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I am hopeful about teaching. Each semester I am hopeful and each semester I become deeply involved with my writing students and each semester has turned out well—in fact, very well—since I first began teaching at Princeton. But now, I am thinking that I will focus even more intensely on my students. I have just 22 students this semester—two workshops and two seniors whom I am directing in “creative” theses.
Devote myself to my students, my teaching. This is something that I can do, that is of value.
For writing—being a writer—always seems to the writer to be of dubious value.
Being a writer is like being one of those riskily overbred pedigreed dogs—a French bulldog, for instance—poorly suited for survival despite their very special attributes.
Being a writer is in defiance of Darwin’s observation that the more highly specialized a species, the more likely its extinction.
Teaching—even the teaching of writing—is altogether different. Teaching is an act of communication, sympathy—a reaching-out—a wish to share knowledge, skills; a rapport with others, who are students; a way of allowing others into the solitariness of one’s soul.
“Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche”—so Chaucer says of his young scholar in The Canterbury Tales. When teachers feel good about teaching, this is how we feel.
And so, in this afternoon’s “advanced fiction” workshop, in an upstairs, lounge-like room in 185 Nassau, the university’s arts building, I am greatly relieved to be teaching! To be back in the presence of undergraduates who know nothing of my private life. For two lively and absorbing hours I am able to forget the radically altered circumstances of this life—none of my students could guess, I am certain, that “Professor Oates” is a sort of raw bleeding stump whose brain, outside the perimeter of the workshop, is in thrall to chaos.