Although we’ll never get the chance to read Walter White’s memoir, we’ll get the next best thing. Bryan Cranston is writing a memoir due out next year. “With this book, I want to tell the stories of my life and reveal the secrets and lies that I lived with for six years shooting Breaking Bad,” he said. While you wait, grab a book from our Breaking Bad reading list.
At the beginning of each semester, I gather basic information from my fiction writing students such as major, hometown, and favorite book. Some of this arrives from the registrar before the semester begins, but the information isn’t always accurate, and many students accustomed to large, impersonal classes appreciate even perfunctory interest in their lives. My students’ majors are varied, and the students come from all over the world, even at a state university. With few exceptions, their book selections are depressing.
The selections are not depressing because the books are sad. That would be great. I mean depressing as in uninspired, as in the last book the students can remember reading in high school, the book a movie was based on (sometimes they have only seen the movie), the Twilight series or Hunger Games series. Pretty much any series. This semester three students picked Lord of the Flies and three picked Harry Potter, edging “no response” as the most popular titles. It’s not that these books are necessarily bad, though some are. Instead, it’s what these choices suggest to me, that books occupy an ancillary role in the students’ lives. Books are something they had to read in class, or something a movie is based on, a movie everyone else is seeing. The book is rarely the thing the student willingly came to first.
Although my students and I infrequently read the same books, we watch some of the same television shows. We’re more likely to find common ground discussing Breaking Bad than Yiyun Li. If I watched Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, we’d have a lot to talk about because those programs influence their writing more than any author, living or dead. Other influences: CSI (in its various locales), Law and Order (in its various incarnations), True Blood (vampire everything). I’m not trying to be glib or cute. These are the narratives that influence students’ writing. It’s something I need to take seriously.
Who am I to determine what’s good or bad? That’s a reasonable question. Isn’t it my job, as possibly the only creative writing instructor these students will ever have, to place moving stories into their hands, instill the virtues of reading, caution them against the culture’s basest offerings? Yes, gladly. But that’s not the question I find myself asking. The question isn’t even how to teach writing to students who don’t read. The question is how to teach writing to students who watch movies and television instead of reading.
This class, I should note, is an upper-level elective. All of my students arrive voluntarily, and most are upperclassmen. My classes are unfailingly populated with curious young men and women. They’re earnest and respectful and hard-working. I genuinely like them. Every fall and spring there is a waitlist because students want to write stories. What they don’t particularly want to do is read them. Reading literary fiction for the pleasure or edification of reading literary fiction is something very few of my students do.
What they reliably do is watch movies and television. I’m not sure if I’ve encountered a student who doesn’t. When I was in college — this is the last time I’ll allow myself this indulgence — I remember few conversations about television and little time spent watching it. There was a TV in the communal lounge, but it was a shabby space relative to the temptations elsewhere. To be fair, television has improved since I was a student. David Chase’s The Sopranos and David Simon’s The Wire, everyone seems to agree, raised the bar for what a television show could be. One can debate Simon’s characterization of The Wire as a “visual novel,” but for some of my students, it’s the only novel they choose to consume.
I have my students read a lot of stories. I make a point, as most instructors do, to vary the subjects and styles, to include authors of different ages, ethnicities, genders, classes, and backgrounds. Every two years I change all of the stories, so I’m not flying on autopilot. There is no shortage of incredible short fiction. The students digest the stories dutifully. Sometimes students are visibly moved in class, which visibly moves me. These mutually-moved moments don’t happen all of the time. I’ve learned to appreciate them.
When a student really likes a story, she will often compare it to a favorite episode, and then this happens:
“It totally reminds me of the Dexter when he —”
“Oh my God, I’m obsessed with that show.”
(General murmurs of approval.)
“Have you seen the one where he [kills someone in a mildly unpredictable way for morally dubious reasons]?”
“That one is amazing.”
Nobody says she is obsessed with Denis Johnson.
My students love Dexter. I have watched enough episodes to conclude I do not love Dexter, though it’s an interesting case study, as it attempts to communicate the protagonist’s inner life. This is harder to do on the screen than on the page, and while I applaud the show’s writers for taking this aspect seriously, the character’s monologues strike me as clumsy and inorganic. They’re supposed to be funny, but they’re not funny.
I have yet to find a voiceover that doesn’t make me cringe. As great as Vertigo is, the voiceover bums me out every time. I feel like Hitchcock doesn’t trust me — or his filmmaking — enough, and I’m thrown out of what John Gardner calls the “vivid and continuous dream.” If American Hustle wins a bunch of academy awards, it will be in spite of the lazy voiceover.
Good fiction grants you sustained, nuanced entry into a character’s mind that is difficult to achieve on the screen. This is one of the reasons the best books rarely translate into transcendent films, no matter how many times studios try (e.g. The Great Gatsby). It’s also why some of the best films come from books that aren’t universally regarded (e.g. The Godfather). That The Godfather works better as a film than a book doesn’t diminish the story. Film and literature aren’t interchangeable, and watching the former isn’t necessarily going to help you write the latter. Indeed, it may give you some bad habits. In the classroom, I regularly find myself contradicting the students’ first teacher, the screen.
