Saturday, January 3, 2015

Coming to Terms: The Beginning of a New Semester

After nearly forty years of teaching, most of them at the graduate level, this point in the new year reminds you once again how it was never your attention to teach.  You begin by reminding yourself of the times you attended lectures in the education department more because you'd been invited by someone you were dating, or wishing you were dating.

Some of the professors knew their way around the podium, you gave them that at the time and now, in retrospect, as well.  But you did not see yourself teaching.  For one thing, what could you teach?  You were an English major because of the reading requirements for the courses you took, because one of your favorite instructors had Alfred Knopf as his publisher, a publisher you dreamed of having one day.  Another of your professors was a noted expert in the nineteenth century American novel, and yet another was a specialist in Victorian literature.

Being an English major gave you, among other tools, the need to read all the way through books you might not have read at all, much less all the way through.  Bit by bit, degree by degree, you learned to observe the way the thing you read was composed, how an author you might not have cared for was able to convey an attitude, a sense of determination, an interior moment.

Your grade level reflected more your interest in learning what to look for rather than what or how a particular book reflected its time or its author's sentiments or background.  To be able to teach at any level of any possible interest to you, the prerequisites were daunting enough, a PhD degree.  Fat chance for you, who were not so much a scholar as a scavenger.  

Six years of undergraduate study brought you to love authors you'd not had any notion of admiring.  Reading as you did, aspects of their voice and grasp of craft reached you on levels so deep and profound, you could scarcely describe them to yourself.  Coming out into the world with a bachelor's degree, you'd learned two essentials, how to use the library, and how to read all the way through those books you did not relate to on a more resonant level.  

For the longest time, after you were out in the world, not quite yet able to support yourself in any meaningful way from your writing or your understanding of storytelling, you pursued one focused quest.

You believed you'd reached the point in your studies and writing where you would through all your perambulations, stumble on the one book, written by another author, that would cause everything to snap into place.  From that point on, you'd be able to write things of sufficient worth that they would be published and you would be on your way toward establishing a writer's vision and voice, which happened to include an audience of enough readers to gain you decent royalty statements.

Ten or so years later, you were on your way up the slopes of learning the editorial eye and craft, thinking from time to time that you'd been sidetracked from your main goal but being close enough to make the sidetracking worthwhile.  

At about this time, you began to understand that there were significant books out in the world, written by men and women you'd not even heard of as an English major, writers whose books would also resonate for you.  But the fact was, with all the resonating, none of these writers would have produced the one book that would cause everything to come together for you in a blinding dazzle of an ah-ha moment.

The book you were seeking was, in fact, a series of books you would have to risk writing before you could think to experience any sort of ah-ha moment.  From about that time onward, you have been writing things which, as you believe you have finished with them, you are able to ask of it, Is this the manuscript that brings everything together for you?

On occasion, you've heard an answer telling you, Yes, but only for the moment.  If this is what you wish to do, then you must be doing it on a regular basis, asking each time if this has brought you closer to the goal.  Even if the answer is yes, the next project needs to be subjected to the same rigorous interview.  

This background approaches the rationale or explanation for your recent fussing with the hundred specific novels of the many you've read, and their effects within your mind and viscera.  One such book is a novel, Queen's Gambit, by Walter Tevis, first published in 1983, a scant year before Tevis' death.  You came upon it at a time you'd already been teaching for ten years, moderate in your happiness from teaching, but still in a scramble to find and solidify your writing vision and voice.

The opening two paragraphs of Queen's Gambit gave you the resonant frequency you wanted.  Because of the title, you knew the book had to do with chess playing.  You know the moves of chess and appreciate the place it has in the esteem and passions of many individuals.  But it is not a contest in which you are any good at all, nor did some serious attempts to get better at chess playing raise your level or interest.  You wanted to see how much of the novel you could bear to read.

You finished it in a tad over a day, unable to stop reading, secure in the awareness that you would go back over it, asking the why and how questions you ask whenever you experience story that speaks to you, tells you, yes, this is one you must come to grips with.

You recall reading the opening two paragraphs to your graduate seminar.  "This,"  you said, "is a way to begin a story that will keep readers turning pages, not to get to the good parts, but to see what happens next."  Walter Tevis sets the story in motion in those two paragraphs:

"Beth learned of her mother's death from a woman with a clip board. The next day her picture appeared in The Herald-Leader. The photograph, taken on the front porch of the gray house on Maplewood Drive, showed Beth in a simple cotton frock. Even then, she was clearly plain. A legend under the picture read: 'Orphaned by yesterday's pile-up on New Circle Road, Elizabeth Harmon surveys a troubled future.  Elizabeth,eight, was left without a family by the crash, which killed two and injured others. At home alone at the time, Elizabeth learned of the accident shortly before the photo was taken. She will be well looked after, authorities say.'

"In the Methuen Home in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, Beth was given a tranquilizer twice a day. So were all the other children, 'to even their disposition.'  Beth's disposition was all right, as far as anyone could see, but she was glad to get the little pill.  It loosened something deep in her stomach and helped her doze away the tense hours in the orphanage."

Perhaps two hundred words, and we are caught in the pain, fear, and chemical solace of the "troubled future."  In the next short paragraph, we learn the color of the pills and how Beth was given them.  In this short time, you know a good deal about her, and you know something else--you care.

In addition to the feeling of being caught up in Beth's world in this Louisville orphanage, and your concern for her, you recall your pleasure in being able to share these paragraphs with your seminar, you remember how quickly that afternoon went, and you remember thinking how, so long as you had brain cells willing to remember things, you would remember this way of bringing a character on stage, then presenting her to an audience of readers for their first view of her.

The full circle from your having become a teacher without ever intending to is the awareness that you had to become a teacher in order to teach yourself.

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