Illustration by Gracyn Bird ’21.
by Susan Perabo, Professor of Creative Writing and Writer-In-Residence
When I was growing up I didn’t want to be a teacher or a writer. I wanted to be a baseball player. And we’ve all heard baseball players say in interviews, “I can’t believe someone
pays me to play this game.”
Honestly, most days, that’s how I feel about teaching. I can’t believe someone pays me to play this game. Last winter when I was struggling with self-doubt over my writing career, I found solace and inspiration every single time I stepped into the classroom. Every single time. I’d stop looking at my email—questions from my editor, requests from my publicist, advice from my agent—and walk up the stairs to my workshop room, and with every step I felt lighter. The solace and inspiration came from the students themselves (their enthusiasm, their generosity, their vulnerability), but it also came from the stories—both the stories that we read in our anthologies (Chekhov, O’Connor, Joyce, Baldwin) and also the students’ own stories.
Sometimes people who do not teach ask me how I don’t get burned out reading so many students’ stories—especially ones by beginning, undergraduate writers. “Doesn’t it make you
weary?”, people ask. “Seeing the same mistakes over and over again? And doesn’t that weariness affect your own writing?”
The truth is, just the opposite. Maybe I would feel burned out if I were editor of a literary journal and spent most of every work day rejecting flawed stories. But teaching workshop is about accepting flawed stories—not dismissing them, not tossing them back into the slush pile—and working with a smart and engaged group of people to figure out how to fix them. That’s not tiring; that’s thrilling. Not to mention incredibly instructive for me as a writer. I learn from teaching. I learn and relearn, every single week, from every single story.
What is a writing career, anyway? It’s not writing. You don’t need a writing career to be a writer. All you need to do to be a writer is write. Recently, I considered other writers who did not have so-called writing careers, and I found myself somewhat ashamed by the first and most obvious example I thought of. Imagine Chekhov saying, “Being a doctor ruined my writing career.” It’s preposterous. For Chekhov, being in the company of human beings in that intimate and intense way, trusting and being trusted, stakes high, fears apparent, emotions raw—he took all that to the page. Not as material, per se, but as nourishment.
Teaching has always kept me nourished, kept me connected to the world in a profound and meaningful way. Meaningful to me personally, of course, but also meaningful to me as a writer.
I never meant to be a teacher. Twenty-two years ago, to support my writing, I started teaching at Dickinson. My workshop room was on the fourth floor of East College, overlooking the academic quad. I was 27 years old. I had no books and no kids and no clue. If you’d told me that 22 years later, I’d still be teaching workshop in that same classroom, I would have said you were crazy. But here I am. My writing career, elusive. My true career, evident.
Susan Perabo is professor of creative writing and a writer-in-residence at Dickinson. She teaches beginning and advanced workshops in fiction, as well as modern and contemporary literature classes that focus heavily on form and technique. She has published short-story collections, two novels and several essays for magazines and anthologies. The above is an excerpt from a full essay published by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Published May 10, 2019