Each Law and Order episode begins with the short dramatization of a crime. Those two minutes set the tone for the rest of the hour. The showrunner makes a contract with the audience before each episode: There will be a crime, it will be investigated, there will be red herrings, but the crime will be solved. Although the characters are more or less the same from episode to episode, the crimes are self-contained. Clearly, this formula works. It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t enjoyed an episode of Law and Order. I particularly enjoy the halcyon days of Special Victims Unit with Christopher Meloni, Mariska Hargitay, Ice-T, and BD Wong, whom I regard as a master of deadpan.
What I don’t enjoy are short stories inspired by SVU. Meloni and Hargitay are fine actors, but on the show, their inner lives are straightforward. They’re driven by primal and singular impulses. The world they inhabit offers little complexity. Sex offenders are bad. Detectives are good. Sometimes good people have to do bad things to get bad guys; that’s about as morally ambiguous as the show gets. It also has a fetish for vigilantism that I don’t share.
One of the most common student stories begins with a scene of violence. It’s unclear who is involved, or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Typically, nobody is named. There’s a space break signifying a leap in time and place, and then the story unfolds in a linear fashion. By the end, the villain (easier to spot than the writer imagines) is apprehended, often with a bit of insufferable banter. The story doesn’t work. My students didn’t learn this formula from reading.
I reference the stories we read. Look where Raymond Carver starts his story. What is all of the protagonist’s furniture doing on the front lawn? Why does Mary Robinson have the strange woman stop by the house on the second page? Start the story as late in the action as you can, I tell my students. Make sure your protagonist wants something, even if only a glass of water. I tell them Kurt Vonnegut gave me this advice. Some of them read Slaughterhouse Five in high school. We’re getting somewhere. Did you read any of his other books? Blank stares.
Ideally, the stories I assign and recommend will lead my students to read fiction on their own. Sometimes this happens. They take other classes with me, stop by my office hours, write me emails. Few things make me happier than students from past semesters soliciting books. I hope they’re still writing, but if they’re only reading, they’re enlarging their sense of human experience. They’re becoming more empathetic and, in turn, better brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, boyfriends and girlfriends. I believe this.
Most students I never hear from again. We get fifteen weeks, twice a week, eighty minutes a class. It’s not a lot of time to inspire a lifetime of reading. It’s not a lot of time to give students a framework from which they might begin to construct meaningful stories on their own.
Each student writes two stories for my class, but the time he or she spends thinking about the published stories I assign is arguably more important. Students who haven’t taken many writing or literature classes at the university will likely arrive with few reference points, and I treat each story as an opportunity to teach students about character or structure or language. When students reference television shows, I counter with stories. If the story isn’t protected by copyright, I’ll post a link to Blackboard. Anyone can read Anton Chekhov’s “Gusev” or James Joyce’s “Araby” or Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” for free online. Publishers mail me unsolicited books all of the time; I give the good ones to my students.
Sometimes when students reference television shows, I go with it. I ask students what they like about the show and what, if anything, they might apply to their writing. If I admire the film they reference, and I think it offers something narratively rewarding, we discuss why. Occasionally, I reference a moment in a film, for better or worse. The Third Man delays the introduction of the antagonist in a way that’s supremely effective (it doesn’t hurt that Graham Greene wrote the screenplay). I rather like Lost in Translation, but the scene where Bill Murray whispers something unheard to Scarlett Johansson strikes me as a narrative betrayal. The writer and character, I’ve told them, shouldn’t know more than the reader. Like all teachers, I’m happy when students intelligently disagree.
In their own stories, I encourage students to write something that makes them uncomfortable. If they’re going to write autobiographically, and many do, they have to be prepared to show their worst characteristics. Probably, the protagonist should do something stupid or ugly. That’s what the reader wants. If they’re going to make something up completely, and I encourage this, they have to move beyond formula. If they crib a violent scene from The Walking Dead, I give them Flannery O’Connor. It’s no less gruesome.
My students are curious in my own tastes, to an extent. What do I like to watch? I tell them. I pair the film with a book. They want to know why the book is always better than the movie. They’re referring to Harry Potter or The Hunger Games. They’ve been told this so many times they believe it, even if they don’t see it personally. It’s because your imagination is so much more interesting than what’s on the screen, I tell them. They don’t buy it. Their interest wanes. The reader and the writer co-create the story, I insist. Reading is collaborative in a way that watching a screen isn’t. You prefer your image to the director’s, no matter how beautiful Jennifer Lawrence might be. You’re narcissistic that way. It’s okay.
They nod reluctantly, like maybe it is.
Sad that Breaking Bad is over? Bryan Cranston might have a new TV show on the way, and it was inspired by The Dangerous Book for Boys, he said in an interview for The New York Times “By the Book” series. While you wait, check out our article on what to read after you’ve finished watching Walter White’s saga.
It is hardly news by now that Broadway theater has become a high-priced museum of its former self. This year’s Broadway season, which kicked off earlier this month, will feature a few new plays, including a limited run of Outside Mullingar from Pulitzer-winner John Patrick Shanley in January, but for the most part Broadway theaters will host the usual disheartening mix of jukebox musicals, retooled Disney movies, and revivals of hoary classics populated by downshifting movie stars.
For those who care about theater as an art form, it is this last category, the endless stream of revivals of classic American plays populated by movie stars, that really hurts. Sure, there are theaters off-Broadway and in other cities around the country that still commission and produce new plays, but the Broadway revivals, like the production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie starring Cherry Jones that opened earlier this month, show that there was once a time when serious new plays found favor not just with a small, theater-loving elite, but with a broad cross-section of middle-class America.
