A few years ago I was standing in line at my local farmer’s market. It was a bustling Saturday and the sun was beating down. I was going to make seafood linguine and was planning the menu in my head when the fishmonger asked me what I’d like. I turned and looked at her and she stared at me. I recognized her immediately. She was a former student of mine, an MFA grad from SLC, a gifted writer I’d assumed was well on her way to a literary career. Instead she was selling fish.
I mumbled about not having decided as she turned away. She did not wait on me that day and I never saw her at the fish market again.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with selling fish. But this young woman had been groomed for a different career. Even as I write this, I can still remember some of the stories she wrote when she was my student—and I have read many, many stories since. Her work to me was memorable, but I do not believe it has ever seen the light of day. And perhaps it never will. But I have never forgotten the look she gave me or the object lesson it drove home.
When I ran into her, I had been a writer and teacher for more than two decades. And I’d long viewed my role as teacher to shepherd my student’s work through the creative process, to engage their literary minds and help them write their best stories and novels. Once they were out of my classroom, the semester wrapped up, my responsibility ended. But as I saw the look in her eyes when she turned away and would not wait on me, I knew I had to think differently about myself as a teacher of creative writing.
As I walked home that day, I began to ponder my real professional responsibility to my students, as well as an institution’s responsibility to its graduates. I had never really thought that much about what happens to my students after they leave my class. But suddenly I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What kind of doctor would I be if I didn’t do follow-up visits? And what kind of teacher am I if my work doesn’t extend itself beyond the arbitrary constraints of the semester and classroom?
My own writing career began shakily enough—a long story I like to tell my students as an object lesson about perseverance and dumb luck. The gist of it is this: I never got an MFA, I wrote literally dozens of short stories over a period of ten years, religiously sending them out and watching them return like children who had gone off to school and were back for lunch. But there were helpers along the way—a fellow student who told me to send my poems to Columbia Review, a teacher at a summer conference who suggested I take a novel and put it aside. “You may be a good writer,” he told me, “but this is a bad book.”
I kept at it and, in fact, could not stop writing and sending things out, and one day a friend said to me, “Why don’t you call my agent?” Or, from another, “I’m reading for a publisher who is looking for fiction.” Simple sentences which I took at their word that helped shape my future and my life.
The fact is that the students of mine who have become writers over the years I can count on two hands.
I take my work seriously. I have long joked with my husband that I want my tombstone to read, Writer, Teacher, Friend. But it has taken a number of years for the role of teacher to expand itself into mentor. After all, mentoring is more demanding with no end in sight. Once in Alaska I saw a mother grizzly chasing her cub away and our bus driver explained that her mothering was done and it was time for the cub to leave. Hmm, I thought. Is this a good role model for me?
Obviously not and it may not be a good role for model for anyone beyond grizzlies in the wild. But I can no longer just say to my students, “Okay, it’s June. Get outta here.”
As a teacher I have long emphasized process over product. Do the work, keep your head down. We’ll worry about getting it out into the world later. But the time comes when we must ask ourselves about the product and the fact is that for the writer there is the work and there is the business of writing. And that a graduate program in writing, like any professional program, must prepare its students not only for the work itself, but also for the world.
While the act of writing is a lonely business, the business of being a writer doesn’t have to be. And that business can entail many things. Networking, going to conferences, writer’s colonies, finding an agent, sending work to contests and to small magazines. Getting in touch with other writers, finding a writing buddy to share your work with. And unless someone tells you how to go about doing these things—without a little help along the way—it is very hard to move into that world.
The fact is that the students of mine who have become writers over the years I can count on two hands. I feel proud when I see their books in stores and airports, when I come across a story of theirs in a magazine. I like it when they let me know something is being published; that they’ll be in town giving a reading. And these writers were going to be writers no matter what.
Other students of mine work in writing-related fields—as editors, agents, teachers. Many are still writing; some are not. But there are others, perhaps equally talented, ripe for discovery who are working at fish markets or selling real estate or going to social work school. There is nothing wrong with any of these professions, unless you had a dream of something else in this life.
It was with this in mind that a few years ago I began my private class. I wanted it not to be just another workshop but a place where students would also learn about the business of writing. Yes, we workshop stories and talk about the work. But we also meet with agents, editors, young writers who have gotten a break. I also recently began a small literary consultancy business (I had so many former students requesting help I finally had to charge). I read their work, comment and talk to them about the business of writing for a small fee. I do this as a service. Because they still need advice and often don’t know where to go.
For better or worse I have been dubbed “the Mother Superior of emerging writers” by New York magazine (July 21, 2003). But I am no Mother Teresa and no miracle worker. I need time for my own work and am not always available. I cannot promise contracts or even publication in online ’zines. But I can promise that I’ll give my students the truth about where I think they are at, I’ll tell them when I think they are ready and I’ll certainly be at their book parties to toast them should they slip out of the amateur ranks into the major leagues.
Writing is a long apprenticeship. I often feel that mine just goes on and on. But as with any apprenticeship one needs a guide—a little help along the way. I don’t know what became of my student who was selling fish. I often wonder because there is a part of me that can still see the novel she was working on. And because I wonder if someone could not have helped her along the way to get that novel out into the world.
Mary Morris, a member of the Sarah Lawrence writing faculty since 1994, is a novelist (Crossroads and Acts of God, among others) short-story writer (three collections, including The Bus of Dreams) and travel literature writer (Nothing to Declare and Wall to Wall).