It’s a little grim in Pittsburgh, although, as my parents always said, somewhere probably has it worse. There’s a thin continual snow falling, and gusts of wind blast the old windows of the English Department offices. There seems to be a little draft of cold air everywhere I turn. A high whine of it sneaking in through the warped frames. The sky’s overcast, one big load of cold water vapor.
It’s our last week of classes here, and many of us are using the little energy we gained this weekend (from not having to plan classes) reading dossiers for a personnel committee meeting tomorrow. There is so much hidden work in being a good faculty member, work I never dreamed would be so taxing when I was an undergraduate and then graduate student. Committee meetings you have to attend, letters of recommendation to write, book orders to get in three months before you have to teach the class, syllabi to organize and think about, course descriptions to update for the registrar, faculty activity reports, and on and on. Each thing in itself can be a pleasure, but they begin to accumulate after a while. Suddenly you’re in a whirlwind of details to remember. I end up making lists of things not to forget, then I immediately lose those lists and have to remake them. I begin to make piles on the desk of Immediate Concern, This Month’s Concern, Next Term’s Concern. Inevitably they get shuffled into one another. No one trains you how to keep yourself focused on your own writing at the same time.
Around the end of October, I remember we all began saying simultaneously “I’m sorry. I’m losing my mind.”
I think the students are going through something similar emotionally and psychically. I’ve had a couple already come up to the office with poems they despair of ever getting to work. It’s impossible to fix the flaws. The whole project they were working on has collapsed. They are terrified about the grades this mess they’re barely holding together in battered and ripped folders will receive. Half of them are struggling with colds. Everything about them is raw—they’ve made a terrible mistake, maybe they ought not to be writers, maybe it’s not too late to go into law school, med school, whatever path their parents or the culture has told them would lead to real happiness.
Give me the worst one, I say, and let’s see how bad it could be. Sometimes it is indeed very bad. Usually it’s a poem from very early in the term. Your problem here is you ought to just let this one go and write something new, I say. Even a bad something new is going to be better than a bad something old, right? The student releases her breath, which she hadn’t realized she was holding in. Oh, good, the student says, I hoped you’d say that. Is it okay if I write a bunch of new poems? And despite having said yes to that questions at least four times in class in the last three weeks, I say yes again. Her face lights up with relief. I am still, after twenty-some years of teaching, stunned by how much permission they require, how much power there is in my saying yes.
The truth is the students are such better writers now than they were only six weeks ago that it’s astounding. But the new knowledge and confidence is still fragile, and they don’t want to trust it. They don’t have any practice recognizing their new ability on the page. Sometimes, I say, it just takes a while to let yourself try out the techniques or subjects or models we’ve talked about over the course of the term. Each poet has to find his or her path, I say. Sometimes a student tries too hard to make a poem and has to be convinced to write much faster and not revise so much. Sometimes a student will suddenly have a conversion to the joys of the sonnet after a term of resisting it. Sometimes, and this happened this term, a student will suddenly realize that his use of a certain kind of Latinate diction pops up in his poems just where he doesn’t really want to talk about his very complicated feelings about his family. I can’t believe it, he said. How could I never notice that?
This is like therapy, one student always says at the end of the term. Sometimes it is like it, in the sense of discovering that you’re deeper than you thought. And not only is it like therapy for them, since I often end up giving advice that I also need. When the student leaves, I get up and walk around usually, go down and chat with the secretaries about something or get a tea in the basement café. I had no idea when I was a student of the kinds of work teaching creative writing entailed.
One small poem by a poet I’ve always loved.
by Robert Francis
Four Tao philosophers as cedar waxwings
chat on a February berrybush
in sun, and I am one.
Such merriment and such sobriety—
the small wild fruit on the tall stalk—
was this not always my true style?
Above an elegance of snow, beneath
a silk-blue sky a brotherhood of four
birds. Can you mistake us?
To sun, to feast, and to converse
and all together—for this I have abandoned
all my other lives.