’s somewhere over there and it might look like this (makes vague hand movements). Go find it. I will help you however I can.

 

Marie-Helene Bertino’s novel, 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas, is out now in paperback. 

 

Images: Death to the Stock Photo, ljbs/Twenty20, Jed69/Twenty20, William07o3/Twenty20, vegasworld/Twenty20.

About Marie-Helene Bertino

Marie-Helene Bertino

MARIE-HELENE BERTINO is the author of Safe as Houses, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Prize. An Emerging Writer Fellow at New York’s Center for Fiction, she has spent six years as an editor and writing instructor at One Story. A Philadelphia native, she currently lives in Brooklyn.

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