Volume 24, Number 1
Fall 1996


M. Jerry Weiss, Editor

Jersey City State College, Jersey City, New Jersey

A Teacher Writes


Herb Karl

When Judy Richardson, the incoming president of the College Reading Association, asked me to speak at the group's annual conference in November 1995, she knew I had published my first young adult novel with Delacorte. She also knew I was employed full-time at the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg while I was working on the novel. Maybe some "kindred spirits" in attendance might be interested in hearing how I balanced the demands of teaching with the writing of fiction, she reasoned. During the course of preparing my remarks, I found myself wanting to talk more about the "why" than the "how" of writing. Also, what began as a somewhat whimsical endeavor gradually degenerated into an entirely too serious exhortation for which I apologize in advance. The following is an abridged version of the original text of the speech.

I'm here this morning because I got lucky. I had written a manuscript for a young adult novel. It had been rejected by a number of publishers and lay on a shelf collecting dust. Then, an author who shall remain nameless took it upon herself to submit the manuscript (I was out of the country at the time) to the Delacorte Press Competition for writers of a first young adult novel. Several weeks later I received a phone call from a Delacorte editor, requesting permission to publish my novel.

True story. I told it to illustrate what you already know. Luck plays a role in just about any enterprise we undertake -- maybe more so in novel writing. And while I was delighted that the Delacorte folks were interested, getting the book published was not my sole reason for writing it. Which brings me to why I am here today -- to share with you my own experience as a teacher who writes.

There must be some pretty compelling reasons to create two-hundred pages of make believe, especially when there is absolutely no guarantee any of those pages will ever be bound between the covers of a book. Why would I do it? It's a question I've thought about from time to time but never in a systematic way. And since I might not have an opportunity to express my feelings on the subject again -- in a public forum, anyway -- I thought I'd conduct a little dialogue with myself, mainly to reflect on my motives for writing fiction but also to provide an insight into how I manage to get my writing done while teaching full-time, fulfilling my obligations as a spouse and parent, and having a little fun now and then. Naturally, I already know where this dialogic journey will take me, as I was compelled to make it before I got here.

First question. Do I write fiction because teaching is not a particularly demanding kind of employment, and therefore I require a more challenging activity to make my life complete?

Let me put it this way. I have held jobs as a meat lugger (someone who carries hind- and fore-quarters of beef from one place to another), a construction worker (where I graduated from beef carcasses to bags of cement), and a roofer (where I nailed tarpaper to roofs in Florida in the summer when the temperature was 100 degrees and the humidity 100 percent). With the exception of the roofing job, I found the others much less exhausting than teaching. The really deceptive thing about teaching, of course, is that it exacts great quantities of "creative" energy. And creative energy is the life blood of teaching, as it is the life blood of story-making and every other art form. When you deplete the creative energy, the making of art becomes something akin to performing CPR on a bloodless cadaver.

No one -- not I or anyone else -- writes fiction because his or her job as a teacher has few demands.

I find it difficult to drop this issue without mentioning something about how I've managed to grope my way through the labyrinth of teaching. I used to cloister myself at home for protracted periods of uninterrupted work on weekends. Now I find myself seeking windows of opportunity --times when I can sneak in a few sentences on the computer which sits partially concealed between a bookcase and a wall in a corner of my office at school. One of the virtues of the computer is that it is so quiet. No clackity-clack of a typewriter to tip off rogue colleagues as to my whereabouts. I work whenever I can, sometimes fifteen minutes, sometimes two or three hours -- mornings, afternoons, evenings. It took me a couple of years to write my first young adult novel. I've been working on another for over a year. I have struck a compromise between teaching and writing that I'm content with -- at least for the moment. As for the future, who can say?

Next question. Do I write fiction because I have no recreational pursuits which permit me to wile away the down time when I'm not teaching?

I live in a warm place where there is a plethora of beaches and golf courses. I have been known to spend some time on fall weekends watching football on television. I like to take in an occasional concert, play, or dance performance. My wife and I are avid moviegoers, she preferring art films while I will watch anything. Most of these activities have the net effect of further reducing the time given over to writing fiction. My wife, an artist herself (she draws and paints), understands what all the aforementioned diversions do to the creative process. She refers to these activities as "sharpening pencils" ("cleaning brushes" in her case). They are really avoidance behaviors, because the making of books and paintings is a scary undertaking. I believe it was John Updike who put it this way: "Writing is easy. All you have to do is sit and stare at a blank sheet of paper until little droplets of blood begin to form on your forehead."

Needless to say, I do not write fiction because of an overabundance of discretionary time.

Next question. Am I trying to make a fast buck?

While the modest advance I received for my first novel wasn't chopped liver; compared to what Newt and General Powell got, it wasn't exactly beluga caviar, either. I can say with certainty that I didn't write the first novel (nor am I writing the second) with an eye toward financial independence.

Final question. Do I write fiction because it is a natural extension of what I do as a teacher?

Interesting question.

When I think of the implications of such a question, a couple of things occur to me. First, there is my deep, and I believe genuine, commitment to the value of reading and writing. A good part of my life -- not only my teaching life -- is taken up trying to persuade students and anyone else who will listen that literacy is one of the most important prerequisites to civility. And these days, we can do with as much civility as possible.

