The Teacher

Two former students came over for drinks last night, both visiting from NYC.  One of these young men had been in my class his freshman year in l993;  both are scholars, both have earned doctorates, both live in Manhattan, both were originally from Texas. 

My friend (and former student) from the l993 class remembered the help I'd given him on his critical analysis of As I Lay Dying.  He told everyone who was in the living room the way I'd spent so much time with him, going over his paper,  sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph.

 He remembered the books on the syllabus.  Susan Minot.  Susan Wood's Campo Santos.  Rita Dove.  The Left-Hand of Darkness. As I Lay Dying.

What do I remember of that class?  I remember I'd developed the course around a heartbreak. The course was titled:  We Are the Stories We Tell.  I meant to explore the stories we told ourselves and the stories told to us and the stories told to us about us.   I chose the books on the syllabus for the way the different authors called attention to themselves in their books, or provoked thoughts about the nature of story-telling, both positive and negative. 

Two years before I had fallen in love with a married man who decided to leave his wife and marry me.  Then he changed his mind.

I have lived a significant amount of years of my life based on this story, which is simultaneously simple--he didn't leave his wife--and complex--I decided he was my soulmate;  I'd lost him; no one could compete with him for my love.  Yet my idea of what our future would have been was imagined, fictional, you see?

I'm certain I needed this narrative.  It would come to be my excuse--my reasoning--for rejecting all suitors over the years.  

Oh how I'd call attention to the word-choice in this piece if I were critiquing it for a literature class.   Suitors!  Soulmate!  Lost!  Compete!  Writing.  

That particular semester was fraught for a specific reason: the married man I'd loved had recently published a story in which I was a thinly-disguised character.  I was furious. The narrator leaves his wife for this thinly-disguised character; a pure fiction.  Over time, I've come to love the story and especially the way I'm portrayed.  The story hasn't changed.  I have.

During the l993 semester, I'd pulled myself together just enough to walk into the classroom, teach something about narratives, and walk out of the classroom.  Each day I walked out of the classroom, I walked right back into the grief, re-ignited by his published story.   His story had broken open the stitches of my Raggedy Ann heart and for a few months my only respite from the sickness was when I was with that group of students.  I loved them, intensely, and I suppose it is no accident that the class seems to have been particularly memorable for them (or several of them have told me) as well as for me.  

Ultimately, I would quit teaching fiction, become a writer of nonfiction, and for the rest of my career in the university I would teach nonfiction--the writing of memoir and personal essay.

I  remembered the first time I walked into the room where the 1993 class was held. The room had no windows, the conference table was too large for the room, and it was a struggle to get to my place at the front of the rooml  I'd had to squeeze past the back of the students' chairs and step over boulder-sized backpacks.

 I'd thought--I often think catastrophically--that if there were a fire I’d be the last one out. 

I remembered I must have spoken this fear because I distinctly remember going off on a tangent about fire: Fires, I'd said, was the title of Raymond Carver’s last collection of poetry, essays, and short stories. I said a lot, I suspect, about his death, about his wife, his second wife's sorrow, and the way she had put together this posthumous collection. 

Recently I'd been put on Prozac, a drug that helps with language retrieval, and it certainly propelled me that semester.  I was the Queen of Tangents.   I remember I told them about spontaneous-combustion, one of my minor obsessions.  I'd asked them,  Don’t you all ever worry that you might catch on fire while walking across the street?  

No one answered.

I'd told them of certified cases in the Guinness Book of World Records. I told them about Dickens and his character from Bleak House who was the owner of the rag and bones shop who was found burned-up, only a smudged residue of him was left in his office.  

I'd explained that Carver’s first collection of stories was based on his first marriage.  He'd met  his second wife, Tess Gallagher, a poet, when he gave a reading in Texas.  Tess was, he wrote, the love of his life, his soulmate. With Tess, he managed to quit drinking, which he’d tried to do repeatedly, but couldn’t until he found Tess.

