This year was my first AWP. I was prepared for the information overload, for the crowded elevators, for the snobbishness, for the holy-shit-that’s-Jane-Smiley feeling, for the casual run-ins with grad school classmates, for the awkward conversations with strangers, for the temptation to spend too much money at the book fair.
I was not prepared for the overwhelming sense of guilt about not writing. You see, I am a professor, but not a creative writing professor. I teach composition courses (and some critical thinking courses for good measure), four sections each semester. This confession was met with countless looks of pity and head-shaking and condolences by other AWP conference-goers who teach three sections of creative writing and think they have it rough. By comparison, my load is downright brutal.
During the academic year, my focus is on auxiliary verbs and MLA citations. I grade research papers and facilitate classroom activities designed around exploring sentence structure. After a full day of teaching and committee meetings and advising appointments and answering emails and prepping classes, I come home to spend my evenings grading papers. And finally, at the end of the day, I have a few hours of free time before I go to bed around 1:00 a.m. I fill those two or three hours with mindless television and clicking around the internet, or reading on a good day, because although I do have a very small amount of spare time, I don’t have even a small amount of spare energy. Sometimes, it’s nearly impossible to even focus on a sitcom. Writing is simply out of the question; there’s no intellectual or emotional energy left. It all goes to my students and my job, and unfortunately, those things don’t involve creative writing.
Inhabiting my writer self for four glorious days at AWP — and more specifically, being able to shed my composition professor self mid-semester — made me acutely aware of just how out of touch with my true self I am for nine months of the year. The phrase “emotional truth” doesn’t enter my consciousness from August through May, although “comma splice” is always at the forefront. I arrived at AWP completely unaware of the recent John D’Agata scandal. For a nonfiction writer, that’s downright embarrassing. Comma splices are not me. Questions of emotional truth vs. factual truth are…not that I ever contemplate them.
I’m not sure what to do about this distressing realization. It’s no wonder I feel so listless all year long. It’s not just because I don’t sleep enough during the school year on account of the grading. It’s not just because the students wear me down. It’s because I don’t get to be myself — it’s because I have to set aside who I am and what I do and what I care about. It’s because I have to sacrifice my true calling in order to get through stack after stack of papers.
The problem is that the paycheck is absolutely necessary, as is the health insurance. If I hadn’t spent the last four years sacrificing my writing for these necessities, though, I can’t help but think that my name would have graced the cover of more than just one journal at the AWP book fair. I’m a good writer…but doing my best work necessitates having the energy to do the work. Energy to think, energy to feel, energy to probe, energy to question, energy to write and re-write and submit.
I had some variation of this conversation with a number of grad school classmates this weekend; we’re all a little shell-shocked by a post-MFA life that simply doesn’t live up to our expectations. We were warned, of course, but knowing the reality and living the reality are different beasts. My friend Jeff said it best. He said that he’s not happy working his ass off and never writing poems, but that if he was writing poems and starving it would just be a different kind of unhappy. We have to choose which form of unhappiness to embrace…and that’s a no-win situation.
The bottom line is that my job isn’t going away. That much I know for certain. They key, then, is to figure out how to minimize the effects. If anyone out there knows how to teach four classes and grade literally hundreds of pages of student work while also maintaining a writing life, please let me know. I am in dire need of a solution. If I don’t find one soon, I’m afraid that my writer side will shrivel up and disappear completely. As it is, it’s getting harder and harder to cajole her into making an appearance each summer…