My own grandparents, like many educated young people in the 1940s, loved culture and fine things, but they lived in an isolated mill town in Southern Virginia without good bookstores or restaurants, much less a vital theater scene. So, like thousands of their fellow Americans, once or twice a year, they hopped a train to New York to eat a few decent meals, shop at the department stores along Fifth Avenue, and “see the shows,” which for them meant Broadway. This was, for a generation of American provincials like my grandparents, the height of sophistication and an annual ritual that sustained New York theater for decades.
Now that golden age of serious, culturally ambitious drama is gone forever.
Or is it? Certainly, given the sky-high ticket prices and the emphasis on circus-like musicals catering to baby boomer nostalgia, the next generation of great American dramatists like Tennessee Williams or Lorraine Hansberry, whose 1959 classic A Raisin in the Sun is being revived this spring, won’t be returning to Broadway any time soon. But in fact we have a platform for serious, character-driven drama in this country, and it is more popular and broad-based than Broadway ever was. It’s called cable television.
The inexorable slide of quality theater from the cultural mainstream and the rise of cable TV as the defining dramatic art form of the 21st century is a prime example of technological “creative destruction” at work. The theater of Broadway’s Golden Age was indeed terrific stuff, but as a consumer product it was wildly inefficient. Because shows were live and unrecorded, they could be seen by a limited number of people, many of whom had to travel hundreds of miles to get to the theater. Successful Broadway shows spawned touring companies – as hit musicals still do to this day – but such tours are costly to run and audiences in the smaller cities inevitably get a watered-down version of the real thing, with lower quality actors and production values.
Cable shows like Homeland or Breaking Bad, which airs its series finale this Sunday, are cheap and easily accessible to anyone with a subscription to cable or Netflix. More importantly, though, thanks to a complex set of market forces, all the incentives push cable channels to hire top-drawer actors and writers and allow them the artistic freedom to create compelling characters and story lines, much the way the best Broadway plays did half a century ago. This fragile cultural moment won’t last – more on that later – but for now it seems clear that if Tennessee Williams and Lorraine Hansberry were writing today they would be showrunners for a cable series, because that’s where the audience is.
You can measure the Golden Age of American theater in many ways, but I would mark it from the 1944 debut of The Glass Menagerie to the opening night of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1962. There were, of course, serious American playwrights before then – Eugene O’Neill is the best-known, but there were plenty of others – but those writers always seemed slightly ahead of the popular culture of their time. Likewise, many great American plays have debuted since 1962, and a select few, like Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, became part of the wider national conversation.
But for a short time after the Second World War, American commercial theater hit that elusive sweet spot where popularity meets ambitious social and artistic agendas. In his fascinating 1987 autobiography Timebends, Arthur Miller speaks of this era as
a time when the audience was basically the same for musicals and light entertainment as for the ambitious stuff and had not yet been atomized…So the playwright’s challenge was to please not a small sensitized supporting clique but an audience representing, more or less, all of America.
Miller explains how this broad-based, yet culturally hungry audience shaped the work of the era’s two greatest writers, himself and Tennessee Williams. Both men were, to differing degrees, outsiders to American culture – Williams because he was unapologetically gay, Miller because he was a Jew with strong radical beliefs. In another era, Miller says, they might well have slanted their work to please a minority audience that already agreed with them, but suddenly in the postwar years there was a mainstream audience waiting to hear what they had to say, and being both great artists and profoundly ambitious men, they opened their work outward to a mass audience.
To do that, they didn’t preach to their audiences like Clifford Odets did in his political plays of the 1930s or bash the viewer over the head with a bleak vision the way O’Neill too often does in his plays. Instead, Miller and Williams created characters – indelible, psychologically complex protagonists like the struggling salesman Willy Loman riding on a smile and a shoeshine or the tragic, half-mad Blanche DuBois forever depending on the kindness of strangers. These characters had to be psychologically complex and indelibly drawn because that’s how you appeal to a heterogenous audience not already united by social background or political outlook: you get audiences to care deeply about a character, to see themselves in someone who may not be in any outward way like them. Once you’ve done that, an audience will follow you anywhere.
Interestingly, it wasn’t the movies that put an end to Broadway’s Golden Age. Hollywood’s own Golden Age, stretching from the advent of sound in the late 1920s to the late 1950s, roughly overlaps that of Broadway. No, it was TV that killed the Broadway of Miller’s era – that and probably the jet plane. At a time when the only viable home entertainment was radio and all but the stratospherically rich traveled by train, car, or boat, Broadway theater was part of a broader leisure industry that catered to Americans like my grandparents yearning for cultural experiences they couldn’t enjoy in their own hometowns.
But once the desire for entertainment could be satisfied by a magic box in the living room and a desire for horizon-broadening travel could by satisfied by plane trips to Europe and beyond, Hollywood and Broadway had to adapt or die. They did so by splitting their audiences – “atomizing” them, in Miller’s terms – into high and low. After a decade of trial and error, Hollywood reinvented itself in the 1970s with ambitious, director-driven films like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and money-spinning summer blockbusters like Jaws and Star Wars. Broadway did much the same thing, filling the bigger houses with crowd-pleasing musicals like Cats and A Chorus Line while supporting more adventurous, writer-driven work by the likes of David Mamet, Sam Shepard, and Wendy Wasserstein.