The critical assessment after his early death from cancer was that over time his stories grew richer, longer, revealed a tentative embrace of hope.  The spareness of the early prose was replaced by more pages, more love.   Friends of Carver and his first wife said that in each of the early stories there was something borrowed, something true from their lives together--a fight, a conversation, an event--that he lifted directly for his fiction.  In a Paris Review interview, his first wife said she's been his material, that she and his children had been sacrificed for art. Then when he became famous, he'd left her.  There was terrible bitterness in her section of the collection of interviews.  

 What I wondered then, would I  sacrifice for a good story?---- a goat, a friend, a lover, a family member?  

(It seems it was all of the above except for the goat.  And the price was steep.) 

After each year of teaching stories, I began to wonder what I was teaching, really?  

This I wonder still, as I looked across the room at my two former students who were now in such a different room with me, a red living room in New England.  

Until this blog, I'd given up writing.  It has been fourteen years--there was an essay here and there-- four, in fact.   The price paid for the memoir I published turned out to have been too high for my sensibility.  I'd lost -- FOREVER-- a sister and a brother, neither who would speak to me again after my memoir came out.  They both died.  We had not reconciled at the time of their deaths.  

 I looked at my former students who were smiling, laughing, telling stories about our time together in the classroom.  I think that to teach is to live in parallel universes: your own life and your students' lives.  There is the life created in the classroom, the community that meets regularly, then there is the world of the stories we read, and the back stories of the stories we read.  And then, of course, there are the lives that are our "real" lives.  The ones we walk out of that classroom and into------ 

During the first weeks of the class, I'd decided to focus on opening sentences, first paragraphs.  Always, I'd told them, look to the opening for where you are being led.  Then retrace your steps--reread the opening--after you finish reading the novel, the story.  

How many times I've retraced my steps in my "real" life.  

 Grace Paley--one of my writer heroes--had her protagonist in one story think to herself:   “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.”   

I remembered that I'd asked my students then:    What makes the best story?   Desire satisfied?  Desire thwarted?  

 Later I thought of this as my crisis of faith class.  I'd begun to lose my belief in fiction as the end all, be all.

I remembered I'd asked them where else besides stories do we become transported?   I'd spoken of intense merging with another, or with a group, about mothers and children, lovers, fans at football games, attendees of concerts, church, drugs, art.    

I admit it: I was kind of crazy.  I was lost.  It was at this time I decided I wanted to write rather than teach literature.  I'd realized this is what I'd always wanted to do.

It wasn't until years and years later--after my memoir came out--sometime during that time--that I realized I'd wanted the life of the married writer man  perhaps more than I'd wanted the actual writer man. (You couldn't have persuaded me with this argument in 1993). What  I mean is that basically I was lazy and a coward. Probably I wanted the reflected glory of his writing. He would do the work; writing is hard work. I would provide some material.    

 Could it be that in fact the man actually was my soulmate?  In that he left me, thus catapulting me into becoming a writer.  Or is this just a tale I tell myself to console myself?   

While studying psychoanalysis, I read that when someone dies that the one who mourns for this person often adopts qualities of this person.  It is a form of cannibalization.   When he left, I began to write.  

When someone you love dies, you put one foot in  front of the other until you find the clearing.  For me, it was putting one sentence, one paragraph, one chapter together until I'd written a whole, or, written myself whole again.  

Near the end of the class about stories, t I'd told the students that after all of the attention to beginnings, to opening lines, we now had to look at endings.  I thought then, as I think now, that endings have much to tell us.  

One of the former students who was here last night recently lost his lover, his partner.  Lost him to a sudden illness that they both had thought was a bad flu.  My friend's partner died after a weekend of sickness.  My friend--my former student-- is suffering.  He also teaches.   I wonder if the classroom is a respite for him, time out of time, like a novel?--when his mind doesn't dwell on his lost love?  

The story I started to tell tonight is not this story.  This story seemed to have come out of nowhere.  But of course, this piece only feels as if it wrote itself. I wrote this, and I shuttle back and forth constantly about the shifting sands of this story, of these stories.  There are ten or more stories within this story.    I know I will read it tomorrow and find out what I had to say.  

For now, this is my story and I'm sticking to it.  

It's only a story.