Why I Teach
by Maxine Chernoff
From a talk presented at the 2010 AWP
Long before I became the chair of the Creative Writing Program at San Francisco State University, I was a young creative writer making a living through composition, ESL, even business English in the City Colleges of Chicago. I also worked adjunct at Columbia College and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in order to teach creative writing.
While in the City Colleges, I was given a section of Literature on Film to share with a professor of film from DePaul University as part of a bridge program to inspire students to transfer there. Most of the students in this Saturday morning class were African-American women who worked as staff at the school. Several others were Latin-
American and African former ESL students. They were a congenial and inspiring group, especially one man from Chile, Jaime, who, as his creative project, wrote the words to an opera based on the story and film of Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case.” He sang them to arias from “The Barber of Seville,” which he played on a boombox, hi-tech in those days. He had a fairly bad voice. One woman from Belize , in reference to the protagonist running away in Richard Wright’s “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” staged a drama of how she eloped with her husband at age 17. She required him to attend class and act in her play that morning. Her beautiful children stood in the hallway and watched in awe through the door. During much of the class, I was amazed and moved by the level of engagement of these students, their enthusiasm, risk-taking and raw talent. They were unlikely literature students and budding artists-- wonderful all the more.
One day in this class the most politically savvy one among them got upset with my co-teacher’s reference to Impressionism regarding the discussion of Kawabata’s work. Using that word was elitist, she said. My co-teacher was dumb-founded at the remark, but I suggested that terms such as Impressionism are shorthand. Like the word daisy, I said. If you don’t know what a daisy is, you have to keep saying that white multi-petaled flower with the yellow center. If you don’t know the word white, you have to say, you know, the color of milk. If you don’t know the word milk, etc. Things fall apart.
Education is meant to include-- and language is the medium and mode of inclusion. I feel the same about my latter-day career as a professor of Creative Writing and chair of one of the oldest and largest programs in the country. We come together in our program to share history, terminology and the moment, and we practice their consequences, geeks at the geek convention, bookish sorts with an affection for marginalia. Being at a writing program reminds you that you are not alone, that this is a worthy task, that you are doing something valid and valued and sometimes even brave, noble or life-changing.
I remember my college president in the City Colleges arguing with his Board of Trustees who were about to cut ESL classes, claiming that students only needed what one board member called “the basics.” “Sure,” my college president said, “Teach them, `Where’s the soap?’ so they can all become dishwashers.” It was the board deciding what level of learning and what degree of access were available for others who had higher aspirations.
That is elitism, others’ decisions to exclude and limit.
What creative writing professors do, then, is preside over a kingdom set apart from the rest of life but in conversation with it. I feel this most at times when the world is falling to ruin. I remember beginning a new poetry workshop directly after 9/11. For two hours we talked about sonnets and did cut-ups a la Ted Berrigan. People could use anything, so maybe there were newspapers in the room, but we were re-arranging the world, shaping it differently through our writers’ eyes. The world was part of it—we were speaking to its range of beauty and folly and strangeness, tragedy and error.
What you learn in a creative writing program is to construct a life with and beyond words. You make a place to think and hear yourself doing so, to explore through language and find peers and mentors who help you find the words. How can being a writer matter in with our present economic circumstances? I think of another student many years ago in a composition class when I was a very young teacher. He was a slightly older undergraduate who wanted to major in fine art. His father, a Chicago alderman, was more than dubious. I told him that he could always do something he didn’t like later. First, do what you think you want. Commit yourself to painting. He actually listened to me. This was before the term “Odyssey Years” was invented, that time after college when many young people today travel and volunteer or get additional schooling. “I am in my Odyssey years,” one of my sons often reminds me.
I wish I could tell you that that young painter is now happy, even successful, but I don’t know what became of him. I do know, however, that many of my students have gone on to publish books, edit presses, run reading series, teach at universities, colleges, high schools, poets in the schools programs, afterschool programs, prisons. They run arts organizations and work at museums. They join a community of writers. One is head of the Voices of Witness program that produces books of essays and interviews about troubled places in our own country and the world. One heads the performance poetry collective for teens, Youth Speaks. One was reviewed for her amazing memoir on the cover of the New York Times Book Review in January of 2009. Her partner won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize. Another edited a book on the lives of sex workers that was also a New York Times Book Review cover review this winter. One became an artist-in-residence at the SF Recycling Center, a coveted position which involves an opening night. Many teach abroad, some get Fulbrights. They get residencies. They go to law school. They have babies. All of them gain from knowing they are part of a practice that is taken seriously by serious people of goodwill and intelligence. They stay writers and continue as readers. They write blogs, give readings, tell us their good news for the department website. They are here among us. I stand here among them grateful for helping even one man literally find his voice on a Saturday morning in Chicago.
Maxine Chernoff is a professor and Chair of the Creative Writing program at San Francisco State University. She is the author of six books of fiction and thirteen books of poetry. Of Among the Names (Apogee Press, 2005), Cole Swenson said, “exploring complexities of 'the gift,' Chernoff’s is an economy of the uncanny—each exchange is strikingly new.” Her recent books of poetry are Without (Shearsman, 2012), To Be Read in the Dark (Omnidawn, 2012) and A House in Summer (Argotist, 2012, online edition), and The Turning (Apogee Press, 2008). Her collection of stories, Signs of Devotion, was a New York Times Notable Book of 1993. Both her novel American Heaven (Coffee House Press, 1996) and her book of short stories, Some of Her Friends That Year (Coffee House Press, 2002), were finalists for the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award. With Paul Hoover, she translated The Selected Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin, (Omnidawn Press, 2008), which received the 2009 Pen U.S.A. Translation Award. She has read her poetry and fiction and taught workshops in Belgium, England, Australia, Germany, Brazil, Scotland, and China and in the Prague Summer Writing Program, and the SLS Writing Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia. She will be an International Visiting Scholar at the University of Exeter, England, in January of 2013. She edits the long-running and award-winning journal New American Writing, an annual anthology in its 30th issue, which is partially funded by the College of Liberal & Creative Arts. She has been a fiction reviewer for The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and The Chicago Sun-Times. Among her other awards are five Illinois Arts Council Fellowships, a Marin Arts Council Fellowship, a PEN Fiction Prize, the Carl Sandburg Award in Poetry, The Chicago Sun-Times Book Award, the Friends of American Writers Fiction Award, an Editors Award from the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines and Presses, and a Foreword Book Award for her novel A Boy in Winter.