Writers on Teaching

Writers on Teaching: Thomas Heise

SB: We’ve seen an influx of poets and prose writers obtaining their Creative Writing MFA and it’s worth asking again, can writing be taught? Beyond journal entries and tweets, how do you teach a student whose sole exposure to contemporary writing is popular or commercial offerings to write beyond entertainment?

TH: My experience has been that students are driven to write out of an “authentic” voice, rather than write for entertainment purposes. Which raises a whole other set of challenges, since “authenticity” easily gets coded in clichéd rhetoric and styles that are passed off as true. I’m highly suspicious of claims to “authenticity” by writers and artists, because they are usually grounded, though not acknowledged as such, in unexamined assumptions about “the natural” and unmediated life experience. I find students love Henry Miller and Allen Ginsberg because they think they give them “the real thing,” sexual desire, longing, alienation in all of their rawness. But too often, they don’t understand how that affective response is generated on the page. And so “authenticity” ends up getting asserted, rather than earned. At the other pole, postmodern playfulness and delight in artifice has its own suburban cul-de-sacs lined with geometrical front yards. Teaching can point some of this out, but it’s a delicate negotiation one must make between honoring the unabashed nerve to write in the first place and cultivating awareness that writing is always a form of rewriting.

What makes a writer a writer? Obsession and diligence to turn those obsessions into form. I’m not sure either can be taught, but a context can be created in which both get to breathe.

What I stress in workshop is that our job as respondents is first and foremost to say back to writers in the class what it is that we see and hear in their work. Our job really isn’t to correct the work. That will all sort itself out in the long run. Those who don’t want to be writers or don’t have the chops for it will stop writing eventually. A large percentage of MFA grads go on to other lives. And there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m vigilant about the tendency to sand down the rough edges of a new piece of writing in order to make it less complex, more formally cohesive, and easier to digest in the space of a workshop session. I honor messiness, difficulty, and risk. And that’s different from letting sloppy work pass through our hands or valuing the raw as a sign of the authentic.

Writing workshops are at their best when they make students conscious of their stylistic quirks and thematic obsessions. Not to eliminate them, but to give students choices in regards to them. To turn up the dial higher or lower, if desired. Ultimately your style is your obsession encoded in the lexicon, image banks, and forms that you return to time and again in a compulsion to repeat. But your imagination—if you feed it—will also find new ways to slip past the forms by which you give it expression, which will keep your work always pressing against the boundaries of the workshop community or the tastes of editors.

In the same vein, why teach contemporary literature? Arguably, students often haven’t even had a fair exposure to Joyce, Stein, or Pound. How do you lay the foundation? How do you make the jump to DFW and Zadie Smith?

I teach contemporary literature for any numbers of reasons. Because I want to share with students the books that have captured my imagination and I think bear reading, re-reading, and analyzing. Because I want to promote a writer in whom I believe. Because the best of contemporary literature mediates the abstract, inchoate, and seemingly random events of early twenty-first-century life and allows us to feel, see, and understand what is otherwise invisible, un-representable, pervasive but diffusive and unorganized.

But why stop at Joyce, Stein, or Pound? Why not step back on the airport’s moving sidewalk to Dostoevsky, Dickinson, and Rimbaud? And before them? Augustine and Sappho? One can get into a game of infinite regress. But pretty quickly you run into purely pragmatic problems—the shortness of the semester, the limitations of your own expertise, the desire for a cohesive reading list.

If I’m teaching literature to writing students, rather than literature students, my goals are different. For the former, I want us to learn to see what made or makes a writer new, disruptive, and challenging, not what has made him or her a part of tradition, or an authority, or a sage. I want my students to see what was radical and innovative about Whitman or Thomas Bernhard, not so they can do the same thing—God forbid—but so they can do something different.

Is there something then that you’re “looking” for in contemporary work before adding it to the syllabus? Certainly bias must come into play but how do you decide on just a few titles to teach for a few months? And what about the dreaded year-end review when you discover everyone hated the required short-story collection?

Most contemporary work is mediocre. But that shouldn’t be surprising, because most of anything in any period isn’t very good.

Occasionally I assign a novel or book of poetry not because I’m enthralled with it, but because it brings to the class a set of issues about form and politics that are worth debating. A formally or aesthetically “flawed” book—whatever that might mean in a given instance—is often interesting to teach not in spite of its problems, but because of them.

At the end of every semester, I ask my students what books on the syllabus they found to be the most worthy of study, which one or two they would replace, and what titles they would add. I listen and make adjustments, because I’m truly interested in what speaks to students who are a generation removed from me in time. That information all gets filtered through many layers, however, including the curricular needs of my department, my desire to provide historical coverage and diversity on the syllabus, and other considerations too. But I don’t simply cater to the taste of students in order to increase demand, like a restaurant manager who changes the menu because the locals want sour cream rather than crème fraîche.  “Less Ashbery with my two helpings of Plath, please!”

With student considerations in mind, would you say that mentoring relationships flourish in an academic community? That is professor-to-student mentoring as well as teacher-to-teacher.

I can’t speak for other academic communities. I imagine in small, elite liberal arts colleges where every Friday there are cocktails it might be different. I teach in a large research institution. New professors fly solo for the most part, which was fine for me when I arrived. Everyone is so busy cranking out material at the Publish or Perish Sweatshop that who has time except to hand you the keys to your office and mention that there’s also a bathroom on the third floor in case there are too many students in the main one. Professor-to-student mentoring: there is a lot of that and it can be incredibly rewarding, especially if I’m advising intellectually curious undergraduate and graduate students. They’re the ones who make teaching an amazing pleasure.

MOTH; or how I came to be with you again, Thomas Heise

MOTH is an adventurous book-length project, best described as a “poetic narrative.” In columnar, densely lyrical sections, it’s built around a mystery: the story of a young man who is trying to fuse together his present and past, pieces of which include abandonment by his parents, his childhood in an orphanage, and a sense of disconnection from his adult life.

For a classroom-ready reader's guide written by the author himself, follow this link, and explore more titles with reader's guides in Sarabande in Education


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