This worked for a time, thanks in large part to off-Broadway and the regional theater movement, which allowed playwrights to grow their careers at subscription-based resident theaters around the country and then bring their most popular work to New York for a money-making Broadway run. This system, low-paying and outside the mainstream as it was, still made for some pretty terrific theater. Shepard, sustained by a long-running affiliation with San Francisco’s Magic Theater, introduced audiences to his singularly bleak and funny Western vision, while August Wilson, who premiered most of his plays at the Seattle Repertory Theater, opened a window onto working-class black characters quite nearly invisible to the mainstream.
But while regional theater provided an audience for more adventurous fare, unlike in Arthur Miller’s day, it was no longer the same audience that went to see the big musicals. Mamet, Shepard, and Wilson, talented as they were, were no longer writing for “an audience representing, more or less, all of America,” but for the “small sensitized supporting clique” that Miller saw as an artistically narrowing force. And then, lo and behold, the free market worked its magic. As Broadway ticket prices escalated to pay for ever more lavish, spectacle-driven musicals, it became harder to persuade theatergoers, even the ones who like the more ambitious stuff, to risk several hundred dollars on a new play.
Enter Carrie Bradshaw and Tony Soprano. Gallons of ink have been spilled, and thousands of terabytes expended, trying to explain why audiences have become so obsessed with characters on modern cable shows, but as Adam Davidson demonstrates in a December 2012 New York Times “It’s the Economy” column, the answer has more to do with business models than any quirk of culture. When there were only three major networks, programming success depended on producing a great number of shows that were just incrementally better than what was on the two other networks, which inevitably led to the creation of a vast wasteland of expensively bland mediocrity.
But once cable blew up the TV dial, giving viewers hundreds of channels to choose from, programmers had to shift their strategy. Now, it wasn’t enough to be just a little better than the competition; now, your shows had to be a lot better. You didn’t have to come up with a huge number of great shows, just one or two at a time would do, but they had to be so good that viewers would become obsessed with the characters and story lines to the point that they would shun cable providers that didn’t carry the channels where those shows appeared.
In other words, out of the morass of network TV, the very technology that ended Broadway theater’s Golden Age, came a sort of small-screen Broadway in which a few big talents – David Simon of The Wire, Lena Dunham of Girls, Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad, and so on – have been given wide artistic latitude to create characters and stories audiences will care about. Because cable providers often operate as near-monopolies, the average cable bill has doubled in the past decade, and viewers pay close to $90 billion a year for cable service. That is a huge pot of money, and for many cable companies nearly half of their revenue is pure profit, so there is an enormous incentive to get the formula right.
But as Davidson points out in his Times column, this fragile model is already fraying at the seams. So far at least, cable subscribers aren’t canceling in large numbers, but as piracy becomes more pervasive, fewer younger people are signing up for cable in the first place. “When people in their 20s move out of their parents’ house or dorm room, they are less likely to get into the habit of paying for cable,” he writes. “If they get addicted to Breaking Bad, they’ll often download it free through file-sharing services like Bit Torrent or wait for it to come out on iTunes.” To make up for lost revenue, cable providers have to jack up rates, which drives more new viewers away, setting up a vicious spiral that, according to one industry expert Davidson spoke to, could cause the entire edifice to collapse as early as 2016.
What comes after that? The short answer is nobody knows. It could get seriously messy there for a while, leading millions of Breaking Bad and Mad Men obsessives to bore their children with talk of the Golden Age of Cable. But if this history teaches us anything, it is that there is always going to be a sizeable audience that cares about quality drama enough to pay real money for it. After all, in the 1940s, Broadway’s principal competition was local amateur productions and guys on their front porches telling funny stories – a sort of analog version of today’s BitTorrent downloads and YouTube cat videos. My grandfather, who told some pretty funny stories himself, was willing to plunk down serious money to take his family to New York for a few good meals and a chance to see the best writers and performers of his age. I have no idea what entertainment technology will look like when my future grandchildren begin to hunger for something more edifying than a quick joke or a funny story, but my bet is they will be able to find it if they are willing to pay for it.
Image via studentrush.org
I am trying to recall when I first became aware that I don’t like teaching. Not what teachers — or at least college teachers, as I am — usually mean when they say that they don’t like it: the students who don’t read, and don’t care; the endless piles of papers to be graded, or in my case, drafts of stories or poems to be read and commented on. What I do not like, I gradually began to realize, was the actual time in class. The song-and-dance, as I came to see it, of trying to keep my students focused and engaged. What felt, to me, like the performance I had to ready myself for, each and every time.
For years I taught in the same classroom, on the third floor of one of the buildings at the small liberal arts college where I teach. It’s a relatively small room, and by the second class meeting the twenty or so students in my fiction writing class or introductory creative writing class would know to lug the cumbersome desks into a tight circle around the perimeter of the room. It was a fine classroom really, if a little too small, with latecomers forced to squeeze into a desk positioned somewhere to the side and slightly behind mine. There were high, arched windows, and little in the way of technological tools, save a dusty, bulky old television set and DVD player/VCR set-up, housed on a rolling cart that was crammed in the corner and that usually didn’t work. There’s an elevator in that building, but I never took it. It was slow, and if I took it, I knew, I’d have to share that long ride up two floors with several of my students. Instead I opened the door to the long, sterile stairway and trudged up the two flights two or three times each week, filled with dread.
