When I teach an introductory course in creative nonfiction, I often begin with an essay by Terry Tempest Williams, "Why I Write." Every sentence of that essay starts with the same statement: "I write": "I write to record what I love in the face of loss." "I write because it is a dance with paradox." "I write for the surprise of a sentence."
After some discussion of the text, I ask the students to follow Williams's model and write a sentence that begins with "I write." They do not put their names on the papers, which I then collect, shuffle, and distribute randomly. Students now have in their hands a different paper -- a different reason for writing. Sitting in a circle around me, they read aloud their anonymous classmates' statements.
It is one thing to write something and read it out loud. It is another to write something and hear someone else read it aloud. The statement, suddenly separated from the writer, takes on an independent life. And it joins force with a group of statements, which, like Williams's essay, is much greater than the sum of its parts.
In a sense, the class has written an essay like Williams's -- an aggregate that lists, describes, emotes, reasons, muses, plumbs the depths, and paints the surface. It is an interesting, often moving, exercise. And it puts in the students' minds a writer's perpetual question: Why do I do this?
That is also my perpetual question. I am a writer and a teacher of writing, intertwined identities. I earn my livelihood by talking to college students about writing, giving them assignments, reading their work, and commenting on it.
In between semesters and sometimes during, I write articles for newspapers and magazines, and in the summer I work on longer pieces that take shape slowly. The work is satisfying but the remuneration is sparse. Teaching supports my writing, and as a professional writer I can offer my students insight into the craft of nonacademic prose. I'm a very good teacher, and I teach at a major research university in a full-time, but non-tenure-track position. I have a pleasant office on a beautiful campus in an attractive city. Ostensibly that makes for a satisfying professional life. Except ...
Except for the disconnect I experience daily between the work that I love, and the way I am treated by my department. I accept that I have a low-ceiling position and that tenure will never enter the picture for me. But getting even a definite one-year contract is an ordeal.
My contract is always on the line, always subject to caprices, fiats, machinations, and finessing that the chairwoman hints at darkly but never explains. My salary, I am asked to believe, is contrived through the powerful magic of department administrators who cajole spare change out of cheapskate deans. À la Dickens's Mr. Murdstone, everything is meted out to me with parsimony, hauteur, and a grotesque sense of noblesse oblige.
When, after 15 years of teaching at this university, I asked for a three-year contract, I was flatly told no, and warned not to ask again, "because," the chairwoman said, "I'm just going to tell you 'no' again."
I often recall that meeting and others like it. I wonder what goes through the chairwoman's mind when she delivers such pronouncements, since we both know she earns a six-figure salary and has been actively luring academic superstars to campus for similarly cushy jobs.
Does she ever wonder what it's like to be strung along until the last possible moment? Or what it feels like to have a contract -- filled with boilerplate about patents that cannot be yours if you invent something and about the pointlessness of publications (since yours don't count toward tenure) -- appear in your campus mailbox at the last possible minute, or even a few weeks late, and to sign and return it immediately for fear that delay of more than a few hours will consign you to oblivion? Can she just shrug and accept that such are the laws of academic supply and demand?
Over the years I have become used to the shabby treatment, but it wasn't until quite recently that I realized how deeply corrosive its effect has been on my psyche. Dealing with academic administrators is so unpleasant and so painful that I have become overly anxious, wary, edgy, short-fused, and sleep-deprived.
Sometimes, halfway through the semester, I ask my students to write about a situation from two perspectives. What is it like to be a cashier in a supermarket? What is it like to be a customer in that cashier's check-out line?
Like my students in that assignment, I find myself split. On the one side, there's Happy Me, who immensely enjoys the intellectual challenges of designing courses, going into the classroom, introducing students to wonderful literature and ideas, and seeing them grow as writers.
On the other side, there's Angry Me, whose talents and contributions are ignored by her employer, who earns the lowest salary of all full-time faculty members in the department, and whose colleagues are often gratuitously cruel. I remind myself interminably that the constant disdain, pettiness, and passive aggression that I'm subjected to by these so-called humanists is a statement about them, not about me.
The reality is that I'm the one who suffers, and I know this is a destructive way to live.
This fall, one of my colleagues, a part-timer, was let go. I noticed that she wasn't at a faculty meeting in September. I was puzzled. I asked around. No one had any idea where she was or what had happened. It was one of those Orwellian moments when you discover that your cubicle neighbor has been vaporized and everyone else pretends that nothing has changed, and you start to question your own memory and sense of security.
Next year I could be the vaporized person and history would be rewritten so that I would be retroactively excised, just like my former colleague.
Teaching here is like being in a bad marriage that looks good to outsiders. I'm the wife whose husband slaps her around but who, nonetheless, smiles gamely, maintaining the relationship "for the sake of the kids."
But the hand-writing is on the wall in giant strokes. I'm constantly asking myself if I'm strong enough to get by without the cushion of an institution that offers me library privileges, computer support, health insurance, a pretty office, college tuition assistance, and the opportunity to work with intelligent, capable, sensitive students. It's a lot to renounce; otherwise I would have quit a long time ago.
Recently I learned that my department has been negligent. It was supposed to have informed me well in advance if my contract would be renewed for the following year. That had never been done -- whether as a consequence of profound indifference to my fate, or administrative ineptitude. (My guess is the former.)
But now there's a new edict in effect, and within a few weeks my immediate superiors are supposed to tell me my status for the next academic year. Nothing would surprise me. If they want to cut me to part time, they'll do it. If they want to get rid of me, they'll do it. No reason has to be offered, or they can make faux excuses such as "budget," "reorganization," or, as students like to say, "whatever."
What will I do if I lose or leave my job? I won't look for another in academe, that's for sure. I'm at a university that's arguably one of the best places in the world to teach, whose merits I fully endorse and whose student body is outstanding. A lateral career move would offer me less, and worse, than what I now have.
Instead, I'll write. Because I can't not write -- it's essential to my existence. I'll figure out how to live without the pleasures and the malice of academe. In the long run, I might be content with the way things turn out. But not being able to teach would be a serious loss.
It's an insidious dilemma: Dedication to vocation versus psychic survival. The sad thing is that it really doesn't have to be like this. I shouldn't have to endure the psychological abuse -- job insecurity, authoritarian administrative decrees, patronizing double-speak. I shouldn't be subjected to this kind of treatment, period. There's no reason why a top-tier university -- or any postsecondary institution -- should force a gifted, committed teacher with a legacy of appreciative, successful students, to the brink of despair.
At least, standing on the brink, I know why I write.
I write to exorcise the demons. I write to gain perspective. I write to remind myself that the act of putting words on a page and then sending them into the world is an act of liberation.