Through a Cynic’s Eyes: The Teacher as Writer

That the teacher of writing should also be a writer has become, in the contemporary literature of teaching writing, a truism. Joyce Armstrong Carroll states it plainly: “Teachers of writing should write.” (“Process into Product: Teacher Awareness of the Writing Process Affects Students’ Written Products,”315).  And yet, “Here there be dragons.”  My gut reaction upon hearing that I must be a writer is that I have been slapped in the face. Sometimes it is useful to examine such emotional responses to see, before we discard them completely, if they might not have some rational justification after all.

“An End and a Beginning”, an editorial sidebar to Bruce Robbins’ article in the April 1992 English Journal (73), sums up three compelling reasons why teachers should be writers: “(1) to ground one’s authority in actual experience as a writer, (2) to expand one’s repertoire of useful responses to students, and (3) demonstrate one’s professionalism ‘to our pupils, to their parents, and the taxpaying citizenry.'”

The teacher of writing should be a writer. It is a heavy word: should.  It is a powerful word. The world turns and the sun rises because it should. We do what we do because we should or in spite of the fact that we shouldn’t. Our lives are full of shoulds, are shaped and governed by should. And every should that we cannot fulfill represents a failure. Every should that we are not committed to fulfilling represents a moral failure. Should is a heavy word.

We should be writers. But what do we mean by “writer?” That is the first conundrum.

Obviously, a teacher of writing should be able to write competently himself. He should be able to produce coherent and reasonably correct English prose. Surprisingly, this is not always the case. Once upon a time in graduate school, a professor of English showed me a doctoral dissertation that had come to him a few days earlier. The candidate was seeking his degree in Education, but because he had been an English teacher, Dr. Woods was on his committee. “You’ve got to be kidding,” I responded. “This fellow is illiterate. If he were in my remedial class, I would flunk him.”

Yes, the writing teacher should write, or at least have written. I cringe when I hear a colleague say, “I haven’t written anything since college.” Or, worse, “I never wrote anything in college.” (An English minor, at least, saying this! And I have heard it in my own department.)

So, why am I bothered by the conventional wisdom that teachers should write? After all, I do write. I’m doing it now, ain’t I? And, barring the substandard usage in the previous sentence, I think I do so with a modicum of competence. I used to write a fair amount of poetry. How competent it was is arguable. Once, I broke up with a girlfriend because she said my stuff was simplistic. In retrospect, perhaps she was right. The trouble is that I think most of the “Teachers As Writers” advocates (henceforth, TAWs)  mean more than that. I asked one of my colleagues who is very vocal on this issue and a nationally published writer what she meant. She said’ “A writer is a person who writes. You write, so you don’t have a problem.” But I’m not so sure. Never mind what she said, she means more than that.

I may be a writer, but I am not a Writer. There is a substantial difference, and when I hear or read one of the TAWs, I hear or see that W slide into the upper case.

TAWs, usually begin by disparaging the kinds of writing that most teachers, myself included, do. Alan Ziegler, for example tells of lunch with a group of teachers: “With the exception of letter writing all but one of them wrote only when they had to turn out a memo or a newsletter article. Only one teacher also wrote poetry and kept a journal.” (The Writing Workshop, 5). This is a pretty stringent definition of what you must do to be considered a writer. I think most of us feel good if we get a newsletter article published, but evidently that’s not writing, or not Writing. Tom Romano cites an unspecified editorial in the English Journal. “[Teachers] really weren’t being professional if they taught writing but…didn’t compose at least two pieces a year that they sent out for publication.”  (Clearing the Way, 37)  This legitimatizes newsletter articles but ups the ante to “publish or perish comes to high school.” William A. Clark complains that “Teachers do scandalously little writing, except term papers, and it won’t be term papers these students will be writing.” (“How To Completely Individualize a Writing Program,” 53). Such statements are always snobbish and are often patently unfair. Any writer writes for his market; this is especially true of Writers. If a teacher is interested in coursework to upgrade his teaching skills and maintain his certification, term papers are going to comprise most of the real-world market for his writing. Those students aren’t going to write poems and short stories either, except in a writing-workshop English class.

