Joyce Carol Oates on Mourning and Teaching

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21 April 2010

Joyce Carol Oates writes in The Atlantic about mourning the loss of her husband, Raymond Smith, in 2008 after 48 years of marriage.  It’s a beautiful essay, and I was particularly struck by her revelation of the way in which teaching — her alternative life, her non-personal life — became a way of getting through that painful time.

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.

That writing as a vocation is a kind of teetering on the edge of regular-life survival… I am only at the beginning of this journey, so given Oates’s prolific output and long teaching career, I am heartened by how she puts her finger on it and articulates it so honestly.   Yes, I thought as I read; this — not just the stable income — is why writers keep teaching.

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2 Responses to “Joyce Carol Oates on Mourning and Teaching”

  1. pds Says:

    I am intrigued by this balance between one’s art and teaching. They are, as Oates describes, “altogether different”. I always learned more from those who were teachers with an area of expertise rather than those who were artists who happen to teach.

    Should there be a comma in that sentence? Probably. This is why I don’t teach.

    • sonyachung Says:

      I’ve had that experience too, Priya. The best is when you can get the “whole package” in a teacher. I think teaching institutions would do well to create a teaching structure that allows writers/artists to do both without the teaching feeling like a burden. When artists are overloaded by the teaching, that’s when they are not at their best; resentment creeps in.


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