It follows that this commitment would have some kind of rub-off effect on my teaching -- and possibly my writing as well. (Curiously, a significant character in my young adult novel is an English teacher.) Whether I'm teaching a writing course or an adolescent literature course or a language study course, I invariably begin with Jefferson's admonition on the need for a public education, with its principal purpose being to help create a "literate" citizen -- a citizen capable of making an "informed judgment" at the ballot box. To Jefferson, literacy was a key to sustaining the nation; and the teaching of reading and writing, from the earliest years, would in his words "render the people safe, as they are the ultimate guardians of their own liberty."

Much more recently, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death , Neil Postman took Jefferson's admonition to its natural conclusion -- claiming that the habits of reading and writing are not only necessary to the making of smart choices at the ballot box but they are also necessary to the cultivation of all those qualities we typically associate with civilized human beings. Postman continues to assert that the acts of reading and writing have the potential to nurture a rational mind -- a mind capable of conceptual thought, of deductive thinking, of creating a sense of order and purpose, and of tolerating deferred gratification. All of which represent to me wonderful examples of civilized behavior.

These ideas -- as they are expressed by Jefferson and Postman -- I bring to my teaching. And I have no doubt that they have greatly influenced my personal engagement in the written word -- as a literate human being and as a teacher who would invite others to share with me the experience of literacy. But the rational nature of the acts of reading and writing is not enough. As a writer of fiction, I would add another layer of significance to these acts. To me, an important difference between fiction (which I will henceforth call STORY) and other forms of print is the inherent potential of STORY to become for the reader or the writer a spiritual activity.

That's right -- a spiritual activity. I've sensed this to be true for a long time, first as a reader of stories, later as a writer of stories. When I first heard about Carl Jung and read Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces (long before Bill Moyers popularized Campbell and his work on PBS), my intuitions were given substance. To both Jung and Campbell (and a whole bunch of other folks, too), stories are as natural and vital to humankind as chlorophyll is to green plants. Stories have the potential to be the catalysts of powerful meanings. Stories can become analogues of what we cannot know directly, but can only contemplate indirectly as metaphor. In short, stories have the capacity to become in our own minds -- mythic.

Campbell goes so far as to suggest that most of human experience can be encapsulated into a single story. I, myself, am partial to this view, since the story to which he is referring is one that I have found at the core of fiction (adult or young adult) with which I feel a strong personal affinity. It is at the core of Huckleberry Finn and it is at the core of Robert Lipsyte's The Contender and it is at the core of Gary Paulsen's Hatchet. It's the story of an adventure in which the hero or heroine is continually subjected to obstacles which test his or her ability to survive, to learn, to grow. The end result of the adventure is often transformation. The adolescent either attains adulthood or understands what it means to be an adult. Sometimes he or she offers this newfound wisdom as a gift to others in the story -- or to us, the readers of the story.

The process by which STORY unfolds is relatively mysterious, for both reader and writer. Which is as it should be -- if you believe in the spiritual nature of stories.

Like the protagonist in Campbell's universal story, I have found the writing and reading of fiction an adventure. Particularly in the writing, I am able to become completely immersed in the process. I struggle with the words, the visual images, the nature of the action and the dialogue. But sometimes these things take on a life of their own, and I become drawn into the story and find myself living it. It is a pleasurable experience (when it happens) -- much better than watching TV.

I think we are onto something here. It is the adventure and the mystery of creating a story that is probably my personal "other reason" for sitting and staring at a blank sheet of paper until the little droplets of blood begin to form on my forehead.

As Jefferson and Postman have suggested, language in its printed form has the potential to nurture our powers of reason. But the spiritual nature of the acts of reading and writing are also important, and Joseph Campbell has done a pretty thorough job of explaining the potentialities of stories and how they often represent a repository of shared experience that lies below the level of consciousness and that ultimately connects us -- one to the other -- and helps us all make meaning out of our individual experience.

Postman, who has traditionally given more weight to the rational potential of literacy, of late seems to be turning his attention to what I have referred to as the spiritual potential of reading and writing. In a recent article he laments the glut of information that seems to be littering the information super highway:

Like the sorcerer's apprentice, we are awash in information without even a broom to help us get rid of it. Information comes indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume, at high speeds, severed from import and meaning. And there is no loom to weave it all into fabric. No transcendent narratives to provide us with moral guidance, social purpose, intellectual economy. No stories to tell us what we need to know, and what we do not need to know.

This, then, is the problem we have to confront with as much intelligence and imagination as we can muster. How to begin? We will have to stop consulting our engineers, our computer gurus, and our corporate visionaries.... Instead, we will need to consult our poets, playwrights, artists, humorists, theologians, and philosophers, who alone are capable of creating or restoring those metaphors and stories that give point to our labors, give meaning to our history, elucidate the present, and give direction to our future. They are our weavers, and I have no doubt that there are men and women among us who have the looms to weave us a pattern for our lives. The prospect of their doing so is, for me, the gleam of light on the horizon. ( Utne Reader , July-August 1995, p. 35)

Nice thought. The power of STORY as an important solution to the mess we humans have made of things. The message is clear -- for those of us who teach the young to read and write and for those of us who have a story to tell.

Herb Karl is a Professor of English Education at the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg. His young adult novel is The Toom County Mud Race, published by Delacorte in 1992. The novel was selected for the American Library Association's 1993 list of Recommended Books for the Reluctant Young Adult Reader.

Copyright 1996, The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN # 0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation : Karl, Herb. (1996). A teacher writes. The ALAN Review , Volume 24, Number 1, 58-60.