Writing Teachers

19 Jan 2012

My muse Pixie is making me cut school again. I’m on the train to the office (a four-hour affair), and I’m supposed to be rereading my book manuscript to figure out what the conclusion should say. I’ve finished the narrative chapters—eleven chapters that were supposed to be six; three years that were supposed to be one. They’re good, they’re solid—they’re done, really. It’s time to read them in succession and write the conclusion. And I’ve set myself a deadline of next Thursday at noon to have the book done, so the conclusion needs to be written soon.

And I would have thought Pixie would love to read the manuscript over today. My train is plowing steadily through the blowing ice and snow, singing its horn as we cross through the towns of southwest Michigan, creating as romantic a feeling as Amtrak is capable of creating. I’ve got good music in my ears, and all my friends are almost assuredly too busy to chat on the phone. I’m even wearing my writing sweater, an increasingly threadbare black cashmere cardigan from L.L. Bean. The perfect environment for Pixie. But maybe it’s because of all this that she wants to write instead of read. Pixie is not an editor. I am the editor. She just wants to write.

Several of my friends are struggling right now with writing projects, at the same time that my eleven-year-old son is being forced to learn the elements of grammar. (Participles past and present, objects direct and indirect, and so forth.) In contrast to the sweat and tears they are all putting in to the production of English, I feel filthy rich having Pixie. And yet, too, always a little afraid that maybe I’ll lose her, maybe through a stroke, maybe via a bad tumble on a downhill sled run, maybe simply through age. Although I inevitably picture her a wispy-bodied blond eighteen-year-old with serious brains and attitude, I am very much aware she is, in fact, just some particular part of my brain-flesh that could go just as easily as she came.

Did she come “easily”?

“Ten thousand hours, then it comes easily,” the mate jokes, referring to the idea that that’s what’s required for ease in a difficult field. (He’s witnessed at least seven thousand of those hours.)

I guess what I mean is that Pixie came mysteriously, and she could very well go back home the same route. And I’m not even sure where “home” is for her. Somewhere where they know her better than I, that’s all I know.

Sometimes Pixie asks me about my hometown. I’ve never much liked talking with her about that, but maybe because my book has accidentally become something of a memoir of the last fifteen years that I’m thinking lately of the time before that. And specifically thinking about my writing teachers.

My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Kuzmier, is a joke in our family, because she has lent her name to a little wooden toy man who claps and bobs his head when you crank a wheel attached to him. A long time ago, I glued some long “hair” made of yellow yarn on this guy and called him “Mrs. Kuzmier,” and kept him in my academic office. This was when I was teaching writing to undergraduates. When they’d get the hang of something in terms of writing—paragraph structure, thesis development, the use of active verbs—I’d make “Mrs. Kuzmier” clap for them.

It’s a conscious joke, because in fact Mrs. Kuzmier was the teacher who told me I couldn’t be a writer. She had required us to write an essay about what we wanted to be when we grew up, so I wrote about wanting to be a writer. I’d been practicing at it for years by that point. I’d been writing poetry, keeping a journal, and sending off letters to companies I believed in need of my opinion. (Yes, I was born a crank.) But Mrs. Kuzmier read my essay on how I planned to be a writer, declared summarily that “writing is not a real career,” and made me write the essay over. I can’t remember what I turned in as a substitute.

When I tell people this story of Mrs. Kuzmier, they often respond, “That’s terrible!”, as if a teacher should never dash a child’s dream. But I’m not sure that Mrs. Kuzmier was wrong. These days, as I write so much and earn so little from my writing (except indirectly, via the job to which I’ll arrive in a few hours), I think she was right. And maybe she said this because she actually cared about a smart girl having a viable career.

After Mrs. Kuzmier, after fourth grade, all I had in terms of formal writing instruction was the misery my son now absorbs: grammatical parts, diagraming of sentences, tasks I’m not at all sure give us any real ability to write or to speak. (I’ll admit they make learning a foreign language easier, if you learn a foreign language the same miserable way.) Until my last year of high school, the only real writing teacher I ever had was my mother.

My mother read us Strunk and White at the breakfast table, hopelessly trying to remind me of the difference between lay and lie. (I still have to avoid those verbs when talking to her, knowing I’ll get them wrong.) But more importantly, she read us things she found beautifully written. Her favorites often came from a regular feature the New York Times then back had, these short essays about the changing seasons in Central Park. My mother called these “birdie stories,” and read them to us just after prayers, just after cutting up a fresh apple for us to share.