It seems to me now that I didn’t recognize that dread for a number of years. But surely it was there. I’m still teaching, and it’s still there; I’m aware of it, now, as I approach whatever room I’m teaching in. In recent semesters I’ve been assigned to other classrooms, and even when I’m walking down one flight of stairs to the one in the building that also houses my office, there’s time for the dread to settle, somewhere between my stomach and my chest. I find myself muttering fairly empty words — half prayer, half mantra, something along the lines of “Please let it go okay, please let it go okay” — every single time.
What is this about? I’ve been teaching for nearly twenty years now, in a few different contexts early on, but for the last sixteen, at the same place. And every course I’ve taught has gone reasonably well. So why the need to pray, half-consciously, before every single class, that everything goes okay?
I suppose it could be linked with the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech. Surely every college-level creative writing teacher felt at least a bit of unease after the revelations that shooter Seung-Hui Cho wrote a number of violent and disturbing pieces in the creative writing courses that he took before the day that he opened fire in a classroom. In the years that followed that tragedy I eventually moved on from such half-conscious worries about my own students, particularly after a disruptive student who cast himself in hostile and aggressive roles in virtually everything he wrote for the multiple classes he took with me finally graduated. But then came Jared Lee Loughner, who shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords and twelve others in Tucson in January 2011, and who had a history of disruptive behavior at Pima Community College, from which he was eventually expelled. And then, of course, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, students at Bunker Hill Community College and the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, respectively. Every shooter or bomber was surely someone’s student at some point — though maybe not in a creative writing class, where despair and desperation are, perhaps, on more immediate display.
And so from time to time the niggling questions, about my students, about their writing and their apparent appetite for violence, return. After all, every college-level creative writing class, in my experience, has at least one student who kind of scares me, or at least worries me; there’s always at least one surly girl, or someone shifting restlessly throughout the class and walking out (to use the restroom? to take a phone call or respond to a text? I never know) at least once during most class sessions. Someone who writes adoringly about guns. And always — always — at least one student, usually male, who writes delirious accounts of blood and gore and destruction.
Please let it go okay. Please let no one get shot.
Mostly, though, if you worry about these students, you worry more about the harm they seem to be thinking of doing to themselves. Some creative writing teachers I know have established a “no suicide stories and/or poems” rule for their classes. I’ve never done it, but I’ve considered it. A few years ago I saw countless accounts of car accidents, many involving drunk drivers. Recently there have been a lot of characters who are addicted to prescription drugs.
When you teach creative writing to college students, you can learn more than you ever wanted to know about the culture of American youth. Mostly I just found it all vaguely interesting, and also a little sad, until I had a daughter of my own. She’s now on the cusp of adolescence, and I suppose that could be another reason that I seem to be unnerved by the prospect of facing yet another roomful of twenty-year-old Americans, and yet more pages of the particular obsessions that surface in their creative work. The heartbreak, the eating disorders, the cutting, the Aderall and Vicodin, the poems written as loving tributes to their warm, comfortable beds, which they desperately wish they never had to leave.
“I have become a cartoon of myself for an audience of strangers,” wrote novelist Lynn Freed, in an essay titled “Doing Time: My Years in the Creative-Writing Gulag” that appeared in the July 2005 issue of Harper’s. That line resonated powerfully the first time I read it, in the spring of 2006, when I wrote it down in my journal. (Though these may have nothing to do with anything, I have to note here the two bumper stickers I’d also seen — on the same car — and recorded on the same page of my journal on that April day: “I used to have superhuman powers until my therapists took them away,” and “Fuck with me and you fuck with the whole trailer court.”) At that point I was nearing the end of my first year of teaching after a year’s sabbatical, during which I’d cut myself off from all contact with students and colleagues at my college and worked steadily on a new novel. I seem to recall feeing energized, at first, when I entered the third-floor classroom again at the beginning of that post-sabbatical academic year. But by the end of the year my journal entries had dwindled to a sour trickle, mostly angry, sarcastic quotations, like the one from Lynn Freed, and the bumper stickers.
The last sneering lines I wrote in that journal for a while came a month later, when classes had ended. “From my Spring ’06 Fiction Writing course evaluations,” I wrote at the end of May: “‘Instructor is very emotionally attached to ideas sometimes.’” After that I taped in a scrap of paper on which I’d written that line from Lynn Freed yet again (apparently forgetting that I’d already written it only a page or two earlier): “I have become a cartoon of myself for an audience of strangers.”
“And so I am caught,” Freed continues in that essay, “in the teacher’s trap — the trap of wanting to be liked.”
Judging by the online reactions to Freed’s essay, she needn’t have wasted time wanting to be liked. “Lynn Freed, you are a piece of shit,” went the title of a July 2005 blog post by graduate students at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who identified themselves as “Iowa Mafia.” “Lynn Freed was, hands down, the worst teacher of any kind I have ever had,” wrote a responder on a Chronicle of Higher Education forum. And writer Mark Pritchard satirized Professor Freed in his lengthy — and very funny — “Secret Diary of a Prisoner in the Creative Writing Gulag,” one entry of which concludes “Then I learned that what I thought was good behavior — doing my work, exercising my rare Talent — was in fact dooming me to more hard labor. Now I have to read twelve stories by next Thursday. If you want to call them that.”
