The Writing

03 November, 2016

who wants to live forever?



We begin this post with a cat picture, as is the custom of the interwebz, and also because Skugga looks very grave and dignified in this instance (which took place about 3 seconds before he decided he needed to gallop around the living room).

It is that point the quarter where, as one can see by the gap in the posts, I've been slammed under endless student drafts. This is because I teach the entry-level college writing class, which means a lot of writing and a lot of commentary to be made on the writing. My students are not good writers. That's why they're there. It's no shame to them; most of them are international students, or generation 1/1.5. That they're taking college classes in a language they've been speaking for 4 years is a testament to their badassery. But they still need a lot of feedback, and that is where my energy goes.

It'd be easy to say my energy goes there because that's why I get paid. I mean, that's true--the university pays me to teach, and by all the good green gods, I will do that. They don't pay me to care, though. I do that for free. And because I care, and because my dedicated peer tutor cares, we spend maybe more time than is union-mandated doing the work for which we are paid. (I have never understood why people go into teaching if they don't love it. It's not a place for people who 'can't do anything else'. It's the place people go when they want to make a difference and get, like, zero fame and recognition for it, except from one's students and maybe one's colleagues.)

I choose to teach because I think the job fucking matters, and because I'm good at it. I teach this particular course and level of writer because I see the biggest improvements and evolution in student writing and thinking. There are other courses that are easier, from an instructor's perspective. This one's a constant push of writing and commenting. But when I read a Boss Fight draft, and see a kid who's gone from omg Nicomachean Ethics and Beowulf I don't get it to a cogent examiniation of courage in poem and philosophy... yeah. Okay. I feel pretty good.

And yeah. Aristotle and Beowulf. Because if it's hard for everyone--and it is--no one feels stupid, and at the end, everyone feels like they accomplished something (because they did). And also...I don't know when or where else a student's going to get any exposure to ethics, unless they seek it out in an elective. People are very good at talking about their hearts, and following their feelings, and jesus, okay, fine. But Aristotle emphasizes reason, and so my kids have to think about that, too: their motives for doing what they do, and whether or not those motives are noble, or under compulsion, or from passion, or whatever.

One of my students observed that a truly virtuous teacher, by Aristotelian standards, would kindly sacrifice her time to her students because it was noble to do so, and because she reasoned her efforts would have some result; the teacher who is kind from compulsion is not really virtuous, even if her efforts also bring results. I joke with Nous that I am the citizen-soldier of teachers, acting for honor's sake, because of the shame I would earn if I did not perform my duty. That's not true, though. I respond poorly to external compulsion of all varieties.

But my gods, if it's internal--if, like, I think I need to finish a project no matter fucking what because I don't leave things unfinished--I can make myself pretty miserable. Like, 93k words of miserable that just keeps going in the wrong direction compounding itself because I will get this done. If this WIP had been a sweater, or any other knitted project, I'd've frogged it. No. I'd've cut the yarn and thrown the whole damn thing out.

So I did.

I could simply pretend this toadshit comes from starting the project when I was carrying an extra course last spring and I proved simply unable to balance Teacher Brain and Writer Brain. There's even some truth to that. And yes, external stress didn't help--isn't helping, thank you election--because I started this story in a dark, low-contrast world of competing political world-views and morally ambiguous characters a protagonist who was not a hero and then I realized--oh. I've read this before. Like 100 times. Am I adding to this conversation about moral ambiguity? Am I elucidating some angle of the non/human psyche, or leveling a critique/observation about the real-world context? Am I just exploring motives and underpinnings for why someone acts like they do, the literary equivalent of making excuses?  I grew to like the characters. I just kinda hated their world. It looked too much like this one, even with aliens and spaceships and cyborgs. It was cynical. I'm tired of cynical.

I had my students read an essay last week discussing the changes made in the 2007 Zemeckis Beowulf movie from the original poem. My students were struck by the difference in Grendel's mother, between poem and film, from (arguably) scariest monster in her underwater lake who almost eats Beowulf, to Angelina Jolie in gold shiny skin with a tail. They liked that movie-Beowulf seemed more mortal, more human, in that he allowed himself to be seduced; but they were pretty convinced he was a damn fool for having done so, and they would never make that mistake. I posed to them this dilemma, then: make a deal now, for success your whole life, your life's dream, and then die, rather horribly, sometime around 60; or muddle along, doing your thing, for the next 80 years with no particular success or failure. Just, you know, middlin'. There were some wide eyes. There were some thoughtful stares. There was a sudden sympathy for movie-Beowulf.

(And I thought--yeah, okay. If you told me--trade the last 20 years of your life so that something you wrote lasted for the next thousand plus years and left a mark on the culture--like Aristotle or Beowulf--I'd have to think long and hard about that bargain.)

A fair number of my students condemn poem-Beowulf because his motive for killing the monsters is always his fame, his glory, his legacy; they want something more pure for his courage than even Aristotle's cold reason. They want him to be brave because it's just right. They want him to be a damn hero.

I think maybe that's the story I need to tell right now. A hero. Not an unproblematic one, maybe; but still, someone who actively tries to do good things because it is noble to do, and base not to do so, and that means a society that isn't so mired in cynicism that public opinion means something.

Maybe that's my fantasy.