by Kevin Winchester
Like many “literary” writers, I rely on my day job to pay most of the bills, keep beer in the fridge, and put gas in my vehicle. That day job consists of teaching Freshman Comp, Creative Writing, and the occasional literature course at a small, private University in North Carolina. The old addage goes, “make a living doing what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life,” and I agree. Sure, I won’t deny it. I’d love to see my novel at the top of the New York Times Best Seller List and have all my literary writer-friends call me a sell-out as I counted my royalties in a secluded mountaintop cabin. But, it’s something more than that, this being a writer, this love of pushing words around on a page, this playing with language, this shaping letters into sights and sounds and scenes. It’s the joy of creating, and then worrying and shepherding a sentence toward something musical, something magical that becomes so much more than just the letters and words. Whether it’s my work or my students’ work, my “day job” allows me to do just that, so I come in every day in a relatively thankful mood.
Last week, an official-looking enveloped arrived in my campus box. I immediately checked the upper corner, then back of the envelope. No return address or department specification, but obviously “official.” The envelope gleamed, crisp and unblemished, proof it originated from somewhere higher up, somewhere in the lofty halls of Administration. Were it from the English Department—or any of the “academic” departments for that matter—it would have appeared flaccid and coffee-stained, bearing dog-eared corners, multiple layers of tape repairs, and several crossed-out prior recipient names.
I weighed my options. I’m a writer; good news comes on the phone, not in the mail. I shrugged. I’ve been rejected by bigger and better, and will be again. I’ve even learned to find slight and sadistic pleasures in the form letter. Buy the ticket, take the ride, you know? So, instead of filing the envelope immediately in the “administration file” alongside the coffee grounds, banana peels, and New Yorker rejections, I opened it.
I was surprised. Apparently, I’ve been employed here ten years and the University plans to recognize that, along with others of greater and lesser servitude records, at this year’s awards dinner. That bothered me. Not the award itself, but the number of years. I hung the “English Major Doing Math” sign on my office door and commenced calculating.
After an hour or two, I realized I’d been working here, doing essentially the same job, for longer than I’d held any job. Ever. Maybe that doesn’t sound unusual. It is only ten years, after all, a brief decade. I suppose I should mention that, since I started working at fourteen, I’m now in my fifth decade of employment in some form or fashion. Yes, most would call my employment history spotty at best. Those who really know me probably find it equally amazing that here, this place, is my longest tenure. Until a few years ago, our institution was affiliated with the Southern Baptist denomination. While we may have advertised as a liberal arts university, most would agree we leaned in a much more conservative direction. I’ve joked from the start that I filled the University’s pony-tailed, tattooed, earring-wearing, Harley Davidson-riding, leftward-marching, stereotypical creative writing teacher requirement that allowed them to continue using the word “liberal” in the brochures.
I joke, but, where has the time gone? I just started a couple of semesters ago, didn’t I? After more calculations, I thought of the students, all the students. Of the many who sat in my classes during that ten year span, where were they now, what were they doing? Were they writers? Did grammar or sentence structure cross their minds while drafting a memo? Were the creative writing students submitting? Still writing? Did they remember anything I said? Did any of it matter? Had I said or done anything that made a difference?
What about all those other jobs? All of them. What did they accomplish? What did I take from them, what of me did I leave with them? That story stretched behind me like a twisted road; full of switchbacks, hairpin turns, dead ends… spiraling too fast down the hills, careening across stretches that flicked past like that broken white line: fork-lift driver, musician, dishwasher, real estate agent, musician, cubicle jockey, steel buyer, shoe salesman, auctioneer, musician, on and on… and on.
That evening, after more contemplation (read: several adult beverages) it began to make sense. I, like every other Writing teacher, tell my Creative Writing students to show, not tell. I, like every other undergrad Creative Writing teacher, wonder why students find that so difficult, wonder why so many only want to write bad fantasy, vampires, or zombies, and avoid—like an apocalypse—any and all of Faulkner’s “verities of the heart.” Yes, it began to make sense, and two simple statements from a writing class with William Price Fox many years past helped clarify things for me. He said, “You can’t write about life if you haven’t really lived,” and “sometimes you gotta let things spin out of control.” Sounds like an interpretation of my résumé…
Looking back, thinking about my variety of jobs, about all those students, about writing, about life, I knew what I hoped those students, especially the writers, took from me. Writing is life, life is writing. The road is twisted, perilous, difficult. Traveling that road requires some white-knuckled driving. Turning the wheel, getting there, requires balancing equal parts “terror and courage,” and going forward, forward, always forward, even when every turn is blind.
Writing Advice? Show, don’t tell. Living advice? Show, don’t tell. How do you do that? I don’t know what might work for you. For me, I start with that notion of terror and courage. For me, I write and I live as James Dickey suggests in Cherrylog Road: “drunk on the wind in my mouth, wringing the handlebar for speed, wild to be wreckage forever.” No reason to stop now, maybe it’ll get me through another decade or two.
-refers from the phrase “there aren’t many places you can drive” Christin Rice’s essay Ride of My Life