Here is a fiction.
We have a man. Let’s call him Joe.
Joe teaches creative writing at a community college, a university, an adult learners’ group, an institute of technology. He is not old, but he is certainly not young, not anymore. He was young once, a while ago now. His parents were younger then too, back when he was growing up in Sussex or St. Kilda, in Richmond, VA or Rockwood, just west of Toronto. A modest upbringing, you could say. Father works in hotel management, having worked his way up from desk clerk as hotels opened and closed. Mother used to teach history in grade school, or French in high school. Not that he was the first from his family to go on to higher education: his brother, Michael, studied Politics and Economics at Bristol or the University of Cape Town, and now rolls in the rewards of a career in finance.
Joe has a history, then. This much is clear. He lives four miles from college in a tidy town house, drives a three year old Dodge, Holden, Renault, and is okay with that. They are tools, nothing more. He’s never been one for owning things just for the sake of it, apart from the original Nigel Van Wieck painting above his desk, and he doesn’t see that as an indulgence. He looks at it closely every day before he starts writing.
For yes, Joe is a writer as well as a teacher. His first novel was published eleven years ago by a small press, to little notice. His second, developed from his MFA or PhD, was rejected by everyone he tried on account of being too difficult and uncommercial. “This seems more a novel of ideas than of plot,” one editor had said. “It’s fine to write it, but don’t expect to sell it.” Joe framed that letter and briefly hung it next to the Van Wieck. There was something about the way that the company logo contrasted with the call girl lifting the edge of her skirt beside it which charmed him. The appeal only lasted for a couple of weeks.
He mostly writes short stories now, in the spare hours between meetings of the Program Committee and Admissions Planning and Strategy Group. Publishes them in magazines, occasionally online. We could say that he’s trying to get a collection together. Not trying too hard, though. Subway was well received. In the Mealtime Hour too. He writes about place. Likes the hidden narratives of people who have stayed in the same location for years, home or work. There’s a theme appearing here which would work well for a collection. Perhaps he should try harder, contact small presses or university imprints. His Institute has a press of its own, mostly for critical or pedagogic work.
Do we need to know more about Joe? There’s his physicality and the way he presents himself: hair beginning to recede; chinos in dark colors; shoes that are nothing other than functional. He rolls the sleeves up on his lightly-patterned shirts. We could say that he sleeps naked, but this would only be incidental, a cause and effect pattern of the climate or the efficiency of his heating system. Yet he loves that feeling you get when you shower in the late evening, laze in a dressing gown or shorts, then take to the fresh cool of bed.
He goes swimming. Takes holidays by lakes or the sea so he can indulge himself. Sometimes on weekends he camps out by the river, when the weather’s warm, splits pine stumps and brews coffee like a Hemingway creation.
He’s afraid of dragons and unicorns. Not in a ‘whoa, look out!’ way but more as a sign of what they could represent. He also has a built-in dread of stone eggs that glow and hatch into winged monsters, but this is mostly because he’s graded too many undergraduate papers. The same goes for teenagers drinking, and people with skin that’s too pale. You get these things at his college, his State University, his Centre for Creative Studies, his Outreach Programs.
But Joe loves teaching. He thrives on those strange, vicarious moments when you can see their eyes widen and the tremor of a restrained smile. They get it, whatever it may be. He’s played them some song, Bryan Adams or Tom Petty, to make a point about imagery or restricted point of view. He’s shown them a Richard Pryor routine to talk about suppression and censorship, about who decides and when. He’s given them a Faulkner short story, Barn Burning or That Evening Sun or something like that, and they get it. He once supervised a thesis on Henry James, say, or Christina Stead, that was so good that as soon as it was published his student’s career was made. She’s finishing a post-doctoral fellowship at Cambridge now, with Brown, Berkeley and Melbourne all offering her a Professorship. Joe is proud of her, happy. With just the smallest trace of resentment coming to him in the early mornings.
He’s published his own critical work, of course. He and a colleague from his Community College co-authored an analysis of the pros and cons of creative writing workshops in social environments, What Do You Think of This? He’s written articles for the leading academic journals. Once in a while he’s paid to give guest lectures on the difference between voice and speech. Nothing like a fellowship or a professorship, but he’s working away as all in his position must, amongst the short fiction, the grading and lectures, the seminars. And in a weird way he kind of enjoys it. The way he has to change his brain over from the fluidity of one to the calculations of the other. This is how he sees it. A challenge. A way to make the work feel new, involved.
So Joe has a history, yes, but he has a present too. Let’s suppose he’s written another novel. This is a fiction, after all. He’s stopped finding excuses not to work. Evenings and weekends, sometimes by the river. Worked through the weeks when his enthusiasm left him. Put the letter back on the wall, next to the Van Wieck he treasures so much that he even made the lead female character look like the woman in the painting, right down to her green dress and chopped haircut.
It’s very good. He called up his old agent, the one who had eventually managed to place his first novel with that publisher in Oklahoma. The Writer’s Guide was not so much of a problem. Joe accepted an offer from an imprint of Random House for the worldwide rights. Not much of an advance but higher royalties. His agent was disappointed.
But the novel is good. “Hauntingly beautiful,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “When you get to the last page it leaves you with an ache, as if there’s a part of you that’s no longer complete,” the review from the London Evening Standard says. “Beyond hypnotic: literature that the rest of the century can only aspire to,” announces the critic from the Washington Post.
