Writer/Teacher: A Cautionary Tale
“Perfect is the enemy of the good.” -Voltaire
Everyone with a vagina in my family is a teacher. And I am a good teacher. I love it and I care about my students. They tell me I’m not easy, but thank me for how much they have learned about writing. Their work shows it. They seem to think I’m cool in a dorky kind of way. (The only way I’ve ever been remotely cool, this decade or any other.) They want to hug me.
To be a writing teacher, creative or composition, you better like it. It’s too much work otherwise. And you best know how to write. Right? I have some street cred with my students because I am a writer. We play “show and tell” as I pass around a folder with all the work for my essay titled “Good Enough.” The folder contains: handwritten scraps of ideas, a first draft, more marked up drafts, rejection letters, more drafts, and a copy of The Sun Magazine in which the essay finally appeared. I give my students sound advice and inspiring quotes: “Write a shitty first draft!” Anne Lamott and I say. Donald Murray is resurrected and we tell them: “Remember, the deadline is your friend!” Some of my students write down every word I say. This is a tremendous responsibility. I take it seriously, as I should.
For me, here is the primary risk inherent in being a teacher: I want to do it really, really well. I want to be an excellent teacher, not just for my students, but also for myself. This is how God made me. But even though I know perfection is unattainable, if I’m not careful my work becomes my all and all.
That “work” can be anything I am passionate about: mothering, teaching, writing. I suspect most writers know the sustained high of a writing project taking over their life: thoughts, dreams, the way they filter the world. And who doesn’t like a good sustained high? We are not always a balanced bunch, we writers. Such immersion is critical for the season of a project. And let’s be honest, it’s crazy-good-fun.
The sustained work life of a teacher requires something less dramatic from me if I want to show up for my family and friends, and if I want to write. There have been other lessons learned about work—other decades & duels with perfectionism. I haven’t figured this out yet, but I am not giving up. I love teaching, and writing, and the people who bless my life. For now I think the sustained work life of a teacher might mean some self-imposed deadlines for my own creative work. It might mean heeding Lamott’s advice, and my own, to just sit down and write that shitty first draft. Most of all, the sustained work life of a teacher might require bringing my creativity and passion to the classroom, but conscientiously choosing not to spend it all there.
Beth Mayer writes fiction, essays, and poetry. Her work has appeared in The Threepenny Review; The Sun Magazine; The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies and elsewhere. She is an MFA candidate at Hamline University, where she served on the editorial board of the literary annual Water~Stone Review. With the Minneapolis based organization TalkingImageConnection, Beth creates and performs new writing inspired by contemporary visual art. She is currently working on her first collection of short stories.