Something From Nothing: The Writing Teacher’s Work

I want to talk to you about my work, a writing teacher’s work.
But, for the time it takes to read this
I want to close the door on curriculum,
The common syllabus,
Outcomes and assessment,
Strategies for effective peer review,
Grading policies, and the calendar,
And evoke instead something else,
The something and the nothing
Out of which learning in the writing classroom takes place,
An else that often feels like making sculpture from smoke.
To evoke this thing I rely on an old medium,
The voice in your head.
If you are reading this you’ve lent it to me,
As students lend me the voices in their heads.
Thank you.  I will assume with you, as I do with them,
The storyteller’s imperative to bring news from far away,
A far away that is quite close,
And as mysterious as a house cat to Christopher Smart
And as familiar as a tiger to William Blake.
Of course, if I set aside the calendar
And which readings,
And which themes,
And how to assess,
And our syllabuses,
What is left?
This is the “Nick the Chopper” Question.
In The Wizard of Oz
The Wicked Witch of the East cursed Nick
To keep him his beloved, Nimmee Aimmee.
She cursed his axe so it chopped off his limbs as he worked;
Ku-Klip replaced them, one at a time, even his head
Until, Voila—
Nick the Chopper became The Tin Woodsman.
As an aside, Ku-Klip kept Nick’s “meat head” in a cabinet.
Nick’s head insists that he,
Not the Tin Woodsman,
Is Nick the Chopper.
Do you get where I’m going with this?
Chop chop chop.
I set aside syllabus.
Chop chop chop.
I set aside the assignment sheet.
I set aside the problem of citation.
Chop chop.
Etcetera etcetera.
Chop chop chop.
What of writing class is left?
A little bit of nothing?
A little bit of something?
What I would say is left is the real work.

Gary Snyder uses the phrase, “the real work”
To describe some of what I mean.
He uses the phrase here and there—in poems and essays.  
An interviewer asked him
“What is the real work?”  Snyder answers,
I think it’s important, first of all because it’s good to work— I love work;
Work and play are one.  And that all of us will come back again
To the hoe in the ground, or gather wild potato bulbs with digging sticks,
Or hand-adze a beam, or skin a pole, or scrape a hive—
We’re never going to get away from that…
He continues,
We’ve been living a dream that we’re going to get away from that…
Work  is always going to be there.  It might be stapling papers,
It might be typing in the office.  But we’re never going to get away from that work,
On one level or another.  So that’s real. The real work is what we really do.  
And what our lives are.  And if we can live the work we do know that we are real,
And it’s real, and that the world is real, then it becomes right.
And that’s the work:  to make the world as real as it is, and to find ourselves as real as we are within it.
What is the real work of the writing classroom?

Teachers must transmit what our students need to know,
Yet what we transmit is hardly even the half of it.
There is another knowledge, which we also address in our plans and intentions:
Stuff you can only learn through experience,
Stuff that is manifest to others and apparent to ourselves
Only through the act of making something
And so the real work of teaching writers involves a fundamental tension
Between what we must tell students and what they can only know for themselves.

Let me put it another way:
My son made his first roast chicken recently
According to the recipe I told him,
The one he’s watched me make for years.
He called to ask me,
How will I know when it’s done?
And I had to think for a moment.
I have cooked a thousand chickens.
How do I know when it’s done?
When it smells done.
When the time has passed that I know it is done.
And finally, when you prick the thickest part of the thigh with a fork
And the juice runs clear.
And he, who had never done it on his own before
Asks, What is clear?

We transmit the traditions, the tools, and forms we value,
But we also know that such knowledge hardly describes
What it means when we describe what and how a writer knows.
To know how, as the philosopher Gilbert Ryle puts it,
Is not to check first then act, but to act spontaneously,
Not to ask how and what first, then act,
But to be deeply imbued by what it is to act.
This does not mean we do not critique or reflect,
Especially when we are learning something new,
But that even those moments of deliberation and reflection
Move toward spontaneous action
When we are able to forget ourselves into the work we do,
Which allows us to create something right for each unique time and place.

So, the writing teacher creates a place,
Out of the clock and the calendar,
Out of the once and the now
Out of the assertion and the reason why,
We draw a circle around rooms full of writers,
Who receive an invitation to the work:
Of tools, materials and forms,
Of perceptions, thoughts and feelings,
Of efforts at attunement,
That makes a writer capable of her own work,
“Work” is a peculiar word for these peculiar classes we teach,
Though whenever I think about the writing teacher’s art,
I begin and end with thoughts on our work.
“Work” stands for the product.                       
And “work” stands for the “process”
But in the writing classroom,
The process is the product,
And so it—the process––is a kind of artifact, too.

Work also refers to “the work.”
When I am in a classroom,
By the third or fourth week,
If I have done my job well.
“the work” emerges.
It emerges in a way that is not mysterious but elemental,
Each student sets down, in a sense, “my work”—
By “my work” I mean the personal struggle––
And glimpses the common struggle.
We, the two of us or the ten of us, or the twenty-five of us,
Turn toward it, and regard it
As if we’d driven over a rise
To find our city pooled in mist
And the mist dissolves as we approach
And first we regard it at a distance
And then as we approach, it may disappear
And then it is all around us.

Each class is an invitation to inhabit
Forms of attention and attunement,
Patterns of caution and regard,
Machines of consideration,
Rhythms of what’s done.
If all goes well, it is no more mysterious than
The heart and mind, that tangle we are always entangled in,
The heart and mind, for which there is no word that doesn’t, inadvertently,
Evoke separation: the heartmind, which we hesitate to name knowledge,
But is knowledge—
My materials are words and forms and time and attention.
I shape experience, enter conversation strategically and spontaneously,
And direct a periodic return to some elemental act or event,
(the adze, the axe, the digging stick)
That repeats and elaborates upon itself.
The classrooms pile up behind me like the lifetime of beds I’ve slept in,
But I draw a circle around each one, and
Rather like my grandmother,
Who could make any kitchen her own
Simply by drawing a circle around it with her work,
Hand around the sharp knife, hand at the cutting board.
I invite my students to do the same as I do,
Hand at the keyboard, hand around the pen,
Screen and paper, the stapler,
Through which the work makes
The world clear and real and apparent,
A circle they can draw anywhere
At any time simply by taking up the work
As long as the work persists.
And so I enter every odd classroom,
Like the tailor in the Yiddish folk song,
Who seems to make a something from a nothing,
That is never really a nothing.
First, he sewed his newborn daughter a blanket,
And when the blanket became worn and frayed at the edges,
And he saw her leaving it here and there,
He trimmed it and sewed it again,
And made her a little vest to wear,
And soon, she grew too big for it,
As she was bound to,
So, he cut it a bit and hemmed it,
And made her a scarf,
Which, when it became too short to keep out the cold,
He trimmed and stitched
Into a handkerchief for her.
When it too, became worn and threadbare,
He made it into buttons,
A row for a pretty school dress.
And when the buttons were lost, one by one,
And there was no fabric left
To make something from a button
That was once a scarf,
That was once a vest,
That was once a blanket—
He made this story— which I learned,
And which I have now told you.

Writing on the Edge, Spring 2012

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