Joe is not surprised by these comments. He’s read many comments like as these about other books, and at times when reviewing been tempted to use similar phrasing and terminology, the same lifeless pleasantries.
Still, they’re nice to read. He hears them too, from colleagues reading out the reviews to him in the corridors of the university, the institute, the community college.
Here is Joe’s problem: the book is a medium-sized hit. It sells enough to make the publishers happy, although they’d like him to do more promotional work. They want signings and interviews, appearances at literary festivals, radio talk shows, readings. Above all, they want his face in the Sunday supplements. This is not unreasonable.
None of this is lost on Joe. He’s a realistic man. He knows how the world has to turn. But what of The Writer’s Guide itself, what could we say of that? What is it about the novel that has others comparing Joe to Updike and Nabokov, to Coetzee and Amis? We might say that his painted escort has allowed him to lead her. For the book is of a writer meeting her, writing about her. She starts as a vision of inspiration. A reason to engage. She turns, as Joe feels all characters must, and ends as his teacher. He has created her to show him how to create. Her green dress. Her chopped brown hair. The victim becomes the victor: a reverse that is hardly revolutionary, ‘Hauntingly beautiful’ though it may be.
Does any of this matter?
It matters to Joe’s publishers and critics and readers. It matters to his academy. And it matters to Joe, too. Naturally he cares for his book. He has sat at his desk in the evenings, sometimes by the river at weekends. He has filled his head with her while he swam in the lakes and seas. He has a relationship with her and the book which no one else can ever have.
Joe is not young. Neither is he old, although he is older than he was. Not thin, not fat. An admirer of good Italian cuisine. Brother to Michael. Driver of a Renault, a Dodge, a Holden. Owner of a new wool sweater. He is a writer of short stories about place, has two more coming out in the fall, one of which, Easy As It Goes, he is particularly pleased with. And he is, it seems, once more a novelist.
He is also a teacher of creative writing. His students think he is a good teacher of creative writing. There is the Steering Committee for the new University-wide Assessment Handbook. There are MA and MFA seminars to write. Applications for admission need reading and judging, according to the relevant criteria. There are unit, module and program outlines to be reappraised in the light of the Quality and Standards Board’s departmental feedback. Forty-four undergraduate papers need grading.
Joe understands all this, and he does not mind. This is the job. He must submit that book proposal on theories of contextual practice as well. But this is his other life, the one where creativity is drawn out of others, facilitated, enabled. When he hitches up his chinos and sits at the front of a class he is no longer a writer. The talents and inventions of his evenings don’t matter, except in the way that they got him the job to begin with and now see him viewed as Award Winning, Ground-breaking, Important. His role then, we could say, is to formalize something that can’t readily be expressed. To shape the two-hour seminar in prescribed fashion, doctrined in pedagogy and student expectation, in module outlines and Statements of Faculty Philosophy.
What has this got to do with his writing, we might ask? Does his writing of The Writer’s Guide mean anything in this room apart from institutional decorum? Joe sees himself as a teacher. He is also a writer, depending on what time of day it is. Though he accepts the College’s appeals for public lectures and his publisher’s insistence on a radio interview with equanimity he wonders who is doing this, the writer or the teacher? He wonders too, in Composition and Rhetoric, whether this duality is even compatible. He can only teach now when he consciously attunes himself to teaching. He can only write when he deliberately forgets everything he’s taught.
We might suggest, in our fiction, that one will inform the other. That experiences gained through one activity will be co-opted in the practice of the other. This might be a sensible conclusion. A statement backed up by cognitive and socio-psychological research. Intellectually proven. As inevitable and ineffable as a rejection letter from a publisher.
But Joe is man of ideas and thought. He practices his actions with living emotions. As he witnesses it this division of roles obliges him to compartmentalize. To dissociate. He can’t begin to consider The Writer’s Guide in any way other than as its author. He used to be a teacher, recognizing the requirements of his Institute, his Community College, his University.
Sometimes he wishes he hadn’t written the book. Or, at the very least, kept his version of the woman in Van Wieck’s painting for himself, like he keeps the editor’s letter, rather than offering both his novel and himself up for public consumption.
Mary disagrees. She says it’s a wonderful book. Deserves to be read. Besides, it’s good for him at work. It makes them regard him in a different way, gives him some more respect. And think what it’s doing for the reputation of the School?
Wait, Mary? We seem to have introduced someone quite late. She could be a sister, a colleague, a friend. Let’s assume she’s his wife.
Yes, he has a wife who shares the tidy town house and the waterside holidays. What else? She’s taller than Joe. A lot? Perhaps. He knows every detail of her chin, has watched it change over the years. Mary likes cous cous, kumquats and new season lamb. She keeps a diary, we suspect. Red, small, hardback. A thin pencil incorporated into the spine, almost too small to hold. Certainly too small for Joe’s liking. He never sees her write in the diary but the days are always full.
We will discover more about Mary as we go, undoubtedly. Now that she is here she must have something to say. Opinions. An effect. It’s possible that she’s related to the girl in the green dress. It would be hard for her not to be.
Here is Joe. Joe and Mary. A teacher of creative writing, a physiotherapist. A novel. We have characters, a past, a present. An instance and a context.
Dr Simon Holloway has a PhD from Bangor University, North Wales. He is currently either a Lecturer in Creative Writing (Fiction) at The University of Bolton and a writer, or a working writer and a Lecturer in Creative Writing.
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Vol 17 No 2 October 2013
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Creative works editor: Anthony Lawrence