Such an expectation would not bother me so much if I felt it were realistic. There is an irony here. Most of us are not trained to do the kind of writing we encourage our students to do in writing workshop. I never took a creative writing course in college, nor was I encouraged by my advisor to do so. To the contrary. I must admit to some cowardice, however. I knew some fellows in Herbert Krause’s class, what they could do, what I could do, and I was sure I would be out of my league. The same was true at UNR where W. VT. Clark held forth. And there have been few opportunities since. Fiction, poetry, and screenwriting courses, most places, tend to be undergraduate offerings, daytime only.

The occasional writing course for teachers, and summer institutes like the one Joyce Armstrong Carrol writes about,  offer an opportunity to do some writing and may even result in an interesting piece or two, but I think that  few ever became  writers, much less  Writers  because of one. After all, the purpose is generally to model the workshop structure and to give teachers a little taste of writing.

One thing that lacks in our professional lives is anything outside of ourselves that might encourage us to continue writing (aside from term papers, memos, and newsletters, which don’t count). “Professional writers cite regular writing as crucial,” says Joseph M. Moxley (“Tearing Down the Walls: Engaging the Imagination”, 40-41). And this is the opportunity that lacks for most of us who might otherwise be interested. Regular writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum, not on a sustained basis, anyway. Emily Dickinson was the exception, not the rule. Tom Romano sings the praises of independent adult writing groups (Clearing the Way 178-180). Such a group can make a difference. Long ago, for two or three years I was in a photography seminar. Then I moved away, and within a few years, I quit taking pictures altogether. Audience can be crucial. That is one of the rationales behind the peer response group. Adult writing groups are not found on every street corner, however. In the meantime, what do most of us have an audience for? Memos, term papers, and for the more ambitious among us, the occasional newsletter article.

Perhaps it is just not possible. Harlan Ellison describes his experience judging a Twilight Zone Magazine short story contest (Bloomsbury Review March/April 1990). Out of 8,000 entries, ten publishable ones were finally winnowed out. Ellison tells his readers, “You will never be writers, not because there is some arcane secret we are keeping from you; not because there’s some white magic we refuse to share with you; but simply because you do not hear the music. It is not your fault, you are not to be considered less worthy, but it is time you grasped reality by the ears and stared into its face: you cannot be writers. You can be movie stars or plasma physicists, or workers in rare woods — all of which are exacting and honorable professions — but you cannot, not even under miraculous circumstances, ever be writers.” So says a Writer about writers. I suspect that the people who submit stories to contests are a pretty atypical sample to begin with. I have never known anybody who has. Ten out of eight thousand. And every English teacher should be a writer or even a publishing Writer? Somebody is kidding somebody.

A friend in Portland is a writer, perhaps a Writer. A botanist by training, she earns a fair living as a consultant, doing field research and writing environmental impact studies. But her real vocation is writing category romances. She has written twenty or so by now and published none, but her correspondence with editors continues to be encouraging and keeps her writing and re-writing. I have known Writers: Herbert  Krause, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, William D. Lutz, Ronald  Janssen, Eugene Garver, Michael Hoffman,  Judith Glad. I am not a Writer.

It may not even be a desirable thing for a teacher to be. In “Can Poetry Matter,” Dana Gioia describes the current “poetry explosion.” “Graduate programs will produce about 20,000 accredited poets over the next decade” (95).  (You have to be accredited to be a poet these days? When I used to read my stuff in North Beach coffeehouses, nobody asked me for credentials!) The result of this proliferation of poets, MFA programs, workshops, institutes and publications, says Gioia, has been a poet’s ghetto. The good news is that there are enough poets out there to publish for each other and form a sizable and lucrative market. The bad news is that it is a completely self-contained market and sub-culture, isolated from and irrelevant to the mainstream of American literature. Gioia makes note of the same “workshoppy”, inbred style that Moxley does (“Tearing Down the Walls” 43). Is this the next generations “Engfish”?  And we are talking here of MFAs and college programs. Imagine the result if every English teacher in America decides that he is, wants to be, should be, or to save his job must be a Writer!  It will create a major new publication industry. At least it will make somebody a lot of money.