I do not teach graduate students, and while I sometimes pine for the company of other writers in the academic world that I inhabit — and also for students who take themselves, and their written work, more seriously — mostly I think that’s a good thing. There’s a freshness, even an innocence, in most of the undergraduates I teach; in many there’s also a youthful exuberance for literature and for creative work. Most aren’t yet entertaining fantasies of lucrative book contracts and thousands of adoring fans, as I imagine many graduate students are (I did after all; in fact sometimes I still do). But this isn’t to say that they want nothing from me. While Freed’s students might have expected her to somehow launch them on a career comparable to her own, my students seem mainly to want me to notice them. To pay close attention to everything they’ve written. To take them seriously. And sometimes that’s simply exhausting.
I like Lynn Freed’s essay on her time in the “creative writing gulag.” I think her critics, those who see her as nothing but a contemptuous snob, are not reading the essay closely, or are perhaps — understandably — so incensed by the complaints of someone who’s secured a number of great teaching gigs in the last fifteen to twenty years that they can’t quite hear all that she’s actually saying. She seems to me to see, and to articulate eloquently, and often hilariously, the conflict between teaching and their own writing that many creative writing teachers experience. She is also refreshingly honest about her own limitations as a teacher. “The happiest teachers,” she writes, “are, perhaps, those who are most comfortable in the role of parent or mentor. I am not.”
I don’t, however, find much to encourage or sustain my own teaching in Freed’s essay. It’s interesting to note the kind of “parent or mentor” she seems to have in mind. For Freed, the job of creative writing teacher requires “the language of injunction” — a language that ruins her “for the real work of a writer — listening, writing, listening…” She is convinced that such language — of injunction, analysis, correction — is what her unformed students most need. Yet as the semester progresses, and she becomes “Lost…in the language of injunction, lost for the real work of a writer,” she also becomes, she says, “both too clever and too stupid to write. What I am suffering — this cleverness, this stupidity — is the creative equivalent of an autoimmune disease.”
The writer, forced into the classroom, ends up attacking her own writer self. She becomes “a cartoon of myself.” “Too clever and too stupid to write.” Each time I read those words, I wince in painful recognition.
Of course, there is another kind of parenting, less about injunction than about nurturing, less concerned with correcting than with listening and, perhaps, gently nudging. Call it “attachment teaching” maybe. And yes, I’m aware of the attendant risks implied by such a term — and I’ve experienced them, with, for example, the student who showed up every week during office hours with several new poems, long after he’d completed my course.
But many things, besides my own lack of time and energy, mitigate against such a model, the model of teacher as caregiver. On many, if not most, college campuses, success as a teacher can brand you, in the eyes of colleagues (and also of tenure and promotion committees), as an intellectual lightweight, someone who is more engaged with students than with the weightier, and more meaningful, work of academic scholarship.
“Teaching, we implicitly say to our graduate students, is not as important as scholarship; you will get a teaching assistantship based on our assessment of your potential as a scholar.” So wrote literary scholar Judith Fetterley, in an essay published the Winter 2005 issue of American Literary History. “Of course, if we think you are really hot,” Fetterley continues, “we will give you a fellowship, and then you won’t have to teach at all!”
And how can success in teaching be measured anyway? The most widely used tool for such measurement is student evaluations, maybe the least-respected instrument of faculty evaluation there is. To take student evaluations seriously is to take students seriously, to cede to them some awareness of what has happened in their classes, and some authority in reporting on that. But for the most part, we don’t cede them any of that. Also, everyone knows that high numbers on your student evaluations mean your students think you’re an easy grader. Or so the standard wisdom goes on my campus.
Who knows what actually goes on in most college classrooms, or any classrooms for that matter? Students, presumably — at least the ones who are awake and reasonably alert. But if we aren’t going to look to them for answers as we try to understand good teaching, where else can we look? Certainly not to media images of teachers. As Elizabeth Alsop notes, thanks to television shows and movies ranging from Mr. Holland’s Opus to Breaking Bad, viewers “are now all too familiar with certain tropes of teaching yet all but unacquainted with anything like the real thing.” This, Alsop contends, could explain our often unrealistic perceptions of teachers themselves. “The fact that we see teachers in such extreme terms — as angelically good, as horrifyingly bad — may in fact be an indication,” she writes, “that we don’t see them at all.”
But as any parent can tell you, there’s nothing dramatic or sexy about caretaking and nurturing. There’s mainly a lot of spit and shit and spilled food, all of which somehow morphs into slamming bedroom doors and threats to take away her phone. With, yes, many transcendent moments in between, such as the rapturous experience of watching your child while she sleeps, which is something I never tire of doing. But the transcendent moments are of course fewer than the mundane ones. Just as with teaching creative writing, there are, frankly, a lot of really mediocre, or worse, drafts of poems and stories and essays — some of which actually get better after some sessions of attachment teaching.
That kind of teaching, like the day-to-day moments of caring for a child, doesn’t make for particularly good TV, and if there’s any group that’s even more overlooked than teachers, it’s probably caregivers: the people, for instance, who look after our preschool-aged children, or our aging parents. One of the best discussions of this oversight that I’ve seen came in Meghan Falvey’s 2007 review of the last rash of books about over- and under-employed upper middle class women. We’re constantly in the throes of another wave of cultural obsession with things like “the mommy wars,” of course, but at that point it was books like Maureen Dowd’s Are Men Necessary? and Caitlin Flanagan’s To Hell with All That that Falvey was discussing when she wrote, “Care of others hampers self-development — at least, development of the kind employers require,” and concluded that “Care is long-term, it strives to create security, and it requires personal sacrifice.”
