Writing is Detestable, and You’ll Never Make Any Money At It
February 14, 2022 § 23 Comments
—excerpted from Work Hard, Not Smart: How to Make a Messy Literary Life, by Alexis Paige
Every so often I forget that the life I want is already mine. When I was eight, my younger brother and I left the Sonoran Desert in winter for mysterious reasons and Eastern climes, wearing only faded tees and worn corduroy, for it was still the ’70s somewhere in 1983. Our destination was Ye-Olde New England, which would become the damp, wooly kingdom of my late childhood and adolescence. My parents had divorced, and Mom traded Arizona for a job promotion in Texas. Meanwhile, Dad, the seventh of twelve children from an Irish-Catholic family in Massachusetts, moved back East for work and the outsized support that Catholic broods tend to have the numbers for.
Our new school in New Hampshire did not have crispy rattlesnake skins or tumbleweeds on the grounds, nor, would it seem, a surly pony called Chompers, whom the Phoenix school had kept around for class pictures. While the old school favored a Western film set, the new one—a low-slung slab of concrete burrowed into a stand of eastern white pines—looked like a Soviet bunker. The school was a designated fallout shelter, in fact, indicated by the shrill black-and-yellow radiation trefoil placard that was bolted to the front door. At least we’d be safe, I reasoned, when nuclear war came to town.
I did poorly socially and academically at first, but climbed the class ranks in reading with ease. This didn’t improve my social capital, but it did buy me almost unlimited library privileges, which I used to get out of class or recess. It also didn’t help matters socially that I was small for my age and younger than my peers. Nor that my brother and I had the same Supercuts’ bowl haircut; that we were the kids of a single father, which was unusual then; or, that the children of this frozen land spoke a strange, sarcastic dialect of American English, characterized by many missing r’s and insults against one’s mother.
By spring, I came to regard my third-grade teacher as either an idiot or an arch-nemesis, or both. I began to openly challenge her in class, to pass notes with a girl who had loopy handwriting, and to talk too much out of turn. Obviously, these stratagems didn’t win me friends or influence the teacher that I had done my math homework, but I see them now as the rational coping behaviors of a voluble child with undiagnosed ADHD.
“Vociferous,” I remember the teacher saying about me one day that winter, to my beloved librarian, in front of the whole class.
“What is the meaning of ‘Zoscissorous’?” I asked Dad later when he got home from work.
As if in our own little parody of Abbott and Costello, he said, “Sisyphus? With an ‘S’? It’s an old myth. Look it up in the Funk & Wagnalls.”
I went into the den and found the encyclopedias, which Dad had bought volume-by-volume at our local grocery. “Sy-phyll-iss,” I sounded out proudly, pointing at the entry for “Sisyphus: Greek Myth.” I grew quiet then and read, somberly, to myself:
Sisyphus: Useless man-child, smote by Zeus, forced to perform repetitive tasks in Hades.
Origin: Greek, rhymes with Alexis.
“Ah!” I said with a sigh of recognition, “the story of my life.”
My students never believe me when I tell such stories, or any stories for that matter, and why should they? Dubious ground, myth. I teach aspiring nurses, dairy farmers, veterinary technicians, pilots, and engineers at a small technical college in Vermont, where the cows in fact do outnumber the people. The college doesn’t have a liberal arts division, no majors in any of the stuff the Greeks might have recognized. I’ve made peace with this, and with my role in it: my students simply aren’t the artsy-intellectual types (or the rich kids) who end up at the ivied institutions my snarky college roommate memorably, and collectively, called Camp Trust Fund. I don’t delude myself that what passes for education in contemporary America isn’t a blunt instrument of late-stage capitalism, nor do I delude myself that things were any better under Socrates. My students leave with a solid grounding in the practical aspects of their vocation, with some theoretical background, and with low student debt. Most of them also leave with starting salaries higher than my own at mid-career. They don’t believe this either, but it’s true. Most of my stories are true in their own way.