In my senior year I finally hit two real teachers of prose. One taught creative writing, and she was so dull I can’t remember her name. All she would say was “write what you know”—a perfectly reasonable concept but a hopeless one for a seventeen-year-old stuck in a situation where the only interesting things she knew personally were far too three-dimensional to commit to the two dimensions of paper. One can’t, in the midst of having a teacher abuse one sexually, in the midst of having one’s dearest elder die slowly at home, in the midst of a pleasantly numbing codeine addiction, write about it all, lest it all become four and five and six dimensions.

But the other senior-year writing teacher I do remember: William Sequin, a man as gay as his name. His argyle socks actually matched his sweater vests. (My friend Ira dared to ask one day if the socks were made out of the sleeves of sweaters that then became sock-matching vests.) Mr. Sequin technically taught A.P. English, not writing per se. But like my mother, he taught what mattered: love of the word.

And he taught it angrily, the way we wanted it. Mr. Sequin made very clear that we were unworthy of Virgil, unworthy of Homer, unworthy of Doctorow and Faulkner. But he would stand before us and read a line, and show us what we would look like if we could ever love prose the way that he loved prose. “Basking in his reflected glory.”

At some point, Mr. Sequin asked us to write an essay on anything, to show what we had in us. He insisted that form did not matter (this time). I wrote a philosophical piece called “What Came First—God or the Egg?” It was scribbled on two sides of an unlined piece of paper, but I had the sense that, for the first time, I had met the muse. After he had graded our productions, Mr. Sequin read mine aloud (without identification of the author) as the only example of decent writing in the class. After that, I became utterly paralyzed, unable to write anything good for years afterwards. (This became a curse I broke only by promptly destroying anything good, something I am now very glad I did.)

Because the abusive teacher had coerced me into it, I had started having sex at that point. But I had a very clear sense that what Mr. Sequin had access to was so much more erotic than anything I was experiencing. And I don’t mean gay sex. I mean the way that he was able to experience the written word as sex—not simply as erotic; truly as sex. Only years later, when I took to writing to my therapist George about what had happened, did I finally begin to realize that altered state of evolution. My therapist caught me, in one of our in-person sessions, running my fingers up and down a pen. I am sure George did not understand that I was just lost on a path of what to write next.

(“All I really want to know,” I remember writing George one day, ‘is this: Am I a good read?” He thought that was funny, but I wasn’t joking.)

But there must be a reason the muse is so often understood as a sexual partner. There must be a reason why, half the time the average person would be in a REM dream of sex, I’m in a REM dream of prose. When I have an essay due on deadline, there is nothing like a long nap to guarantee I’ll make it. I wake up knowing exactly how to order events of which I must write, feel exactly the tone needed, even see whole sentences as if they were already on the page.

Feel this, dear reader.

The mate came to me through the word, and we fell in love on the page. My roommate was his medical school classmate, and he would write to her the funniest emails—full of word puns, cultural references, and allusions to songs and novels. She would ask me to explain his messages, and I grew quickly intrigued by a guy who could turn a phrase like an expert on the lathe. Not long after we met, I had to go off to Bethesda, to do my dissertation research at the National Library of Medicine. Back then, phones came with lines, and were terrifically expensive for students like us. So we used the nascent technology of email to write back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth. And by the end of a week, I wanted him incarnate more than I ever wanted anyone before or since. (Even Matt Damon.)

When it came time to turn my dissertation into my first book, he became my primary editor. He made me do something only the most exquisite lover can make you want to do—completely rewrite the opening eighteen times before he declared he was satisfied. Still today I do not turn to paper until I have an opening line I know he could tolerate.

Since PIxie has come to be the girl at my side, the mate doesn’t need to work as hard, nor does he really have the time. It’s a good thing I have her. And why is she a she? I’m pretty sure, were she a he, I’d feel I was cheating on the mate. The truth is that he’s still the one I want to bed with my lines, still the one who can crush me by giving away that a chapter doesn’t work. (He did that a few weeks ago, and I hated that he was right.) He is still the one who can charm the pants off me with a short intimate email, so perfect is it in phrasing. My friends laugh at me knowing this guy—a guy I’ve been with for eighteen years—can seduce me with a spreadsheet.

Our son looked up forlorn from his English homework two days ago, and said to me, “I don’t see why we have to learn the words about the words, instead of just the words.” I knew what he meant: who cares if the perfect verb for a particularly sentence is called a past participle? Why do “subject complements” matter if his mother, whose work has been selected for Norton’s Best Creative Non-Fiction, can’t even remember what they are?

I thought I had better tuck him into my armpit before bed, and read him a little A.A. Milne. Pooh knows:

“Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is go where they can find you.”