The writer — forced into a seemingly endless series of student conferences and reading a seemingly endless pile of student poems and stories and essays — sacrificing herself. The “creative equivalent of an autoimmune disease.” Maybe there’s no getting around the exhaustion part of it all. But let’s be honest: we all know that the vast majority of writers, in this age of free content and the free-for-all that the world of print publication has become, have to make a living doing something else. And it’s probably going to make us tired. At least, maybe, we can be tired but respected. Tired, but not also objects of contempt — because of our favorable teaching evaluations, because of the part-time status that is the likely fate for many of us. “It is feminism,” Falvey says, “that offers the best solution. For feminism’s most important unfinished work lies precisely here: in a redefinition of our attitude toward care and care workers, and in securing for them social recognition and material support.”
In his 2012 NEH Jefferson Lecture, “It All Turns on Affection,” Wendell Berry makes a similar argument for the value of care and care workers. Our notion of “culture,” or more specifically of the “arts and humanities,” needs rethinking and revitalizing, Berry says near the end of that soaring speech. Our habitual understanding of culture as “high” culture “actually debases it, as it debases also the presumably low culture that is excluded: the arts, for example, of land use, life support, healing, housekeeping, homemaking” — a list of arts to which I would add the difficult and, often, low-status job of teaching. Particularly teaching as caring.
“We denigrate teaching,” Judith Fetterley writes, “as a form of self-protection from the pain of failure.” I have felt like a cartoon of myself in front of an audience of strangers in various classrooms throughout the years. Like a stand-up comic whose routine is hopelessly out of date, or a grinning, sweating tap dancer, dancing my heart out even though no one’s even watching. (“Instructor is very emotionally attached to ideas sometimes.” That still stings, I’ll admit it, and it still makes me defensive. You think a writer is supposed to be detached from ideas?)
Wanting your students to like you — to find you smart, or funny, or charming, or somehow relevant to their lives — is dangerous, I’ve found. Especially as I’ve grown older and they, remarkably, have remained young. It’s dangerous because a good number of them inevitably won’t like you, and it’s easy to turn that failure to be liked into the thinly-veiled contempt that, for example, Lynn Freed’s “Doing Time,” for all its clever self-awareness, is dripping with. But, as Judith Fetterley notes, “There is no place for contempt in the classroom. Occasionally, anger is necessary and healthy, and disappointment is inevitable, but contempt poisons the enterprise. Contempt breeds nothing but contempt.”
Just as it’s impossible for me to stay furious at my daughter, I find that it’s impossible for me to be contemptuous of my students and their writing once I’ve gotten to know them, once I’ve talked with them one-on-one, once they’ve explained what they’re trying to do in, say, that tenth poem about their insomnia or that fight with their best friend last year.
Or in that story about the girl who keeps sleeping with losers until one day she gets a diamond from a really nice guy, the story that infuriated me, that made me want to throw up my hands and say “I give up!” — except I couldn’t, because she was due at my office any minute, and though a part of me kind of hoped she wouldn’t show up, I knew that when she did, there would soon be a way into talking about this alarmingly naive story of romantic redemption, a way into talking about it that would reveal that she wasn’t, in fact, as naive as the story made her seem. And I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the way into talking about it would only appear if I just sat and listened a bit, to hear what she really wanted to say, and once I’d done that, then — and only then — could I have a real conversation with her about how to make the story better.
Of course, this doesn’t happen all that often. Most students don’t want to come for conferences with me; they’re content to have me read what they’ve written and assign it a grade. And I don’t want most of them to come for conferences with me either. Conferences take a lot of time, and by the time I’ve prepared and taught my classes, and read and evaluated my students’ assigned work, I have precious little time left, and that’s time I’d rather spend doing something else — like writing, for Christ’s sake (“exercising my rare Talent”), or like being a mother to the girl who actually is my child.
And so I must acknowledge that though I know Judith Fetterley and others are right about what I should be doing as a teacher — though I’ve had enough experience with students through the years to recognize that what they say is true — I’m capable of slipping, in a heartbeat, into the caustic voice of Lynn Freed, and of many other writing teachers that I’ve known. I began by saying that I’ve recently admitted to myself that I don’t like teaching, and in many ways that’s true. But this is probably mostly because I am, in many ways, an anxious and introverted person, which means that beyond the simple peevishness that so many of us feel about not being able to make a decent living from our writing, there is, for me, this additional thing, this discomfort in the skin of a teacher. It will probably always be difficult for me, but maybe no more difficult, and probably more rewarding, than I would have found other forms of paying work.
I’m trying to hold on to the wisdom of writers like Grace Paley, who said it was simply “interesting,” this never-ending effort to balance everything — an everything that, for her, included not only writing and teaching and a family, but deeply engaged political activism as well. Or like Scott Russell Sanders, who said in a 2008 Writer’s Chronicle interview, “Like any writer, I struggle to preserve the mental space necessary for creative work. But I’m not willing to abandon the students and others who depend on me…So I go on struggling to make my imperfect art in the midst of relationships and responsibilities.”
