what are you? writer vs teacher

cropped-c6qibu5wuaamyrl-jpg-large.jpegOne of my fellow teachers here at the community college asked me a very interesting question a while back. She asked, “What would you rather be doing–reading or writing?”

We were waiting for a professional development meeting/seminar to begin and I didn’t have much time to answer but I think I told her I would rather be out somewhere fishing. We both laughed but I’ve been thinking about the nature of that question since I have an MFA and the fellow teacher who asked me has an MA in literature. And I think there was thread between the distinction of the two degrees in her comment. She might as well have asked me–what are you, a teacher or a writer?

And I am always going on in my classes about the difference between the two degrees. I always seem to pat myself on the back and tell my students how the degree is unique and there are only a few instructors here at the college that have MFA’s and how I am the only one teaching composition who has an MFA and blah blah blah. I’m not really a bragger–actually I am pretty self-deprecating at times. In fact, my degree is something I am quite proud of despite the bad reputation the MFA holds compared to the European sensibility regarding writing programs. Research the latest Nobel Prize bologna on NPR if you don’t believe me. But I am always questioning my credentials.

Just after arriving here the art department instructors pled their case to the powers that be concerning their pay grade and their degrees. We won that battle and I am happy to see the school recognizes the degree apart from the MA. And I like that I am associated at least on paper with the visual artists and the graphic artists here at the college. I like the idea that we both create instead of tediously analyze.

My point ,I guess, is MFA degrees show someone to be a writer and a student of form and the MA/PHD shows someone to be a student of literature and theory and analysis–at least the way I think about it. Jenny Cornell once made that distinction for me in her office and she was one of the most dynamic personalities and credentialed person I have ever worked with. And I also had a crush on her but I won’t go in to that here.

Anyway, I imagine I obsess over that question and the idea of whether I am studying too much of other literature as opposed to writing literature. And perhaps I am not one to lock myself up for 15 hours a day Stephen King style and produce manuscripts but I have been pretty productiove this last year or two. I finished at least 5 short stories for submission–I have 6 out in the world right now looking for homes– and I have completed the Huerfanos novel/project and I am about halfway through the Notorious Cornbread project/manuscript. So I feel quite productive and so when I pick up a book or a magazine to read and study fiction or creativ non-fiction why do I feel like I am not writing enough. And I still study form closely as Stephen Minot advises.

And now is where I make the connection to teaching. In my mind the old comment–those who cannot do–teach,always bothers me. At another seminar this term a biology teacher answered with an Aristotle quote. Those who understand are the ones who teach best–or some such quote. The room applauded for that one. And in my mind the distinction between a teacher and a doer or a writer is very important. And this term–perhaps because of the quality of my assignments and final products from my students in comp and lit have all made me feel like a writer.

Yesterday, after receiving annotated bibliographies from my students, I never felt more like a writer in my life. And even as I respond to students’ creative writing–one act plays in particular–I find myself to be more a writer. Not because of the quality of the assignments as nearly all of those were pretty successful drafts. But the errors come from me having a dificult time responding to creative writing as opposed to composition.

I guess because in composition I feel I am grading and in creative writing I feel I am relating and sympathizing more than I am grading as say for my lit 110 poetry mid-term or my lit 113 ethnic term paper. In those I feel I am grading content– and not commenting on form. The paradox of it all.

But yesterday I wanted to stop reading and stop grading and work on my own fiction which is coming pretty fast and furiously these past few months. Can that be a success to add to the failures of this failed writing weblog?

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john paul jaramillo

John Paul Jaramillo’s debut story collection The House of Order was named a 2013 Int’l Latino Book Award Finalist, and his most recent work Little Mocos is now available from Twelve Winters Press. In 2013 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature listed Jaramillo as one of its Top 10 New Latino Authors to Watch and Read. He is currently a professor of composition and literature at Lincoln Land College-Springfield, Illinois.

2 thoughts on “what are you? writer vs teacher”

  1. We’ve also talked about this before. Your first year here, I believe. At that time, I told you I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that I’d become a “reader.” Well, the fact is, I haven’t. And while I think there is much to be learned by looking at the contrasts between form/ideology, teacher/doer, writer/reader, writer/teacher, I also believe that too much of that becomes false perception. The fact is, we have to encompass so many roles at so many points in our lives. The roles don’t have to be in competition with each other. Hmm–my words have me thinking though. My choice of words, actually. Perhaps the “answer” to your question from me at this time is another question: Which of those do you see as your role and which as your identity?

  2. Well, after receiving my instructor evaluations for the one class I had reviewed I am still ion the thinking I am a writer rather than a teacher. Again, I am not sure what makes a teacher a teacher. The tucked-in polo shirt and sport coat or the patches over the pocket. I guess I just understand what it means to me to be a failed writer more than a failed teacher. Being a failed writer only hurts me and being a failed teacher affects my students. If I fail, they fail. Maybe that is extreme.

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