Teachers present themselves as authorities, master survivors of everything a student will encounter along their way to becoming just like their teacher. For awhile, I felt that way–authoritative and steadfast with a handful of good books at my back. When I stood before my first class, I was finishing a memoir that I thought was all about my long marriage to a patient man who always seemed more constant that me. The subject was intriguing and the writing fine enough that agent and editors cheered it on. I felt confident I could give my students everything they needed to survive.
Five years and a lot of bruising later, I stood in front of what would be my last class feeling pretty much like a fraud. The marriage memoir was in tatters. I had put it aside to travel and write another book, and by the time I returned to the story, I was mid-way in recovering from a drowning depression and ensuing break down. Clarity was in short supply and I began to rely on others for the kind of directions that are almost always wrong: I listened too intently to everyone who read the book and offered advice on what they considered would make it better, i.e. more sell-able to the public. Each subsequent draft moved further from my original vision and intent. The writing itself lost its funny frothiness and took on a muddled stridency. Every time I read one of my students’ stories, I realized it was better than anything I had accomplished at my desk that day. I recognized how little I could claim before them. The fact that I got through to the end of the semester with them believing I had imparted anything worthwhile is a testament to being a skillful liar. I said goodbye to them, hugged the ones that wanted hugs, then collapsed at the empty table with my face in my hands and cried a bucket of shame. Then I went home and completed another awful draft.
The writer as a discombobulated hedgehog
That was two years ago. I tried to think up other stories to write. I sent my agent a slew of ideas for follow-up books that she gently told me would never work out and which I never had enough interest in to prove her wrong. Great silence ensued during which anytime some well-meaning relative or friend asked me what I was working on I fest up and said I was working on nothing, an alarming confession they eventually realized they didn’t want to hear.
It could have all ended there. Out of long habit I still went to my desk every morning. I’d turned on the computer, dawdle over some research and typed a few pages until completing the customary hours and then I went off to waste time with things I once never had time for, like gardening and painting my house and seeing friends and feeling empty and useless. As it turned out, my body didn’t like this much, especially my brain which should have shriveled with neglect but instead insisted on raking over the memoir. I’m convinced that big heart attack of a few postings back was my body’s way of shaking me. Nothing like mortality to get you going again, plus a long recuperation that gave me time to read and get annoyed at how what was once a little treasure had imploded. What the hell, what else was I doing? I uncovered the memoir’s first draft under the twenty pounds of barnacles attached to it. I found its true path again, which turns out is not marriage but the redemption of love, a common enough theme but one of our most powerful, especially in the midst of every day cares.
The write as a hopeful hedgehog
A step back is a step forward. I started teaching again, which is why I thought about writing this as a lesson in stubborn belief. It no longer matters to me that the patient agent or any editor at a nice publishing house will read me ever again. I just want this out in the world and hopefully do all the things good writing is supposed to do: entertain and enlighten and entertain again. This link will send you to the opening chapter. I figure every month I’ll put up another chapter and hope you keep coming back to read more.
About the hedgehog: Is there not a more perfect creature–small, given to curling in upon herself, needing coaxing and confidence to come out and be herself again–to represent a screwy creative life?
Thank you Sara for your inspiration and talent!