The semester is coming to an end, and I’m watching my Developmental Writing students take their final exams after sixteen weeks of struggling through increasingly difficult reading and writing assignments. Some of them come up to me at the end of the exam to thank me for being an “awesome” teacher–which I have my doubts about, but I accept their compliments. Some of them just leave, and that’s okay, too.
I’ve been at this for more than twenty years now and have figured out a few good ways to help struggling students along in their journeys toward self-expression. How many of them have gone on to master the rigors of muddy academic writing, I don’t know, but I hope that a handful have at least reached an appreciation for the written word and what they can do with it if they just put their minds to the task–and give themselves plenty of time.
For many of those 20+ years, I was the closeted college-professor-who-wants-to-be-a-novelist. And I stayed in the closet because I really didn’t want to be that guy, didn’t want to be one more cliché professor who’s waiting for his big break–the literary equivalent of the waiter who’s auditioning for acting roles.
I was also pretty much haunted by what I saw as George Bernard Shaw’s condemnation of me: “He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches.” My definition of writer for much of that time wasn’t “someone who writes” but rather “someone who’s published,” or more accurately, “someone who makes a living by writing.” That last was something I could not do (still haven’t), and so in the Shavian sense, I had slipped into teaching by default: I was teaching because I couldn’t do the thing I wanted, an admission of failure in every lecture, every stroke of the red pen, every start and end of a semester.
And, of course, every rejection letter just added to my certainty that I was clearly in the second part of the Shaw quotation: the cannot-ing teachers.
Fortunately, somewhere along the way, I redefined writer. A writer writes, after all. That’s what I tell my students at the start of each semester. Whether it’s term papers or poems or journal entries (or blogs) or rejected novels, it’s all writing.
And along with that changed definition came another way to look at success. The indie movement in publishing has allowed a whole new way for writers to find their audience, bypassing the gatekeeper of the agent/publisher. So now, just about anybody can, even some who probably shouldn’t.
So here I sit, watching my students finish their exams, my third full-length novel now available for sale and already in the hands (or Kindles) of several readers. A writer and a teacher.
I think Shaw had it wrong. Those who teach, can do, too.