Chris Uggen's Blog: try teaching eighth-grade English, five classes a day, 35 kids in a class ...

Sunday, May 21, 2006

try teaching eighth-grade English, five classes a day, 35 kids in a class ...

whenever i attend a graduation ceremony, i think about my all-time favorite commencement speech by gary keillor of anoka, minnesota. it was warm, funny, reverent, humble, and full of love -- for the minnversity, the proud parents, the students, and the faculty. we berobed faculty sat behind mr. keillor onstage at northrup auditorium, trying desperately not to laugh too loudly.

mr. keillor taught a creative writing course at the minnversity this year and he's been doing a column titled the old scout for the strib. in my opinion, the quality of the column has been uneven but improving of late, and i especially enjoyed this take on writing from earlier in the month.

we write sooooo little as social scientists, yet we complain sooooo much about writing. here's mr. keillor:

Okay, let me say this once and get it off my chest and never mention it again. I have had it with writers who talk about how painful and harrowing and exhausting and ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE it is for them to put words on paper and how they pace a hole in the carpet, anguish writ large on their marshmallow faces, and feel lucky to have written an entire sentence or two by the end of the day.

It's the purest form of arrogance: Lest you don't notice what a brilliant artist I am, let me tell you how I agonize over my work. To which I say: Get a job. Try teaching eighth-grade English, five classes a day, 35 kids in a class, from September to June, and then tell us about suffering.

The fact of the matter is that the people who struggle most with writing are drunks. They get hammered at night and in the morning their heads are full of pain and adverbs. Writing is hard for them, but so would golf be, or planting alfalfa, or assembling parts in a factory.


[okay, that's a little strong, mr. keillor, but probably fair. here's where it really becomes evident that the old scout has been hanging out with the tenured professoriate:]

The biggest whiners are the writers who get prizes and fellowships for writing stuff that's painful to read, and so they accumulate long resumes and few readers and wind up teaching in universities where they inflict their gloomy pretensions on the young. Writers who write for a living don't complain about the difficulty of it. It does nothing for the reader to know you went through 14 drafts of a book, so why mention it?

The truth, young people, is that writing is no more difficult than building a house, and the only good reason to complain is to discourage younger and more talented writers from climbing on the gravy train and pushing you off. ...

...Clarity is hard. Honesty can be hard. Comedy is always chancy, but then so is profundity. Sometimes one winds up as the other. Illness is, of course, to be avoided, and also megamalls and meetings involving vice presidents. But writing is not painful, no more so than a round of golf. Nobody was harmed in the course of writing this column...

sage advice, i suppose. what do you think? is mr. keillor too harsh here? i complain some about writing but i get a lot more angst-y over fatherhood. fatherhood is hard.

but i'll 'fess up. sadly, i know exactly what he means about getting prizes and fellowships for writing stuff that's painful to read. and please, lord, just strike me down if i ever start inflicting any of my own gloomy pretensions on the young. writing suits me as well as any other endeavor and i'm privileged to do it. i might enjoy teaching eighth-grade English but i wouldn't enjoy the pay cut. and while i might be capable of building a house, i surely wouldn't want to live in it. nope, it's a writer's life for me.

2 Comments:

At 8:39 AM, Blogger Mike W. said...

There's a lot of valuable advice in that column. I can't help but feel, however, that the tone of the article is, on the surface, extraordinarily bitter, and underneath, moderately jealous. I don't know what he could be jealous of, but it certainly seems to be lurking in his writing. Calling academes "drunks" seems to be an unnecessary ad hominem, as extensive drinking is certainly not the exclusive domain of any single profession, or even a subsect of one. Though, I suppose, what one takes the greatest offense to is the shot that comes closest to hitting us.

It doesn't distract from his overall point, and I fear that I will be pushed away from "micheviousness" and "jokiness" towards that "harrumphing laureate" at some point in my career. That scares the hell out of me.

 
At 8:58 AM, Anonymous chris said...

mike, maybe he had heard so many academics whining about writing 30 pages per year that the prolific old free-lancer finally boiled over. i know some investigative journalists who similarly view our jobs as unbelievably cushy -- they must literally live by their wits, pitching articles without health insurance, regular paychecks, offices, or administrative support. as for the drunks line, i wonder whether there are more sots in journalism and the humanities than in the social sciences. i wouldn't bet on it...

 

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