Bitterness creeps into my voice — into me actually — when I’m not writing, when I’m feeling overwhelmed by my students, or my family, or some combination of these and other things. Bitterness, and self-pity; angry, mocking one-liners taped into the pages of my journal, and nothing else written there for weeks. I recognize it; it’s been there for a long time. It’s the voice of the anxious, defensive me — the me, probably, that realized I wanted to be a writer. Back in college, as a matter of fact, at a small school rather like the one where I teach now, where some important teachers took me seriously. Back when I first realized that literature, and writing, could save me from the paralysis of a growing bitterness, a sense that I was alone in a world filled with people who did not see the world — the strange, ridiculous, and sometimes beautiful world — in the way that I did.
Literature, and writing, have saved me countless times since then — as I know they’ve also saved a number of my students. How important, in the face of that possibility, is the sick feeling at facing yet another pile of student stories or poems; the barb of a less-than-stellar teaching evaluation; or the sinking feeling between my stomach and my chest as I walk out of my office, down some steps and over some pathways, up some other steps, and into the classroom one more time? Surely I can handle it, at least for a little longer.
Please let it go okay.
Image via riaskiff/Flickr
Only five new episodes remain in AMC’s high-octane drama about a milquetoast family man who transforms himself into a cunning drug kingpin. Within the next two months, we can expect to see Walter White’s reckoning, whether through spectacular downfall or a final ascension to cartel royalty. Blood will spill and secrets will be revealed. Breaking Bad promises us the rush and pulse of the best Shakespeare dramas, cinematically captured in the saturated blues and bleached out beiges that signify the Southwestern landscape.
One of the strengths of Breaking Bad is its richly layered storylines. There are worlds and worlds behind Walter White’s character arc. The story of the land and people of Northern New Mexico alone could be its own fascinating spinoff of Breaking Bad. Not to mention the history of The Drug War, cartels, and race relations in the borderlands.
The books on this list range from the personal to the mythological to the journalistic, and some intertwine all three. They all depict a world of stark contrasts. There is danger here. There are hardscrabble heroes and self-made gods dripping with hubris. Each book is infused with the poetry of landscape, in which humans like Walter White and Jesse Pinkman try to craft their own story with what their realities have handed them.
Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West by Ruben Martinez: Martinez deftly blends memoir and reportage, giving us an essential new way of thinking about and seeing the West. He goes into the complicated multiracial history of Northern New Mexico and brings the landscape and the people into stark relief as he tells his own story of settling there; he is part native, part interloper, both an advocate and gentrifier. It is from this ambiguous identity that he feels compelled to research the painful and fascinating history of the West, both its economic reality and its role in the Great American Imagination. It’s a perfect book to read in tandem with Breaking Bad, to get an intimate sense of the place where Vince Gilligan’s drama unfolds.
Alburquerque: A Novel by Rudolfo Anaya: World Literature Today described Anaya’s famous novel as “a quest for knowledge… a novel about many cultures intersecting at an urban, power-, and politics-filled crossroads, represented by a powerful white businessman.” A description that could easily apply to Breaking Bad. Anaya is often described as the father of Chicano literature and his novels are richly woven tapestries of memorable characters and an evocative sense of place.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Early on in the show, there were some comparisons of Skyler to Lady MacBeth. I disagree. She may have eventually accepted her role as accomplice and money launderer, but she began as the Daisy to Walt’s Gatsby. She was the pure (but greedy) representation of love and family that Walt ironically corrupted himself to protect and secure. There are plenty of places where Breaking Bad departs from Gatsby, but they share the story of an American nobody’s contraband-funded rise to infamy and inevitable tragic end.
Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell: The book that inspired the Oscar-nominated film, Daniel Woodrell’s novel is populated with the same kind of down-on-their-luck folks who make do with what they can in a harsh ecology, who rally around their own kind and protect family until the bitter end. Even if that means cooking and dealing meth.
To Die in Mexico: Dispatches from Inside the Drug War by John Gibler: The cartel murders in Breaking Bad are highly dramatized and sensationalized. John Gibler’s clear-eyed, well-researched reports remove many of the stereotypes and misconceptions about Mexico’s multi-billion dollar drug war, and will give the reader blood-curdling facts about the real Tuco Salamancas and Gus Frings and their impoverished, routinely executed employees. This highly praised book promises to sadden and enrage, and possibly to change your thinking about the War on Drugs.
A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca: New Mexico’s own American Book Award Winner spent six years of his early life in prison for selling drugs as a homeless youth. This memoir chronicles his life before, during, and after his time served. It’s a story of hope and remaking. Think of it as the photo-negative of Walter White’s arc. Far from the relative comfort of the White household, Baca began his life abandoned and destitute. He honestly writes of transforming himself in spite of desperate adversity, and of working for the nourishment and empowerment of the underserved communities around him.
Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko: Tucson has a similar history to that of Albuquerque – a modest desert metropolis that means many things to many people: colonized sacred land, dangerous, heavily policed border town, bohemian enclave, nexus of social ills. Both towns are weird clashing intersections of demographics and material interests; from the fancy-free cultural events of the college town to the radical activism of border justice advocates to the sleepy insularity of hippie-crystal business ownership. Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel centers on a veteran of the drug trade who sees the ghosts of colonialism in present day Arizona. Her story is a terrifying shadow history of the world that allowed someone like Walter White to exist.