But I don’t do any of this for the money. As a small-pond professor, I have rare autonomy, I still enjoy the classroom, and in an academic market glutted with applicants among dwindling opportunities, I am fortunate to have made it to the Xanadu of the Tenure Track. I teach foundational writing classes—composition, technical writing, rhetoric—because they’re what our students need most, but my department is small enough that I also get to teach creative writing, literature, and a humanities course about mass incarceration and the rampant injustice of the American penal system. You do the work that’s on hand to the best of your ability. This is what I tell myself anyway when overcome by my own frailties, my own futility, or by the vast and unsolvable human condition.
On the first day of class, the stories begin. “Does anyone know what in media res means?” I might ask at the cold open of a basic college freshman English class. [Crickets. Dramatic pause.] “Does no one learn Latin anymore?” I’ll cry. If in rare form I might leave the classroom for a beat in mock exasperation, or else I’ll threaten to throw myself out the window (but only on the first floor). The students don’t know yet that I’m just riffing, for theater or pedagogy or to feel alive myself. They don’t know that I’m trying to suspend them in the filmiest, flimsiest bubble for as long as I can, before it’s margins and citing sources and the exact number of words that constitute a paragraph. (The answer: false.)
I usually start with how much I hate writing. “Everything is hard, but writing most of all,” I’ll say. It’s too early for open challenges, but some of the students will begin to stir, to bristle. Sure, they can buy the idea that writing is hard, that it is hard for them, but not for me. After all, I’m the professor. Aren’t I supposed to be the expert? I’ll raise the stakes then and suggest that writing is even harder for me than it is for them—for teaching is nothing if not a preposterous game of one-upmanship where the house always wins, initially. “All you have to write is one measly term paper; meanwhile, I’m writing a book that is literally [wink, wink, wink] trying to kill me.”
“Writing is a detestable activity,” I’ll continue. “You’ll never make any money at it, for one.” [Pause.] “Thirdly, you’ll never be published, and with all due respect to Herman Melville, do you wish to toil in futility and obscurity, only to die a pauper? Dorothy Parker was right when she said, ‘I hate writing, I love having written.’” [I’ll write this on the board.] “And do you see the comma splice here?” I never go in any discernable order on these tears; I always begin in medias res. If my act is going as planned, the students are now wondering one of many things:
- What’s a comma splice?
- What the fuck is wrong with my teacher?
- Who is Dorothy Parker, and can I switch into her class?
But I have them. For this moment, I have them. They’re taking notes (or cell phone pics) from the board, where I have written
WHAT ALL WRITERS NEED:
A Penchant for Masochism
A Flying Pinball Machine
A Tangent that Will Burn Up in Reentry
Other Suffering Writers
A Sense of Humor
One Good Pen
One Bad Idea
The classroom hour is up now, and it’s time to bring the balloon back down to earth. I’ll sigh wistfully and say something like this: “Writing is hard, that’s true, but it’s not all bad.” [Pause.] “Often, it’s excruciating.” [And rarely, marvelous.]
Smiles crack wide, and if the opening salvo has gone better than I’d hoped, one bold hand shoots skyward, and with an earnestness so precious it makes you believe once again in the innocence of youth, a small voice says,
“What does Masochism mean?”
Or “Do you recommend a particular pen?”
Or “I think I have the wrong room. Is this Freshman English?”
Alexis Paige is the author of two books: Work Hard, Not Smart: How to Make a Messy Literary Life, a craft memoir and ode to Adult ADHD; and Not a Place on Any Map, a memoir in vignettes about the geography of trauma and addiction—both published by Vine Leaves Press. Paige’s work also appears in many journals and anthologies, including Longform, Hippocampus, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, and on Brevity, where she was an Assistant Editor from 2013-2019. Winner of the New Millennium Nonfiction Prize, Paige has also received “Notable” mentions in Best American Essays and multiple Pushcart Prize nominations. Assistant Professor of English at Vermont Technical College, she holds an MA in poetry and an MFA in nonfiction. Paige lives in Vermont with her husband and a rotating cast of rescue animals. You can find her online @alexispaigeauthor.com.