Bruce Robbins sketches “Robert” and “Ted”, two English teachers who write and are teachers of writing. (Robbins, 1990).  Although Robbins refrains from making any overt value judgments of the two men, it soon becomes obvious that as a Writer, Robert is worthier as a model for emulation. He is a publishing, award-winning poet. He began writing seriously in college. He considers himself to be a practicing artist who teaches for a living. It is interesting to note, though, that over the years, teaching and family have seriously cut into the time that he can devote to his art. At least, as a poet, he can write “piecemeal” as he puts it. I wonder how a serious novelist would fare as a public-school English teacher. His own writing seems to have influenced him as a teacher by allowing him to be “the voice of the experienced writer.” He does not share his own work with his students, however, in marked contrast to Atwell and others.

Ted, too, does not use his own work for models. The difference is that Ted does not consider himself to be a Writer. He does write, but mostly mundane, job-related writing: class notes, detailed lesson plans, letters of recommendation, curriculum materials, etc., nothing “creative.”  He seems to regard his students’ writing in much the same way, not expression for its own sake, but as an adjunct to literature to help his students become better readers. Although some of his reasons for not writing seem far-fetched rationalizations — adults have more life experience and so don’t need to be as reflective as adolescents — others — his perfectionism and the subject matter that he would write about being too painful — are probably much more common than we would suppose, perhaps even typical.

Although implicit value judgments of the two men are inescapable  in these sketches, in an English Journal article,  Robbins tempers that judgment and concludes, as the title suggests, “It’s Not That Simple.” (April 1992, 72-74).

I should be a Writer, we all should be. But in the sense usually meant by the Teacher-As-Writer advocates, I am not, and at this stage in my life, am not likely to be. I admire Robert, but I must ultimately identify with Ted.

What bothers me, then, is partly at least a personal thing. After thirty four years in this business, the rules are changing, and I am being shut out, with Ted. Nor is there any redemption. Being a writer, as the TAW advocates define it, is not a matter of what you do, but what you are, your manner of being in the world. So, just at the time that our profession must unite to follow new directions, are we creating a caste system of writers and non-writers, an educational Calvinism of the artistically Elect and Lost? A nice idea, for the Writers among us, but can we afford it?


BFN [Nelms, Ben F.]  “An End and a Beginning.”  English Journal 81 (April 1992): 73.

Carroll, Joyce Armstrong.  “Process Into Product: Teacher Awareness of the Writing Process        Affects Student.”   New Directions in Composition Research. Ed.  R. Beach and L.      Bridwell.  NY: Guilford Press 1984. 315-333.

Clark, William A.  “How To Completely Individualize a Writing Program.”  To Compose:            Teaching Writing in High School. Ed.Thomas Newkirk. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann            1986. 47-54.

Ellison, Harlan. “Hard Truths and Sage Advice.” Bloomsbury Review.  March/April 1990.

Gioia, Dana.  “Can Poetry Matter?”  The Atlantic Monthly May 1991: 94-106.

Moxley, Joseph M. “Tearing Down the Walls: Engaging the Imagination.”  Creative Writing in     America. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1989. 25-45.

Robbins, Bruce.  “It’s Not That Simple.”  English Journal 81 (April 1992): 72-74.

Robbins, Bruce. “Teachers as Writers: Relationships Between English Teachers’ Own Writing      and Instruction.” Diss. Indiana University, 1990.

Romano, Tom. Clearing the Way.  Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann , 1987. 178-80.

Ziegler, Alan. The Writing Workshop vol. I. New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative. 1981.


One Response to Through a Cynic’s Eyes: The Teacher as Writer

  1. Jude Glad says:

    No longer a consultant, now a full time writer and editor. Dreams do come true, especially when one’s friends believe they can.

    Thank you, Michael.

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